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.
The third time’s the charm… It was certainly true for us when we finally made it to Uzbekistan on the third try and were charmed beyond all expectations.
What with Covid and Russian war in Ukraine our plans to travel to Central Asia kept getting thwarted. When we finally landed at the little, never-heard-of-before airport of Urgench with a big welcome sign and flowers planted, we knew it was going to be worth it.
It makes much sense to start one’s exploration with a flight into western Uzbekistan, first visiting Khiva,
the smallest of the three Silk Road cities and then move eastward by train to Bukhara and Samarkand, ending up in the capital of Tashkent. It is quite convenient, easy, inexpensive, and comfortable to travel by train and it makes travel independently very doable.
It made even more sense for me to start in Khiva as I found out through the Internet grapevine there will be a big Lazghi Khorezm Music Festival in Khiva so I tried to time our stay to attend. In the end, the start date of the festival got moved at the last moment, but we still got to see the rehearsals and avoid the crowds and the dignitaries.
The dancers, most of them very young, and all beautiful, brought a new dimension and pep to the old Ichan Kala (Inner Fortress).
I took the lessons from my last photographic expedition and boldly approached the dancers for portraits.
When not chasing beautiful girls I accompanied handsome men
on the lively streets and up the stairs to rooftop terraces and inside ornate buildings.
While we traveled independently and made all arrangements by ourselves we were happy to hire guides in each of the three Silk Road cities and their knowledge and even more personal stories and insights really enriched our understanding of history and contemporary life of the Uzbek people. We are always happy to invite our guides to lunch and if at all possible their families to dinner. Thus we spent the very first evening in Uzbekistan in the company of Islom’s lovely wife and son Akbar, the apple of his father’s eye.
We waited until sundown as it was still Ramadan and while not at all extremist in their religion most people in Uzbekistan fast during the holy month. We were surprised how secular the society seemed otherwise and we didn’t see many head coverings, let alone head to toe wraps.
I did take the opportunity to try on an antique traditional burqa.
Most of the girls nowadays are not keen on hiding their faces or their hair. And what luscious hair they have…
And their faces are exceedingly lovely, too.
Easily one can be transported back in time to a wedding of a young bride.
Khiva is very well preserved, and the old town retains more than 50 historic monuments and 250 old houses, but they are all in a compact space so a day is quite sufficient for meandering at leisure down the old streets, many festooned by stalls with colorful local handicrafts and souvenirs. In the evening the monuments are lit up and children of all ages are out in force playing until late. Invariably we get asked the same questions when embarking on some of our trips to off the beaten path destinations if it is safe.
Yes, it is actually liberating to walk around at night in a city like Khiva and see families out strolling and grandmas and grandpas sitting outside their homes chatting. Offering a polite Salam Alaykum will bring a smile and a return blessing of peace and often an invitation to tea. Which can easily snowball into dinner and an offer to spend the night, such is the warmth and hospitality of people here.
We decided to take a ride further west into autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. With Islom at the wheel we took a day to take a peek at some of the ancient desert qalas. There are remnants of about 100 fortresses (used as protection against nomadic raids) and the oldest is 2,500 years old. They were quite effective until Gengis Khan’s swooped in.
We met only two other human visitors but delighted in a chance encounter with a whole herd of camels, who, like Fata Morgana appeared on the road accompanied by a very non traditionally looking young herder.
As they systematically chewed on the spring greenery we discussed the finer points of camels and dromedaries (=single-humped camels).
Turns out that Islom spent his university years in Nukus, the capital of the republic and worked at the hotel we have incidentally booked. So we had a most warm welcome by the owner and a tour of their family collections. But it was the collections in the Savitsky Museum that was the real reason we came. A private tour of that so called “Louvre of the Steppe” was phenomenal. It holds 90,000 items from archaeological objects and antiquities to cutting-edge contemporary Soviet art collected by one eccentric Igor Savitsky. Many pieces were by communist prosecuted artists and their legacy was saved in these dusty, half-forgotten far reaches of USSR.
Having an insatiable interest in textiles and ethnography I was ecstatic to find that my museum guide also knew everything about the local Karakalpak clothing, jewelry, and traditions. In perfect English, nonetheless. For a fraction of the cost in the West. We feel so fortunate to be able to do this on our far-flung travels, as we certainly can’t afford a private guide at the Louvre or the Met.
Talk about textiles. I was in a daze most of the days as colorful textiles were everywhere in Uzbekistan. Two unique Uzbek textiles – suzani and ikat are still produced here just like in the ancient times when caravans carried them on the Silk Road.
