40 days in Europe: Days 1-11

Friday, October 12, 2012

This is a continuation of 40 days in Europe, a blog post about the adventures of Heidi and me on our travels through Europe from October 1 to November 9, 2012.

Monday, October 1: Oregon/Seattle/Stratosphere – Day 1

  • Plane Departed Portland, Oregon (PDX) at 2 PM on Alaska Airlines AS2026 to Seattle (SEA). Departed SEA at 4:30 PM on Icelandair FI680, which flew directly to Iceland (KEF) overnight. Most of the night was spent flying over Canada, frigid salt water and the barren hellscape of Greenland. Time zone change of +7 hours

Islandia (Iceland) decorative mapTuesday, October 2: Iceland – Day 2

  • Plane Arrived in Keflavík International Airport (KEF), which is 31 miles from Reykjavík, on Icelandair FI680 at 6:30 AM. We are now 64 degrees north (almost in the Arctic Circle)
  • Bus Departed Keflavík for Reykjavík on an Airport Express bus at 7:15 AM. We arrived in Reykjavík, the northernmost capital city in the world, at around 8 AM
  • Had breakfast at Prikid, a 1950s-era dive bar that is apparently also the oldest restaurant in Iceland. It was one of the few places open near our hotel at that early hour
  • Unable to check-in to our hotel until 11:30 AM, we lugged our tired selves and our backpacks to the cold, windy top of the Church of Hallgrímur (Hallgrímskirkja), which offered nice views of Reykjavík and its rooftops of many colors by the sea. Then we collapsed inside the church like homeless people with nowhere else to go, continuing the centuries-old practice of using churches as refuge
  • To show our gratitude to the church gift shop, we bought a print of Abraham Ortelius’s decorative map of Islandia (Iceland) from the year 1590
  • We checked into our hotel and engaged in several hours of desperate but regretful napping. Out bodies have no idea what time it is now
  • Then we showered in the warm, sulfur-rich city water and walked back out into the chilly Reykjavík city center to sightsee
  • There are 66 Degrees North outdoor clothing billboards with bearded Viking hipsters on every street corner
  • For dinner, we ate coconut noodle (Thai) soups at the noodle bar Núðluskálin, and we bought some snacks at a nearby market to stock our hotel room
  • The northern lights forecast isn’t looking good for us yet, due to clouds or low solar activity or both
  • Hotel Studio 102 (Orange Room) at Luna Hotel Apartments ($74), Reykjavík, Iceland

Iceland postcardWednesday, October 3: Iceland – Day 3

  • We both woke up naturally at about 5 AM, feeling and looking mostly human. Also, Icelandic radio is awesome
  • Bus We took an all-day Iceland Excursions bus tour at 8 AM to visit Iceland’s Golden Circle, starting at the Nesjavellir high-temperature geothermal area near Lake Thingvallavatn
  • Thingvellir National Park
  • Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall
  • Ate traditional Icelandic lamb soup for lunch at Gullfoss Kaffi in Selfoss
  • Geysir and Strokkur hot springs
  • Faxi waterfall
  • While driving by in the bus, we noticed that some of the volcanic boulders at the foot of a hill had small, colorfully painted elf doors
  • Skálholt Church, the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops. Next door is the controversial, newly constructed Viking lodge
  • Kerid volcanic crater lake
  • Toured the Hellisheiði Power Station, the second-largest geothermal power plant in the world
  • We also saw the stratovolcano Hekla in the distance
  • Returned to Reykjavík and braved the bitter, brutal wind some more. The outdoor temperature was actually 4 to 8 degrees C (39 to 46 degrees F) today, but the wind chill made it feel cold as hell, especially after spending hours walking around in the elements
  • Visited Hofdi House, a famously haunted building and place of the 1986 Reykjavík Summit, while frigid wind gusts of over 50 MPH killed us
  • Sun Voyager, the stainless steel Viking ship sculpture by the sea
  • Hung out at the Bíó Paradís independent cinema, but decided to not to watch a Reykjavík International Film Festival movie yet on account of exhaustion
  • Based on the selection of snacks at the grocery store, people in Iceland appear to be obsessed with licorice candy and paprika-flavored chips. Some types of bread-based sandwiches are called “tacos” here
  • There was another not-so-good northern lights forecast due to cloud cover, so we fell asleep early
  • Hotel Studio 102 (Orange Room) at Luna Hotel Apartments ($74), Reykjavík, Iceland