The technical skill and the lively combinations of colors and patterns are overwhelming. Not one to sport psychedelic bright colors I wanted to have all of them, from little hats,
worn proudly by the locals and all school children,
to time-consuming tablecloths
to giant museum masterpieces that could never fit into our home.
Bewitched I lusted indiscriminately after magnificent hand embroidered double sided ikat coats, (called a chapan or bathrobe), in the past as today representing the social status and wealth of its owner.
In the end I got my chance (and a measure of peace) to wear some chapans for a fun photoshoot at one of the most beautiful hotels we stayed at.
The Minzifa was in our second Silk Road city – Bukhara and it was just a fairytale setting transporting travellers into the past and traditional palaces of rich merchants. Part of it actually was an old restored building and part a modern hotel decorated in traditional style with local craftsmen carving wood and painting detailed traditional flower scenes on the walls.
We are no luxury craving travel couple, but we surely can appreciate comfort and beauty and even more so when it is so incredibly affordable. Uzbekistan is a fantastic country for independent travelers because of the well developed tourist infrastructure. A plethora of accommodations and eating establishments is surprising and at this post Covid time they were pretty much empty. We are no big foodies and we eat so we can live and travel, not live and travel to eat in trendy restaurants. But it is nice to enjoy a good meal and never get stomach upsets on the road.
As expected in Central Asian cuisine there was a lot of meat, mostly beef and some lamb on the menu. The meat was of really great quality, even in sidewalk eateries or by the side of the road. Shashliks and kebabs were everywhere but so were different kinds of soups and steamed dumplings and fried somsas. A bottle of beer is a big bonus!
Even though we were traveling during Ramadan time restaurants were open during the day. They really came to life in the evenings towards the end of the holiday with big family gatherings to brake the fast together and celebrate. Well, often it was guys and gals in separate areas like here:
We have a tendency to hire women guides when possible as we find they are much more able and willing to answer intimate questions about life and social mores. We really lucked out with our Bukhara guide Guljon who explained much about family life in Uzbekistan.
She was a modern, educated, hard-working, income-generating woman, yet she still had to adhere to tradition by living with (and serving hand and foot) her in-laws including getting up before 4 am every morning to prepare and serve food before the start of fasting. In Uzbekistan bride always moves in with her husband’s parents and has to ask permission of her husband and in his absence her father in law to visit her own family. Her marriage as that of her female friends and family members was arranged by her parents though she was allowed to meet her husband face to face before and agree to the marriage.
She understood our interests well and took pains to get us to plenty of craft shops and food markets between must-see monuments.
Going to local food markets (or in the absence of those even to supermarkets) gives a foreigner another insight into local culture. And great opportunities for interesting photography.
We were not big fans of Uzbeki bread as it was quite hard but liked fresh pastries, savory and sweet.
Bukhara is much bigger and much more spread out than Khiva so having someone know the way around from one end to the other to hit the best of the monuments is very helpful. As it was getting unexpectedly quite hot we made an agreement to jump in a taxi instead of walking as much as possible. There is a kind of Uzbeki Uber service called Yandex and with the application, it was easy and cheap to catch a ride.
What is also helpful is that a guide knows where great vantage points are to see something from a different perspective.
And soon on fashion Instagram. 😉
While big blue domed mosques are impressive, like gothic cathedrals they can start getting a bit jumbled up in one’s head. It is the smaller architectural buildings that we cherish from Bukhara.
This humble brick building – a Samanid Mausoleum was more than impressive as it was build in the 10th century and shows the genius of the early architects able to put a round cupola on a square base. As it was covered by sand and silt it was the only structure besides the Kalon minaret left after Gengis Khan’s siege and sack of Bukhara in early 13th century. A national hero of Mongolia or a fearsome destroyer and murderer?
Close by we came across another small building with interesting (hi)story. Chashma Ayub (=Job’s Spring) mausoleum is where allegedly Prophet Job struck the ground with his staff and healing water sprang up to end the drought. One can still drink the water.
The biggest monument in Bukhara is the Ark Fortress, a military structure also occupied by various royal courts.
One of frequently waxed lyrical about sights is Lyabi Hauz Square is centred on 17th century artificial reservoir (a hauz in Persian).
We passed it often at all times of day as our hotel was close by and we were totally underwhelmed by it as well as by the chaikana (restaurant) and nearby coffee shop that was supposed to serve the best (and most expensive) coffee.
We did like the whimsical bronze sculpture of the legendary folk hero Khoja Nasreddin Efendi nearby.