Reykjavík, Iceland postcardThursday, October 4: Iceland – Day 4

  • Strolled around the Reykjavík city pond, full of ducks and geese, and crept through the Hólavallagardur cemetery, founded in 1838, near city center. The weather was much more pleasant today
  • In the early afternoon, we attempted to find a bank to exchange a few dollars into kronur and accidentally ended up in the headquarters of Seðlabanki Islands, which (we now believe) prints Icelandic currency and does not serve the public. When we asked a security guard for directions to a bank for customers, he awkwardly handed us some kind of account application and then was barely able to answer our questions due to his rather adorable nervousness and stuttering. Leave it to Iceland, the country without a military, to have the least domineering security guards ever. This country seems so clean, well-educated, artistic, nonviolent and focused on sustainability. Iceland would be paradise if it wasn’t a frigid wasteland
  • Checked out the Icelandic Penis Museum, dedicated to all things phallological (like whale penises)
  • Drank coconut bubble tea and split a Nutella and fruit crepe at Bubble Tea & Pancake Cafe; plus a sandwich from Bakarí Sandholt, a French bakery
  • Watched Moon Man (2012), a brilliant animated film, at 4 PM at the Bíó Paradís independent cinema as part of the Reykjavík International Film Festival (runs Sept. 27 to Oct. 7)
  • Bus We heard from Iceland Excursions that no one had seen the northern lights for the past three nights (glad we didn’t waste our time), but tonight the sky was supposed to be clear, so we bought tickets for the Northern Lights Mystery tour. At 8 PM, a bus picked us up and drove around rural Iceland for almost five hours. The aurora prediction models had forecast low activity tonight, but we hoped to see something anyway. With overcast skies predicted for tomorrow night, it was probably our only chance. The sky was indeed perfectly clear, but the only auroras we saw were wishful hallucinations. Our two main skygazing stops were at Thingvellir National Park and Hvalfjordur (Whale Fjord), though in the darkness this was largely irrelevant
  • Today’s lesson: Any time you can pay money to stay up late, be trapped on a dark bus with 70 annoying tourists and then stand outside in the freezing cold with your neck craned, looking up at the moon and stars and wishing they were something better, you have to do it
  • We learned that Spítalastígur, which is the street our hotel is on, means “hospital road”
  • Hotel Studio 102 (Orange Room) at Luna Hotel Apartments ($74), Reykjavík, Iceland

Blue Lagoon, Iceland magnetFriday, October 5: Iceland – Day 5

  • Bus Took an Iceland Excursions bus to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa at 11 AM. At the Blue Lagoon, we sat around in the warm, milky, sulfur-rich saltwater for hours and covered our faces with silica mud masks from big wooden boxes by the water. I acquired an acrylic Iceland-shaped magnet of the Blue Lagoon. We returned to Reykjavík at 4 PM
  • Upon returning to Reykjavík, we visited Perlan (The Pearl). We managed to get Iceland Excursions to drop us off near Perlan, so we didn’t have to take Straeto bus route 18 from Hlemmur. The Pearl is a building made from Reykjavík’s hot water storage tanks with a dome on top. It looks rather like R2-D2, especially at night
  • We had particular fun exploring the magical forest and the crumbling, British-built, WWII-era forts and trenches around Perlan
  • We ate soup (traditional lamb, again), salad and bread at the cafeteria in Perlan for dinner, then took Straeto bus route 19 back to Hlemmur
  • For Friday night and our last night in Iceland, we stopped at a cozy bar called Hemmi og Valdi, had Viking Classic beer (brewed in Iceland) and chatted with an American/Icelandic couple about travel and genetics
  • If we had another day in Iceland, we might have visited: (1) Svartifoss waterfall/hexagon basalt rocks in Skaftafell National Park; or (2) Háifoss waterfall (the 2nd highest falls in Iceland), Mt. Hekla and the Viking farm ruins of Stöng/Pjodveldsbaer
  • Hotel Studio 102 (Orange Room) at Luna Hotel Apartments ($74), Reykjavík, Iceland

Amsterdam, The Netherlands postcardSaturday, October 6: Iceland/Amsterdam – Day 6