And now it is time to jump on the fast train to Samarkand.
All aboard and see you in Uzbekistan Silk Road Splendors Part II.
When our long longed for Patagonia trip had to be cancelled for the third time, not many easy replacement presented themselves in wintry February Europe. At the end it was a choice between Oman and Madeira. Madeira won because I remembered our dentist telling me once that he dreamed of moving to Madeira and opening a dental clinic there. Did I mention we really like our dentist?
While it is easy to fly to Madeira’s one and only Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport directly from Prague it most certainly isn’t easy to land. While our landing was a bit cramped with one wing dipping into the sea and the other scraping the nearby hills, we only realized how lucky we were when we talked to other travelers. We arrived on Monday afternoon but all flights on Sunday and Tuesday were returned or rerouted because of high winds.
And high winds there were. We did look at the weather report before we flew out and were so taken aback by basically 7 days of predicted rain that we paid no attention to the wind. Luckily the high winds also scattered the clouds some, so the first few days it rained just at night and we had great skies for photography.
While Madeira is well known for its subtropical climate and warm sunny weather it was a foggy forest up North that I was most interested in. After a great big breakfast in our cosy B&B we drove up to the hills of Fanal first thing in the morning.
Just a quick stop at the viewpoint of
and hard break for some out-of-nowhere itinerant cows
Bundle up, it is foggy and windy, indeed.
I have seen superb photos of these gnarled Madeira trees in a magazine once and they didn’t disappoint in real life. Clutching my iPhone with frozen fingers I was more than excited for wonderful iconic images of our own. Every day for the rest of the week I debated whether we should go back, but the first impression was so special and strong I didn’t want to disappoint myself.
On the way down the sun started to break through and we soon went from this:
Certainly, the sea is not warm enough for swimming in the winter, but still great to admire.
As you can imagine getting up to these viewpoints isn’t easy no matter what but especially in a car with a MANUAL transmission. The roads are not only narrow but so steep that I had to fight the thought of failing breaks numerous times a day while driving down and close my eyes when the trucks or buses were hurtling towards us on the uphill. Due to Mirek’s many years of driving in crazy places around the world, we escaped unscathed.
It would only take about 4 hours to drive all around the island. The island of Madeira is a temporary dormant volcano about three times the size of the U.S. island of Nantucket, twice the area of the British Isle of Wight, and slightly larger than Singapore island.
It has a fantastic network of roads and unbelievable multitudes of new tunnels that make travel easy. But it also has many deep canyons and ridge roads and portions of old coastal roads that one can still drive. This means fun old narrow one-way tunnels and sometimes a free car wash when you drive under a waterfall.
Now, if you are not lazy old farts like us you have another network to explore. There are more than 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas that you can walk and many people come to Madeira for exactly this purpose. Levadas are irrigation channels used to bring water to the fields in olden times and many do so till today. But they also offer great exercise and views and some people return each year to walk different ones. There are books and apps and guided levada tours.
We only did a short little levada walk on the last full day of our stay but it was so pretty and full of colorful flowers I was sorry we hadn’t considered doing more.
We probably would have if we didn’t have a few days of pouring rain in the middle of our stay. So we did some inside activities like the Whale and Wine museum, not both under the same roof.
We did skip the native son Cristiano Ronaldo’s Museum. The closest we came to this soccer idol was parking in the garage of his CR7 hotel. I did make a fool of myself asking what CR7 stands for. That’s how much I know about soccer: zilch, zero. (Just in case you, too, are on my team, it is his initials and his jersey number.)
That meant we had to go to the marina of Funchal, the capital. To our surprise, we found there a perfect replica of Cristopher Columbus’ Santa Maria ship.
Turns out Columbus spent a little time on Madeira, more precisely on Porto Santo, the small island next to it. Long enough to get married and sire his only son. And learn about navigation from the charts of his father-in-law.
45% of a quarter million of inhabitants of Madeira live in the capital, so you can imagine it is pretty dense. Not to mention that pre-Covid nearly a million tourists came in and most stayed in Funchal or close by on the Southern sunnier beaches.
We didn’t spend enough time in the old town to give you a proper report, but it does have the historical charm.
The sad part was that we encountered a small group of Ukrainians protesting the start of the war.
At that point, none of us knew how truly horrendous it will become.
It certainly made the rest of our trip soberer and we felt guilty enjoying the simple luxuries of free life.