  • Bus Departed Reykjavík for Keflavík International Airport on an Airport Express bus at 5:30 AM. The bus was actually running behind schedule, but our self-described “extreme coach driver” made up the time
  • Plane Departed Keflavík (KEF) at 7:55 AM on Icelandair FI502 and arrived in Amsterdam (AMS) at 12:55 PM. Time zone change of +2 hours (+9 total from Oregon). For the second straight Icelandair flight, they played “Smashed Birds” by Sóley as we exited the plane
  • Took the GVB train from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam Central Station and walked across so many charming canals to our hotel. Our room, on the fourth floor of Hotel Pax, is 74 narrow, treacherous stairs (think “ladder rungs”) straight up from the street. We have a great view and might be staying in the highest room on the entire street
  • Wandered around, bought groceries at Albert Heijn and made cheese/arugula/sweet pickle sandwiches for dinner, with apples. Then we had to take evening naps because our bodies continue to be throttled by travel and bizarre waking hours
  • At nightfall, we headed to the Red Light District to witness the sexual exploitation, the drunkenness, the clouds of pot and cigarette smoke and the fried food consumption. Basically, to feel grossed out by the sleaze and filthy streets. As expected, there were scores of lingerie-clad prostitutes posing in illuminated windows (such as in the Moulin Rouge, which has no windmill, incidentally)
  • Two highlights of the Red Light District were the Condomerie, a ridiculous, novelty condom shop, and FEBO, a chain of automat-vended fast food shops
  • On our night walk, several trashed Brits were taking turns teabagging their passed-out friend on a bridge over a canal. You stay classy, Amsterdam
  • We tried to find Absinthe Bar (a bar dedicated to the liquor), which is supposed to be fairly near to our hotel (at Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 171), but it seems to have been replaced by Tropico
  • There are literally about a million bicycles in Amsterdam; the actual number is 881,000 bicycles owned by 780,000 residents. This is very cool, but almost no one in this city seems to have any spatial awareness or courteousness (aside from other tourists). It is apparently our sole responsibility to avoid collisions/being trampled by wild bicyclists and oblivious pedestrians
  • We miss the clean, beautiful city of Reykjavík, Iceland and its calm energy, soothing sulfur showers and glacial spring water
  • Hotel Room 20 at Hotel Pax ($133), Amsterdam, Netherlands

Fokke & Sukke coaster, Amsterdam, NetherlandsSunday, October 7: Amsterdam – Day 7

  • Picked up a few things at BioMarkt, a nice natural foods store
  • The Van Gogh Museum was closed for renovation, but many Van Gogh works have been moved to the Hermitage Amsterdam
  • At the Hermitage Amsterdam, we visited both exhibits: Vincent and Impressionism: Sensation and Inspiration
  • Visited De Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam (botanical garden)
  • Toured Anne Frank House at Prinsengracht 267 and felt fascination and sorrow; that building is charged with strong emotional energy
  • Ate dinner at Cafe de Oude Wester (a crepe house with Hungarian specialties), near Anne Frank House. The Hungarian goulash was pretty good and Heidi said her crepe was decent. I nabbed one of the amusing Fokke & Sukke coasters from our table as we left
  • I’m pretty sure I have developed a headache from constant second-hand pot smoke. Amsterdam is even pot-smokier than Vancouver, BC. As one of my last acts in this godforsaken city, I purchased a chocolate-covered waffle (similar to a frosted cake doughnut, but crispier) to eat for dessert
  • By the way, the toilet design in our room in Hotel Pax is strange. I call it the “poop shelf toilet.” Instead of a standard bowl, this toilet has a concave but mostly flat platform that, when flushed, is violently flooded with water. This rapid waterfall pushes waste into a small hole at the front of the bowl. As you might expect, it is unpleasant to have to smell your own waste as it sits on a porcelain ledge in the open air beneath you. And you can’t flush until you’re done unless you want to be misted by the aggressive flushing action. But I guess it’s a step above shitting in a hole
  • If we had another day in the Netherlands, we might have visited Haarlem. Teylers Museum, the oldest museum in the country (1778), is located in Haarlem; it features an array of kooky inventions, plus a Raphael exhibit just opened there
  • Hotel Room 20 at Hotel Pax ($133), Amsterdam, Netherlands

Bruges, Belgium postcardMonday, October 8: Amsterdam/Bruges – Day 8

  • Checked out of our epic bird’s nest of a hotel room and walked to Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt subway station to catch GVB train 51 to Amstelstation, which is further south
  • At Amstelstation, we bought a smoothie, fruit, a wrap and a pizzaquette (a pizza made on half of a small baguette) to take on the bus with us. We found the Eurolines bus station just outside the subway station
  • Bus Departed Amsterdam on Eurolines Nederland bus at 10:30 AM and arrived in Bruges, Belgium at 3:40 PM. On the way to the medieval town of Bruges, we made stops in Utrecht, Breda, Roosendaal, Antwerp and Gent
  • While in Holland, we didn’t see a whole lot of wooden shoes, tulips or windmills. Our visit was more about trying to avoid the roaring rivers of mayonnaise that flow across the land and ruin otherwise-edible food. Other things we tried to avoid in Amsterdam: getting high as a kite and falling into vats of STDs, drunkenly throwing our garbage into romantically lit canals, and puking and pissing into marijuana smoke-filled cobblestone alleyways. It’s been an experience. I understand the term “eurotrash” a lot better now. I’m sure the rest of the Netherlands is lovely when compared to the perennial frat-party that is Amsterdam, but we’re excited to be in Belgium
  • Today may have concluded the bus portion of our trip, unless we end up taking a local bus (or bus tour) at a future destination. Aside from a rental car for Germany, our transportation should be via Eurail Passes and local trains and subways from now on, which is exciting. We activated our Eurail Passes at the Bruges train station today
  • After seven straight rain-free days, the waterworks began just as our bus arrived in Bruges. We responded to the sky gods with an offering of commerce (by purchasing an umbrella) after checking into our hotel. The sky stopped raining in reply
  • We had an amazing dinner at La Trattoria, a really nice, modern Italian restaurant that opened this summer. It’s run by a friendly couple, with the wife serving as chef. I may or may not have eaten an entire 29 cm (11.5″) vegetable pizza; it was one of the best pizzas I have ever had, with generous fresh vegetable toppings. Heidi said her spinach and ricotta quiche was one of the best quiches she’d ever had as well
  • After dinner, since the rain was still taking a break, we walked through the historic center of Bruges, which was gorgeously illuminated at night and enhanced by the wet, reflective cobblestones. We saw the Town Hall and the Burg, among other Gothic landmarks
  • Stared into the window of Truffelhuisje Brugge, an artisan chocolate/marzipan shop (one of many) that was closed for the day
  • Hotel Room 413 at ibis budget Brugge Centrum Station ($69), Bruges, Belgium

Mini-Europe, Brussels, Belgium postcardTuesday, October 9: Bruges/Brussels – Day 9

  • Bought pain au chocolat (chocolate-filled croissants) for breakfast at the grocery store under our hotel by the Bruges train station
  • Revisited the historic center of Bruges in the morning light, including the Town Hall, the Burg and other Gothic landmarks
  • Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is supposed to have a vial of Christ’s blood
  • Returned to Truffelhuisje Brugge, an artisan chocolate/marzipan shop that crafts amusing sweets in the form of animals, ghosts, breasts, penises, weapons and more
  • Salvador Dali Museum in Bruges
  • Train Departed Bruges on Belgian SNCB IC 512 train at 12:58 AM and arrived at the Brussels-Nord station at 2:04 PM
  • Walked through Jardin Botanique/Kruidtuin (Botanical Gardens) on our somewhat roundabout route to our hotel from the Brussels-Nord train station
  • Finally found the Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels, designed by Victor Horta
  • Grand Place, featuring Hôtel de Ville (the only building to survive bombardment by the French in 1695)
  • The amazing glass-covered Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (Europe’s first shopping arcade, from 1847)
  • Manneken Pis bronze fountain sculpture depicting a naked little boy urinating. Not sure why everyone is so obsessed with this small statue
  • We had dinner at Nuetnigenough (The Greedy Glutton), a creative Belgian restaurant with vegetarian options. We ordered the vegetable lasagna and the vegetable curry and lentils; both were satisfying
  • In Belgium (in both Bruges and Brussels), it seems like every other business we encounter is a chocolate shop. And the businesses in between the chocolate shops either serve Belgian waffles or beer. The quantity of Belgian chocolate available is out of hand
  • In our hotel room at night, it looks like the full moon is shining through our window, but it’s only the nearby Sheraton logo, which is an illuminated white circle with an inset “S” surrounded by a circular laurel
  • We are staying on the fourth floor for the third straight hotel. People seem much kinder and more courteous in Belgium than in Amsterdam
  • Hotel Room 408 at Maxhotel ($119), Brussels, Belgium

Atomium, Brussels, Belgium postcardWednesday, October 10: Brussels – Day 10

  • We are staying in the Manhattan district of Brussels, which is the uncharacteristically tall (and Manhattan-like) part of the city, developed by some megalomaniac a few decades ago. Our hotel is not in my favorite area, but it’s very close to the major subway stop of Rogier, which is convenient
  • First thing in the morning, we took subway line 6 from Rogier to Simonis (Elisabeth), and then from Simonis (Leopold II) to Heysel to get to the northwest part of Brussels
  • Visited Mini-Europe, an odd miniature park of around 305 European landmark replicas at the foot of the Atomium
  • Toured the amazing Atomium, which was built for the 1958 World’s Fair
  • Took subway line 6 from Heysel (the Atomium stop) to Louise, on our way to find Art Nouveau buildings
  • Happened to find the European Space Expo (which runs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 11) in Brussels
  • Ate soup and baguettes for lunch at The FoodMaker
  • Visited the Horta Museum (on Rue Americaine 25), dedicated to the life and work of the Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta and his time
  • Having been somewhat informed by previous Internet research, we walked around the Ixelles Ponds area of Brussels, looking for Art Nouveau architecture. I recorded the addresses of our discoveries:
    • Two Defacqz buildings – Rue Defacqz 48 and 71
    • The greatest building – Lac Meer 6
    • Five Belle Vue buildings – Rue de Belle Vue 30, 32, 42, 44 and 46
    • A mirrored pair of buildings – Avenue du Général de Gaulle 38-39
  • Picked up some pad Thai for dinner from Walkin’ Thai in Ixelles on our way back to our hotel
  • Took subway line 6 from Louise back to our Rogier stop
  • Hotel Room 408 at Maxhotel ($119), Brussels, Belgium

Luxembourg postcardThursday, October 11: Brussels/Luxembourg/Strasbourg – Day 11

  • Took subway line 4 from Rogier to Brussels-Nord, to avoid carrying our backpacks across town again
  • Train Departed Brussels-Nord at 8:42 AM on Belgian SNCB Train 2108 and arrived in Luxembourg at 11:40 AM
  • We used our Eurail Passes for the first time today. Because we are older than age 25, we both possess mandatory first-class Eurail Passes. Riding in first class from Brussels to Luxembourg was absurdly luxurious. Our car was almost abandoned for the entire three-hour journey and it felt like sitting in a mobile living room. We even had a dining table between our facing seats, on which to eat more lettuce-filled crepes. We’ve been frequently carrying around packages of crepes and using them as vehicles for the consumption of greens. Crepes for breakfast definitely isn’t going to make us as fat as eating croissants and chocolates constantly
  • In Luxembourg, we checked our backpacks at the train station and walked through the historic center of Luxembourg City (mainly via Boulevard F.D. Roosevelt, oddly enough) for a couple of hours. Luxembourg City was massively under construction during our visit, particularly the areas around several historic buildings. We spent the most time in Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Luxembourg, where Heidi lit a candle. We purchased some macarons at Oberweis and ate them by the fountain, and then bought baguette sandwiches for the continuation of our journey into France
  • Train Departed Luxembourg City at 2:30 PM on the EX 295 train and arrived in Strasbourg (via Thionville and Metz-Ville) at 4:39 PM
  • Today’s lesson: It’s better to use the free restrooms (WCs) on trains than to wait until train stations. Using WCs in train stations cost money and are usually a hassle
  • After 10 days, we have each come up with rankings of the five main cities we’ve explored, in terms of whether we’d want to live there. Heidi’s list: (1) Reykjavík, (2) Brussels, (3) Bruges, (4) Luxembourg City, (5) Amsterdam. My list: (1) Brussels, (2) Reykjavík, (3) Bruges, (4) Luxembourg City, (5) Amsterdam. Yes, we both have the capital of a frozen, Arctic wasteland in our top two. I really like Brussels and its Art Nouveau architecture, though I am not reassured when I see the cooling towers of a nuclear power station on the distant horizon. I am also not reassured by Iceland’s constant earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Bruges – a small, fake-feeling medieval town – is still awesome enough to stay ahead of Luxembourg City and Amsterdam
  • Our Strasbourg hotel room was actually an apartment, complete with stovetop, cookware and dishes, so we bought ingredients from a small grocery store a few blocks away and made pasta, salad and hot tea to the Amélie soundtrack. It was like being at home
  • Hotel Room 2101 (first floor) at Victoria Garden Suites ($63), Strasbourg, France

Continue to 40 days in Europe: Days 12-22 »

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