Speaking of old, not much of old is left on Madeira outside the historical center. Even the further-flung villages mostly have fancy new houses, some built by Madeirans working hard in other EU countries
or owned by foreigners and foreign retirees. life is very affordable for those, but that, unfortunately means the service industry salaries are kept very low. We had quite a lot of conversations with the young people who all dream of leaving for England or the World.
As a traveler, I have always loved the Portuguese the best. but Madeirans are even a notch above in their friendly, kind, and welcoming ways. From free drinks to free room upgrades they couldn’t do enough to make us feel at home. Our B&B ladies were absolutely darling, our day trip jeep driver was willing to answer any and all personal questions, our car rental attendant made sure we got the best car on the lot.
One evening we were driving “home” when we noticed a beautiful new quinta vacation compound. We stopped to ask for availability. Turned out they were just getting ready for the grand opening the next day but of course, we had to come and try some of their homemade Madeira wine. We ended up staying for an hour talking and laughing with the family and of course, they invited us to the grand opening, too.
We would be amiss not to mention the yummy food. Again, we were plied with huge amounts of side dishes and or extra seafod in our Portuguese version of paella “because we like you”. When we returned for our last meal to the same local restaurant, where they pointed out the local policeman having his dinner and beer, they must have doubled the seafood again.
Madeira is often called The Flower Island and rightly so. Even though the high season and the Flower Festival are held in April or May, already in February flowers were blooming everywhere. From tiny roadside flowers to grand tropical birds of paradise
and clivias there are swaths of color brightening the lush green of the island. The land is at a premium so terraced vegetable gardens are clambering impossibly high and banana plantations are squeezing around the homes.
Many public and private gardens be on for a tour. We managed only one, the Monte Palace Tropical garden, but it was a great relaxing morning excursion before our flight out. At times Madeira reminded us of California or Hawaii, and this garden visit surprisingly brought us back to Japan and the Japanese gardens that we love so much.
They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We say when travel life gives you maddening Corona restrictions make Madeira. It will welcome you with open arms, this Little Island that Could.
We missed you and we missed us, too. The traveling us. This pandemic threw a wrench in our travels, didn’t it? Well, all things considered, we didn’t do so badly after all. After a year of being locked up at home with a new baby granddaughter, we got vaccinated and ventured out into 2021 Summer. We traveled by car around Europe with emphasis on Southern Italy and Sicily in particular and then had a fantastic safari in Kenya with my dad.
Mirek sailed with his guy friends in Canary Islands just when the volcano erupted there.
The end of the year found us full of travel plans for 2022. Bolstered and tested we boarded our overseas flights. Mirek went to Prague to see his grandkids and I joined a small group of intrepid travelers on a photographic tour of Benin. Afterward, we were to rendezvous in Prague and fly to Patagonia together.
While I only wielded my trusty iPhone, I learned so much about photography from professional photographer master Inger Vandyke and other participants. As she is particularly known for her tribal portraits this was a big focus on our shoots. After two spectacular weeks of voodoo ceremonies and dance extravaganza, we were ready to fly out, but tested positive for Covid. So we had to spend another 10 days in quarantine, luckily at a beach hotel. Silver lining: time to edit all the thousands of wonderful photos we took.
Our photographic adventure started (literally) with a bang on the very first day. We attended our first voodoo ceremony (Judicial Shango) and winced at chickens and a goat being sacrificed, culminating with human skulls doused with gun powder and set aflame. All the while women and children joyfully sang and danced.
While I steadfastly refused power potions of alcohol and chicken blood I didn’t hesitate to make a fool of myself dancing. And continued to do so at any appropriate occasion. What fun!
In the afternoon at the next ceremony, we quickly moved from Death to Love.
The Sahoué people in the village of Medjrohoue (literally The Village of Strangers) performed a ceremony of love (Gambada) for us with tremendous feats of trance dancing supported by copious amounts of offering (and consumption) of cigarettes and alcohol.
Who knew we will be meeting a king and his royal court?
We were warmly welcomed in the compound of King Agassa, the highest figure of voodoo in Africa revered by over 30 million followers. We met some of his wives and were personally blessed.
One of the quieter and sweeter ceremonies was the Blessing of the Twins. Benin and Nigeria have the highest incidence of twin births in the world and twins are seen as very special. So if one or both twins die at birth special dolls are fashioned for the family to care for and keep, literally, close to their heart.
Our twin guides Assou and Damien happily participated in traditional blessing ceremony for twins presided over by Adoua, the high priestess of twins.
We were very much looking forward to the spectacular twirling zangbetos, famous ‘guardians of the night’ in voodoo. We were pleasantly surprised when encountered them out in the streets getting ready and even more surprised that they were happy to take photos with us.
It is a mystery what makes them twirl and for proof zangbetos were flipped over for us only to find nothing but different tiny moving objects inside, including a box with a live baby python.
One of the most spectacular and bizarre ceremonies of our tour was the voodoo trance dance of power, ‘Koku’. The trance dancers covered themselves with kaolin and yellow palm oil and donned straw skirts. Blood flowed when they cut themselves with daggers and machetes oblivious to pain.
The warm and beautiful people everywhere were the highlight of the whole trip. Young and old, children and grannies, ladies and gents, we enjoyed meeting them and taking their photos. The patterns and colors were ever-changing and always exciting.
The most grandiose and elaborate creatures we met were Egungun, meaning “powers concealed” or “dry bones (of ancestors)” . Their dancing, whirling, and chasing performance is a Yoruba masquerade that provides an important connection between the worlds of the living and the dead. It is essential that one avoids being touched by the egungung or even just by its lappets, that are sent flying, creating a “breeze of blessings.”
We had a special privilege to be able to see and photograph the whole ensemble of egungun up close and still.
Leaving the exuberant and colorful South we headed North. In the North of Benin we found a different, rural landscape with giant baobabs and mango trees thronging a variety of traditional dwellings in small villages.
Taneka villages set in a dramatic landscape were the poorest of all. The Taneka are known for their spiritual healers, old men who smoke large pipes and either grant wishes or cure ailments.
On the contrary the Somba homes could look like pretty little castles.
Through the dark, cramped, smoked filled interior
one would climb up to the top where the flat open roof was a whole microcosm of bedrooms, grain storage or drying platforms.
Tata’s were my favorite architecture, and the people inhabiting these unique structures were wonderfully friendly and welcoming. And their children were an absolute treasure and delight.
But when it comes to remarkable, unforgettable faces it is the Fulani, that come in first. They are the hardest to find and often the shyest to photograph. We were absolutely gobsmacked when after a long drive and a long wait at the end of the world our amazing guide returned from a hidden village leading a procession of motorcycles ferrying beautiful, tattooed, bejeweled apparitions wrapped in blue.
The faces were stunning and even more so were the tattoos.
And then there was the jewellery!
In the East of Benin we experienced something quite different and surprising – the Batonu Horsemen of Parakou, formerly descendants from aristocracy in the Kingdom of Nikki in Nigeria. As colorful as they were this was for me the only disappointment of the trip, for the horses didn’t look very well kept or treated kindly.
Much more pleasant and happy was our short detour to a tiny island of Agonvé, situated on a freshwater Lake Azili close to the border with Nigeria. The ancestors of the people of Agonvé originally escaped the slavers, finding safety and fish on the small island.
It was a photographer’s paradise with wonderful “models” at every turn.
Our last ceremony of the trip was a dancing masked ceremony of Gelede. Young and old enjoyed a celebration of the feminine divinity of the Yoruba people.
Performed by a lovely group of local Mahé people in the area of Cové it became more and more riotous as the afternoon progressed.
Back in the South last special tribe, we stopped by were the Holi. They are a sub-culture of the larger Yoruba group of Nigeria. Some girls still have facial scarification, but only old women still have the most impressive tattoos on their bodies. They were very happy to see our interest and proud to show off their tattoos and pose for photographs.
We emerged from the “bush” into the city of Porto Novo, a former Portuguese colony. The spectacularly colored and decayed cathedral-turned mosque entertained us for a few hours of street photography while we lasted only a few minutes in the ghastly fetish market.
Ganvié or the ‘Venice of Africa’ as it is often known, was our last major destination. Established when the king of the Tofinu took his people out on the waters of Lake Nokué to escape slavers, the stilted village is now home to around 80,000 people.
We spend the night on the island which allowed us to observe and photograph, cold beer in hand, the steady evening boat traffic, and the only ladies in the whole of Benin who did not like having their picture taken.
Back on solid ground in Ouidah we tried to see some of the places and monuments of the horrific slave trade, but much of it was under construction.
We did find the well known voodoo python temple with its resident collection of Ball’s (or Royal) Pythons open and met some of their lovely handlers. Pythons are revered in voodoo culture and it is forbidden to hurt or kill one. As most Africans are terrified of the snakes, we had lots of opportunities to get acquainted with them up close and personal.
At the very end of the trip we stopped at one of the schools that received part of 110 sturdy new desks that we fundraised for last year. The enthusiastic and warm welcome was inspiring and hopefully, we inspired them a little, too!
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!
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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: