A Travellerspoint blog

Tour du Mont Blanc (Part 1)

EPIC trip!

semi-overcast 70 °F

How to begin telling you about my greatest and most unique adventure of this trip. Though it only lasted 9 days, it felt like much longer. I suppose the beginning is a good place to start - While I was at home, taking a break from my vagabonding for a month, I was doing a fair bit of reflecting on my trip so far. What I liked and thought I did well, what I didn’t do so well, and things that I hadn’t yet tried or necessarily considered. One thing that I knew is that I loved to travel, and a wise person (or company) once said “Do what you like, like what you do”. But how can you make a living traveling? There are travel writers and photographers, sure, but I’m not sure if many other people outside of you weirdos reading this would be overly interested in my writing. I will graciously accept any wealthy patrons who want to contribute to my travel fund and keep me on the road :)

But then I thought about tours and tour guides. People do get paid helping others explore new cultures and the wonders of the world. Now, I’ve always been somewhat against tours for myself, prefering instead to stumble my own way thru things, but as I started to look into it, I did see some definite benefits. I knew, however, that I wasn’t the type to enjoy big tour buses with each minute mapped out to maximize your sight-seeing. I needed a different kind of tour. A blogger I’ve been reading named http://www.nomadicmatt.com/ had had some good things to say about a company called G Adventures, so I decided to start there. These guys very conveniently break their tours up into different styles - Comfort for those with lots of money and want to stay in fancy accomodations, Classic, Marine boat tours, and the 2 types that appealed most to me: Active and Yolo. I laughed at the Yolo type, designed I think for younger types that want to get the most out of their travel and also plan in some late nights for partying. Reasonably priced, I considered a number of tours in Europe, but really one stuck out to me right away - Tour du Mont Blanc. A 10 day tour hiking thru 3 countries in the Alps, with a 5 out of 5 physicallity rating. I booked it and looked forward to 10 days where I didn’t have to figure out my travel, accommodation, and activities by myself.

The tour set out from Chamonix, a beautiful little mountain town in the east of France. Best known as a skiing Mecca (the town balloons from 10,000 to 100,000 during peak winter season), the town reminded me a lot of Vale, Colorado where I had gone a few months ago. Outdoor adventure equipment stores on every corner and gorgeous views every direction you looked.

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The night I arrived in Chamonix, the group met at 5 to meet our guide, each other, and do last minute preparations. If I’m being totally honest, I was initially a little disappointed. Knowing that I had no idea what to expect, I nonetheless had expected the group to be a bit younger and fitter than it was. I was thinking that I, in good general shape but having done no specific training for this, would be in the middle of the pack in terms of fitness and hiking experience, but after going around, it seemed that I was pretty close to the top. Even our guide, Gary, was definitely much older than I had expected. I’d like to note before going much further that these were my honest initial reactions, but all of you on the trip know that our group was awesome :)

We’ll get back around to the group makeup later, but the other significant part of that opening meeting was Gary, our guide, basically telling us how everything we brought was wrong or not enough. I had looked carefully at the suggested gear list ahead of time, but seeing gloves, snowpants, etc, on it, I thought that they had given us a more general list that would cover what you might need in any season. Surely in June/July when I was doing this, we wouldn’t need such cold weather gear. WRAWNG! Gary tells us about the trip that he just concluded in which while descending on the last day he put one BOTH sets of gloves he brought.

Sufficiently scared, we all go to the 1 reasonably priced gear shop after the meeting to rectify these mistakes. I go with Gary’s recommendations on most things, but also decide that some of the suggestions don’t apply to me, or at least don’t apply to me when I’m on such a tight budget. Waterproof rucksack bag to keep clothes etc dry in the rain - THANK GOODNESS I picked that up. Waterproof pants - got it and very glad I did. Waterproof gloves - I thought these were a wasted 10 euros until the last day when Gary was proved right again. 2nd pair of gloves or waterproof hiking boots - NAH I’ll manage. We had dinner together and went to bed early, anxious to begin the following morning.

That first day seems so long ago, when we were all so young and inexperienced. We had beautiful, cloudless weather and took tons of pictures at every opportunity, not understanding that the views that were to come on subsequent days would blow these out of the water. We learned what a “Col” was, a term we would all be very familiar with by the end. A Col is the French term for a saddle point between 2 peaks. This tour circled Mont Blanc but only had 1 summit so most of our days were going from 1 col to another.

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Incredible view right off the bat
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First of many panoramas
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The view from our first col (Ah we were so young!)

The most interesting part of that first day was beginning to get to know the group that I would be spending the next 8 days with. There were 10 of us in all, plus Gary, and one great thing was that almost everyone was there as a solo traveller, making everyone very open and eager to socialize with others. Jen, Kim, and Anneke were the only exception as 3 Canadian women who had been friends from college, and they were among the most social of the groups. One of our members noted that our group was much more social than other tours she had been on, and that was largely due to the fact that we didn’t have any couples running off by themselves. In all we had 2 Aussies, 7 Canadians, and me as the sole American.

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The whole gang just as we set off!

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Crossing the "treacherous" bridge
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As something that seems to happen naturally, the younger group of us quickly fell in with each other and became tight. I was the oldest of the 4 of us forming the “Young Ones”, or the “Young Guns” or the “Younger Ones” as we finally compromised on. We also had a tall, smiling Aussie named Chris who was at the tail end of 6-month working in Finances in England, and 2 girls either fresh out of college or to be soon: Vicky, a Canadian who just graduated from Georgetown, and Ellie, another Aussie finishing up her Occupational Therapy degree. Ellie and Vicky I think decided to be BFFs from the moment they met each other in Chamonix, and Chris and I got pretty tight as we always roomed together when we had individual rooms. Pictures of the 4 of us will pop up here and there.

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Together, this group resulted in the largest benefit for me in doing this as a guided tour. With enough research, I could have hiked the trail solo and figured out all of the accommodations and such as others that we met along the way did, but having a group sticking together for 9 days to hike with, create memories with, and actually form a lasting bond with was such a welcome change to how my travels had been up to then. Many of us are using the wonders of FaceBook to continue talking thru our journeys, and I hope that many of them will be reading this post, reliving these amazing memories with me.

Back to the trail, Day 1 ended with a steep, challenging hike uphill to our refuge for the night. With 45 minutes to the finish line, we started to break off into smaller groups based on our speeds. Me, Chris, and Jordan formed the fast group for the duration of the tour and all seemed to enjoy pushing our pace to really challenge ourselves. As we put together a few days later, was a little coincidental as Jordan, who was in fantastic shape at 51, was the exact sum of my and Chris’ ages: 26 + 25. Ahead of the group and intrigued by a nice waterfall overlook, we did a bit of off-trail exploring and got right down to the water. Pretty much all of the water we came across during this tour was glacier runoff which means that it was delicious to drink, a beautiful blue-green color, and COLD.

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The first real town we passed thru

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OFF TRAIL!

After that bit of exploring, we double-timed it up to the refuge, but still got beat out by the next group of Vicky, Ellie, and Jackie, a Canadian teaching in China who loves hiking. When the trip was winding down, we went back and all agreed that the refuge this first night, known as Nant Borrant, was the weakest of the trip, but at the time, I was blown away.

I’ve done my fair share of outdoor backpacking in the US, and I have loved it. Taking on a trail and carrying everything you need on your back, its extremely empowering. But having these refuges changes the game completely. While normally backpacking, your hike for the day ends with relief, a welcome chance to unload your very heavy pack… and then setting up the tent, cooking your freeze-dried dinner, and generally making camp. With these refuges, the day ends with relief, a chance to unload your much lighter pack, a warm bed freshly made, a shower, a hot 3 course meal, and a beer. Why the lighter pack? Tent, sleeping bag, mattress pad, cook stove, and almost all your food. All these things can be dropped from your pack on this hiking route. Any of you out there who has ever done a backpacking trip, much less an 8 day one, should be salivating at the thought. Oh, and did I mention that you never have to pump or purify your water because they always have natural glacier-cold water coming out of these nice spouts?
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The meals were always hearty - meat + potatoes type things, probably cheese and bread for the appetizers, and either some more cheese or fruit tarts for dinner. The food was always good, always with lots of cheese and bread, and always with the minimum of vegetables. Once we figured this out, fruits and veggies made up most of what we tried to pick up when we passed stores.

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Another great tradition we started that first night was our nightly yoga sessions once we finished hiking. Led by Vicky, with the perfect soothing yoga voice, we often got other hikers to join in, some in jest, some in earnest.

That first night I went out to the relaxing picnic area. After the 20+ km we had hiked, no one else mustered the energy to make the 100 m walk to this area, so I had it all to myself, just engrossed in the natural environment. With the constantly flowing rivers in the background, frequent and irregular animal sounds and light breeze swimming thru the trees, it sounded like an ideal “Sounds of Nature” track that people meditate to. I followed my instincts and just breathed it in until it began to rain. Some cards and an early bedtime concluded the first day of what we all knew would be a truly epic next week.

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This took some impressive balancing + camera timer skillz

Very quickly we settled into a routine. In the morning you’d wake up, pack everything up and head down to breakfast. Breakfast was usually made up mostly of bread, jam, and some cereal. By the end we were dreaming of bacon and eggs in the morning, but we really didn’t have much to complain about. We’d be out by 8 am typically and had anything between 7 and 10 hours of hiking (breaks included) ahead of us. Each day provided new challenges and new views, but the routine stayed the same. The night before Gary would brief us on the next day’s route and forecast, so we could get our layers in order, ready to throw on. I typically hiked in only shorts and a T-shirt, but there definitely days and stretches when I needed to throw on a 2nd layer, or a 3rd. Picking out clothes was pretty simple with a limited wardrobe - 3 full changes of clothes, 2 for walking and 1 for post-shower lounging about the refuges.

Depending on the terrain and altitude changes, we would vary the number of breaks we had, but I did feel like we were walking with hobbits. A typical day would be a nice stop for elevensies (we skipped 2nd breakfast), then a longer lunch break. Lunch would either be a pack lunch prepared by our previous refuge or it we were lucky, might be a hot meal meal at a refuge along the way. One such refuge had some delicious pasta covered in cheese and a HUGE salad with tons of veggies. I’ve never seen a salad make as many mouths water as this did. We’d arrive at our next hostel between 3 and 6, and relive all the incredible happenings of the day. It didn’t take long for us to grow close, and alcohol at the refuges definitely helped in this. Dinner, a look ahead to our next day, and some games before bed and we started the whole thing over again. I’m not sure how this sounds to someone who wasn’t there, but it was simple existence, felt like it was it was it’s whole separate world, and it was magical.

As I said, each day provided different challenges and new things. Day 2 brought us into the elements. While the day at the refuge started out with warm weather and the sun shining, that faded as we climbed up to the col. This col brought us into weather cold enough for me to break out my jacket and newly purchased waterproof pants (thank you Gary). The few kms between the col and our refuge for lunch wasn’t thru any falling snow, but there was plenty of snow and ice on the terrain and lots of fog/clouds to walk thru. When you are over 2300 m above sea level, I’m not sure if walking thru clouds is considered fog or just clouds, but either way, the traverse gave us some new challenges and more great photos.

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Contemplative look before we hit the fog
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Silliness is fun
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And the fog rolls in as everyone brook out their waterproofing gear
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Fog or Cloud?
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L to R - Me, Ellie, Kim, Jen, Anneke, and Vicky
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Did we come all that way?

The lunch there was the fantastic and huge spaghetti and salad that I split with Chris and the highlight for me was spotting an Ibex out one of the windows. Ibex has been my favorite animal in the world ever since I saw https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdsZz8StyV4 - watch it its worth it. What badass creatures! On the first day, Gary gave us the rundown of the 3 alpine animals that we might be lucky enough to see: the Marmot. the Chamois, and the ibex. The Marmot ended up being cute and fairly common creatures. The Chamois, which I and everyone took to calling the “Sham-Wow”, were elusive and I don’t think any of us spotted one. The ibex was the one that most excited me, and I kept teasing Gary because he kept disappointing me with areas that we were “sure to spot one”, only to walk away unsatisfied. I thought he was yanking my chain again this time, telling me that this refuge had a “magic window” where an ibex was always spotted, but you had to watch for a bit. After 10 minutes of camping out at the window away from the group, playfully cursing Gary under my breath, this beauty sauntered up onto the ridge. Too excited to think properly, I started jumping and waving my arms towards my group across the crowded refuge, hoping to get their attention. After realizing that I looked like a total lunatic to those seated near me, I hurried rushed across the crowded room and summoned them all over to the window. Ellie got a great shot with her incredible zoom, but with my camera the picture is not too impressive, but I was pretty damn happy with the spotting.

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Day 3 may have been my favorite day, it is tough to say, but true to form, new challenges it did bring. As with any group of this size, some people will be able to go at a faster pace than others, and therefore there will always be some that lag a bit behind the rest of the group. Michael, a Canadian now living in NYC, was the unfortunate one bringing up the rear in our group. It is not an easy thing psychologically to be the trailer, but Michael accepted it with a degree of self-deprecation and resolve. Most days, this wasn’t a problem at all for anyone else in the group - we typically used the time to pose for goofy photos in front of the astounding backdrops where we found ourselves. Day 3, however, brought this issue to the forefront.

Day 3 would end in the Italian mountain town of Courmayeur, but it could be by different paths. Gary described it as a hike in which the first 6 hours would be the same for both paths, but at that point most travelers continued on the low route and grabbed a bus into Courmayeur after another mile or two, resulting in one of the easier days for us thus far. Gary liked to take groups up the high route which resulted in another 4 strenuous hours of hiking after the split, but with the reward of some of the best views of the trip. In order to do the high route and still get in at a reasonable hour, Gary insisted that we had to reach the lunch spot by 1, but had doubts whether the full group could do that. At least some of us (me included) REALLY wanted to push thru the high route, so we decided as a group to get up early and do our best to push hard for the lunch spot and from there we could evaluate the weather and figure it out.

Even before the high route alternative, the day was going to prove to be our toughest thus far, with a long distance to cover before lunch and the longest continual climb up to the col that we’ve had so far. As part of the group effort, Chris and I tried to help Michael out as much as possible, taking some of his heavier items which he graciously exchanged for some bought beers later that night. A team effort got us to the col in good time and on pace to make the high route possible. This col also brought us to the France-Italy border which always provided great photo ops.

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We flew thru the descent down to lunch in record time and relaxed in our most picturesque lunch spot of the trip in front of a great waterfall. We even had some time to throw the Frisbee around a bit. After an errant throw by Jordan, Chris made a huge save wading into the swift river and making a stabbing grab at it as it ran by. I never even saw it coming, but Chris somehow managed to save my disc and disaster was averted :)
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After lunch Michael split off heading for the bus while the rest of us pushed up thru the high route. The hour after the fork was likely the steepest climb of the trip, though later days make that statement questionable. Without a doubt, this route gave us the best views of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc from the Italian side) and with the beautiful blue sky, gave us some of our most postcard-worth shots. These really don't need any captions

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Gary, always our sageful guide, made sure that we hiked to the far side of this high-altitude mountain lake for the classic postcard picture of Mont Blanc.
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The day was nearly over when we reached an outpost at the top of a ski lift where many of us grabbed a beer, a slightly premature celebration for some after a hard-fought day. Gary had teased us indicating that we could take the ski lift down to the town at this point, which most of the girls were counting on. Unfortunately, the ski lift was closed for repairs, devastating news for a few of the people whose knees and feet hadn’t appreciated the last few hours of descent. Kim negotiated with those at the outpost and arranged a ride down for up to 8, but it’d cost some money. Being the macho hiker (but mostly thrifty traveler) I am, I had to turn it down and Gary, Jackie, Chris and I double timed it down and made it only 10 minutes behind the rest of the group to what would be our most comfortable and posh accommodations of the trip.

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This was such a cute and very well-run mountain resort hotel, we all looked forward to some modern comforts. For us young guns, the most important of these was the first WiFi we had had access to thus far, but Jordan also pointed out that here “We can have showers whenever we want!” (Most of the refuges run on generators so will only have hot water for showers at night). Chris and I were initially ambitious about what we would with our rest day (a short 5 hour hike or mountain biking?) and resigned to the fact that we would probably just laze around. We had the most delicious dinner of the trip and stayed up a bit getting drinks at the bar, sitting around the fire pit, and playing with the most adorable puppies you’ve ever seen.

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I’ll finish up this trip on the next episode!

Posted by danza 01:15 Archived in France Tagged hiking canadians alps epic aussies tour_du_mont_blanc Comments (0)

Paris

with company!

semi-overcast 65 °F

Paris had always been a city that had never been high on my list to see. While I knew I would make it there at some point in my life, my aversion to uber-touristy things and the talk that I had heard about Parisians’ less-than-friendly dealings with tourists and specifically Americans had dropped it down on my priorities. If I hadn’t been meeting a friend who had Paris on her agenda, I probably would have skipped over it again and gone to other places in France.

That being said, although you do find the occasional waitress who gets annoyed at you when she hears English or broken French, I think the majority of that rep is undeserved. People have to remember that Paris is big city, similar to NYC, and is everyone the most friendly person there? No, but when you travel to NYC, are most people that you interact with friendly and helpful? Yes - it’s the same with Paris. So in that way, I believe I was guilty of being a little close-minded, judging Paris and France unfairly without ever being there. Another prejudgice that I found wasn’t the case - I was expecting Paris to be in a virtual haze of cigarette smoke. Parisians are ALWAYS depicted as chain smokers in movies and such, but I found that it was on par or actually better than many other European cities.

One thing that does make Paris and France in general a little unique is that, compared to other European countries in that area, the French generally don’t speak English very well, which can make things tough. Emelie, my CS host for my last day in Paris, explained to me that France doesn’t put much emphasis on this in school. While most schools nowadays do require that people take English, there isn’t any push to actually get people conversational. In many ways, it sounds like it resembles the American perspective on foreign language in high school, so who are we to complain or judge? Another reason that the French are behind the curve with English that I can totally respect is that they truly value their language and culture. As the world becomes more globalized, I don’t think there’s any doubt that parts of individual cultures can be lost. The French simply care much more about that and feel that if the language begins to be lost, aspects of their culture that make them distinctly French will soon follow. Interesting fact: if a business in France (or maybe just Paris?) names their business an English name to appeal to tourists more, they actually pay an extra tax to the government. I’m just full of interesting knowledge, aren’t I?

Anyway, my time in Paris was definitely the most touristy of my trip thus far. Part of that is because I was there with a friend, staying in an AirBNB apartment instead of a hostel (the apartment had a sauna and a view of the Eiffel Tower from the kitchen! It was also up 7 flights of stairs, so I got a little training in before my hiking in the Alps). Another reason was simply because it is Paris. I’ve said before that there’s usually a reason that sites are very touristy, and with so many famous sites and beautiful buildings, this seems especially true in Paris.

The biggest 3 - Jess and I went up the Eiffel Tower, toured thru Notre Dame, and I wandered around the Louvre (PRO TIP - The Louvre is open late til 9:30 on Wed and Fri and its free after 6!). The Eiffel Tower truly is magnificent and true to form, Parisians originally opposed it and tried to block its construction, thinking that it would mar their beautiful city. The line wasn’t bad and going up gave you a fantastic view of the city. I also got the requisite goofy photo with it in the background :) And we could see the Tower from the kitchen in our AirBNB apartment!

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The night view from our apartment :)
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Jess and I at the base. Coffee in hand
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From the top
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Requisite goofy jumping photo, haha

I hate to say it, but Notre Dame was a little bit of a letdown. I thought that it was super impressive that it was built so long ago (completed in the 13th century), before many of Europe’s other massive churches, but I o think that I have seen at least a few cathedrals of the same style that I liked more, the best one being the Dom Cathedral in Koln, Germany.

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The Louvre is simply a gorgeous museum of preposterously big proportions. Of course you've got the infamous glass pyramid at the entrance. Some sneaking advice from Jess got me in one of the 11 other entrances that aren't by the pyramid, so I walked in without a wait at all. Also, the price was only free for people UNDER 26, not 26 and under, but after getting rejected by 1 person, I went to a different entrance and was let in free of charge by either a less observant or more generous person.

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The Louvre is always associated with art, but it’s also got a crazy amount of artifacts, statues, furniture, etc. I spent about 3 hours in it, definitely didn’t get to everything, and that was moving fairly quickly. If you’re a person who understands and appreciates art, you could easily spend a week in there. I unfortunately got to what turned out to be my favorite section (French Impressionist paintings) last, and I was pretty art-ed out. I ended up taking mostly photos of things that I could make funny captions about.

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No funny caption here. It just seemed like something that I should get a picture of.

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This is my favorite and definitely one that set me down the path of silliness

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Hammurabi's Code - Wow! This thing is in Paris???

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Definitely among the most impressive things was simply the decoration of the rooms and hallways, which adorned the supposedly more attractive and entertaining art on the walls.

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This just looked like an old fashioned Roman orgy with a little bit of everything

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The famous Mona Lisa!

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Really not all that big, right? I think this was a perfect example of what my wise roommate, Scottie Rossignol always said - "It's all about setting low expectations." I had heard from many people and reviews who thought that the Mona Lisa, with all of its buildup, was a let down, but going in with that in mind, I actually quite liked it. It wasn't anything that changed my life, but I thought it was among the better, and most certainly the loudest, pieces.

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Painting of some king crowning his queen. I think the pope or bishop that came along was supposed to do the crowning, and he looks none too pleased about being set aside :)

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A depiction of the shambles of a ruined ship just floating along.

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And doesn't this guy just look straight up bored with their predicament?

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Painting marking a French victory. And it wouldn't be truly French if the main character wasn't baring some boobs :O

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I'm sure this is hearsay, but that guy is just struttin' it.

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This was another of my favorites - Lucifer commanding his armies on their seemingly inevitable conquest

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Pictures on Pictures

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These are a couple of images / recreations of Napolean's apartment. He wasn't compensating for ANYTHING

I did some other stuff in Paris, like visit the Catacombs (pics below), but mostly I was just happy and impressed by how enjoyable the atmosphere was. Paris has an unbelievable # of parks (like literally more than 400 in city limits), and people just moved at a slower, more relaxed pace. Yes, you got the feeling that they thought their culture and way of life was straight up better than yours, but honestly, what country doesn't think that? France is just a little more upfront about it.

I had a couple of days between Jess and her mother leaving Paris before I had to be in Chamonix for my hiking tour around the Alps, so I thought I'd try to fulfill one of my bucket list items - to backpack between major cities!

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Bad news - I didn't get picked up. Speaking to a French guy who was trying to the same: getting out of the cities is the hardest part and Paris is the worst of it. Once you get out to way stations and such it's quite easy. So I'm not giving up yet!

Good news - a little doubtful of my hitchhiking prospects, I also threw up a last-minute request for a couch on a CS forum and a beautiful French girl came thru! Emilie let me know I could stay with her RIGHT before she heard back from some other CSers who had ditched on her the night before. It turns out that they were a couple of Americans hitchhiking down from Amsterdam and only made it to Belgium the night before (hence the ditching), but as they were finally making it into Paris that night, Emilie hosted them too and it made for a cozy common room :) Luckily, everyone was friendly and it worked out great. Emilie is a French engineer who is trying to improve her English so that she can work abroad in Australia. The only rule while staying with her is that you have to correct every mistake in her English (no matter how small). I learned a lot from her about why the French are not so good at English and had a fantastic time with her.

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Deciding to go to the grocery store and cook dinner to save money (the CSers paid for all the groceries), we went for supplies. En route, the conversation went a bit like this:
Emilie - So what do want to cook for dinner?
Me+Nathan+Forest - Umm, I don't know. What can we make?
Emilie - Well, we could make crepes, we could make...
Me+Nathan+Forest - WE CAN MAKE CREPES!?!?!??!

We came to a decision very quickly and set to it. It takes a while but really isn't that hard. Now when I go back, I can impress women I have over to breakfast with my amazing crepe-making skills :) We all even got to flip a crepe. Emilie claimed she can flip them behind her back and all sorts of other tricks, but I've got my doubts since we didn't see it done, haha.

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Anyway, I could say far more, but I'm anxious to write about my trip to the Alps, then a ridiculous traffic jam in France, and finally Barcelona! So that's all for me for now!

Posted by danza 15:26 Archived in France Tagged paris france tourists eiffel_tower good_food travel_companions Comments (0)

Iceland (continued)

Still the land of fire and ice

sunny 55 °F

Wikipedia pegs Iceland’s population at 310,000, which means that the COUNTRY has a handful more people than Madison WI, or between 4 and 5 NFL stadiums worth. For an entire country. Iceland isn’t big, but this equates to 3.18 people per square km. Statistically, this would put it just under N Dakota and above only Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska in US states, and that number would drop significantly after you eliminate Reykjavik from the mix. This means that once we left the capital, we weren’t coming across too many people. Multiple nights on the road, we stayed in places where hostels and farms were the only buildings there. The largest “city” that we stayed in (and the largest outside of the SW corner of the country) was less than 20,000 people.

On one hand, this meant that we came across a number of small, picturesque, quaint little towns, squashed between the chilly waters of the Atlantic and towering mountains (see the pics at the end). On the other hand, we really weren’t looking at too much in terms of nightlife or “non-nature” attractions as we circled the island. So when I was invited to check out a club (club? really?) with 3 fellow travelers from the Bay Area, I jumped at it despite the fact that I was exhausted and was still looking at sleeping in our car that night. It also didn’t hurt that 2 of them were attractive girls. Found out later that they both had BFs :(.

After we finished our assorted drinking card games around midnight, we headed out into the bright daylight (still weird) for a 30 minute walk. The club was certainly not that, but ended up being a pretty decent and heavily trafficked bar. We met a few Icelandic locals, Aleksandra being the most friendly, I smoked the 3rd cigarette of my life (still gross) and before long we were invited to an after-party at Aleksandra’s apartment. We learned a few Icelandic drinking games (all pretty simple), and before long, it was almost 4 in the morning. Not that you could tell by looking outside. We wandered back to our hostel and I found an unoccupied couch that would do til the morning. With Garrett and Alex giving me access to the showers in the morning, I figured this was the best deal I had found for accomodation in Iceland.

The next morning, I awoke totally dead after only a few hours of sleep, and as luck would have it, our SadCar turned out to be more forlorng than ever with a completely flat tire on one side. We must have punctured a small hole driving the previous day and it emptied overnight. We jacked up the car and attempted to put on the donut to get it to the nearest repair shop (thank goodness we were in a city that night), but the tire would not come off. Apparently, with all of the rain, etc, in Iceland, this is fairly common and after each of us took turns trying to kick the tire loose, we were left with no other choice than to drive it as is to the shop.

What actually punctured the tire may remain a mystery, but we think it was partially the fault of renting from SadCars. While we were getting a new tire, we noticed that another of our tires was low on air, so we had the shop pump that one up as well. Now paying close attention to our tires, we subsequently had to stop and refill our front left tire with air twice a day as it slowly lost pressure during the drive. Luckily, air is free in Iceland and most gas stations were well equipped. 200 euros and an hour later, we were back on the road, planning out more than a couple choice words for our rental company. Lesson to be learned - Don’t go with the cheapest rental company in foreign countries. Maybe go with the 2nd cheapest :)

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Our SadCar, post-repairs. Even there, doesn't the left front tire look low?

That next day was one largely wasted on me, asleep in the back seat for much of the morning. This turned out to be okay because that was our big driving day. Kadesch drove probably a good 7 hours that day with beautiful and varying scenery, but no real stops or specific sites. The scenery rotated from mountains (with a regular call pointing out - WATERFALL!), to flat lands with little vegetation, to old volcanic flows, with cracked earth covered in moss. I slept a good deal in the car and we mostly pushed straight thru to our hostel that night. This hostel was an extra building added onto a farm, more than 5 km from any sort of store, restaurant, or bar. It ended up being one of our favorite places, with friendly people, a TV to watch the World Cup, and a good kitchen. We did some shopping and rediscovered the wonders of coffee, bacon, and eggs the following morning.

The next morning promised a departure from the Ring Road, onto the Diamond Ring, and subset of attractions just off the main road. After a whole ton of driving the previous day, we were excited to see some sites. This started out with “Horseshoe Canyon”, a cliff formation rarely found in the world. The origin of this canyon is still under debate, and honestly the most supported theory of a sudden flash flood didn’t seem to hold much water in my opinion. As I had already said multiple times during our trip, “I had never seen anything like it”. The canyon was a deep horseshoe shape, with large, steep cliffs rising on both the the outside and the inside of the canyon. The valley between enjoyed a good deal of wildlife, and there was an entertaining hike up to the apex of the cliff in the middle of the horseshoe.

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Difficult to visualize, but imagine this surrounding you in a horseshoe thingy

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In the middle of the horseshoe was this one strip in the middle that stuck up. Here is where we hiked up and got some views

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Cairns are all over the place. This one had a nice backdrop

After the canyon came a slow and bumpy road back south towards the Ring Road, with a couple of stops at some even more impressive waterfalls. Besides the countless smaller ones that we saw while driving, there were probably 7 waterfalls that we specifically drove to and stopped at and they were nice because each one was cool for a different reason. You had Gullfoss, a large waterfall that shined golden in the sunlight, Seljalandsfoss, which you could walk completely behind, Skogafoss, which had about 20 cascading waterfalls as you hiked upwards, Svartifoss with the unique slate-like rock formations around it, Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Selfoss, which stretched maybe 300 meters wide with lots of individual streams of water, and finally, Hraunfossar, where the water appeared to and actually did come directly out of a rock wall - the river actually flows thru holes in this rock wall to the waterfall beyond it. Check out the pictures below to understand what I mean.

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Gullfoss - Group Selfie!

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Seljalandsfoss - with the 360* viewing abilities

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Skogafoss - here is the main waterfall, but as you hike up you continue to get more

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Svartifoss - see what I mean with the slate-like rock structures? If someone's got a better way to describe it, please post a comment :)
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Svartifoss - This dual-camera feature is just clowny

So I'm only remembering now that I forgot my phone/camera in the car when we were checking out Dettifoss and Selfoss, and I haven't gotten the photos from Garrett or Kadesch, so you all can Google those images if you want. We had some solid selfies at Selfoss, though :)

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Hraunfossar - See how it just seems to come directly out of the rock? Fricking crazy!

I’ve sort of lost my train of thought because I’ve spent the last 8 days hiking around the Alps without my trusty laptop (amazing blog post to come), but I believe I’ve already covered most of our adventures in Iceland. Other notable happenings:

- Kaldi: a wonderful little Icelandic brewery. Though there aren’t many breweries there (brewing alcohol in Iceland was illegal until the early 20th century), they make extremely tasty beer, much of which is attributed to the pure, high quality glacier water that they use.

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- The geothermal pools at Jardbodinn: So many people have heard about the Blue Lagoon, the picturesque spa near Reykjavik where tourists flock to. There is nothing wrong with that because, hell, how many times are you going to be able to relax in a natural hot tub and swim over and get a drink from the poolside bar? Me being me, however, and stubborn to not fall into any overpriced tourist traps, my plan had been to instead find a local Reykjavik "hot pot" where locals enjoy the same comforts in slightly less scenic places. That was before I hopped into the SadCar and changed around my plan to circle the island. Near Myvatn we found "the Blue Lagoon of the North" and couldn't resist. This water honestly looks and feels different with all the minerals in there in addition to the toasty temperatures. Supposed to be good for the skin :)

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- Portugal vs USA: the World Cup game against Portugal was pretty much the only night that the 3 of us went out. Specifically for the game, we changed around our travel plans so that we would be in Akureyi to watch it, which at almost 19,000 people was the biggest city outside of the Reykjavik area. On a Sunday night, we found 1 sports bar that was open and were pointed upstairs to a room filled with Americans and a large projector screen. Outside the opening 5 minutes and the closing 30 seconds, USA dominated the game and high 5s abounded all over the place among the Americans. Though Ronaldo’s last second centering pass to a beautiful header ruined the celebration waiting to happen with the US clinching a spot into the next round, we had a great time and left the bar feeling surprisingly tipsy and energetic. Momentarily obsessed with finding the perfect spot to photograph the sunset (remember this is after midnight), we talked about parkouring up on top of a roof. While we were considering all sorts of questionable options, Garrett noticed a ladder conveniently left at the base of a building, haha. The pictures weren’t as spectacular as we hoped, but Kadesch used the long jump skills we had been practicing earlier in the day to get his parkour on:

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The ladder...
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The resulting pic...
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And Kadesch's parkour skills. Flying thru the air

- Our last night in Iceland was spent at a small hostel that was literally 1 of 2 buildings in site. This was the 2nd hostel we stayed at in the middle of nowhere, and those were our 2 favorite places. This one was special for the absolutely breathtaking sunset that we got and the natural hot spring pool that locals had built right into the earth. The 3 of us relaxed in there and, sad that we would be leaving Iceland soon, decided we had to have one more classic Icelandic experience. After working up the courage and establishing our ground rules, the 3 of us got out of the hot tub and sprinted for the ocean water. This is a common Icelandic practice among locals - going from the frigid arctic waters back into a hot tub is supposed to be great for you. Preparing for the worst, we were actually disappointed by how warm it was when we got into the water. Though it was ocean water, the fact that we were in a fjord and near an area where a small geothermal stream emptied into the water kept the temperature not warm, but no worse than ocean temperatures at Cape Cod’s Nassau Beach, where the Jentzens and I used to run into.

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Have you ever seen anything quite so beautifuL?
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That's Garrett out there on the rock. What a pic
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Picturesque natural hot tub. I challenge you to find 5 more places that are as pure a combination of comfort, simplicity, and nature as this

I was very sad to leave Garrett and Kadesch the next day. It was a wonderful coincidence that landed me with them, and it was great to finally have some traveling companions. Though I was tempted to stick with them for longer, I was off the Paris to meet up with Jess Gulliver and her mother, with many big plans ahead.

More beautiful scenery:
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On the plane I added “airplane seatbelt” to my list of objects I can open beer bottles with :).
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Posted by danza 09:46 Archived in Iceland Tagged waterfalls nature geothermal brewery Comments (1)

Back on the Wagon - Off to Iceland!

The land of fire and ice

semi-overcast 50 °F

Bryan’s European Jaunt Part Deux!

After 6 weeks back in the US, I’m back at it traveling around Europe. The time off worked out perfectly - in the past 6 weeks I:
- Spent 2 of those in SF for Brad Miller’s amazing wedding and to check out my future housing options
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- “Ran” in Bay2Breakers, a “race” across SF from the Bay to the Pacific. The quotes are there because while a handful of people do actually run this 7 mile race, the vast majority dress up in costumes (we were Minions from Despicable Me) and drunkenly stumble across the city before taking a much needed nap on the beach. At least that’s what I did :)
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- Helped my family to pack up our house and move into a new one! Don’t worry, we’re still in Fairport - just up 250 by Woodcliff
- Spent time with my relatives and a few other very special people in the ROC (you know who you are)
- Went to my 5 year college reunion at Cornell. Wow that sentence makes me feel old but it was so great to see a ton of people I haven’t seen in years and omg I miss Ithaca and all its glory
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- Fulfilled a long-standing dream (which is likely to be repeated) by going to BONNAROO music festival with T Halle and Chris Marini. I could write an entire post about the festival and the atmosphere there, but lets suffice it to say that it has a utopian feel where everyone is simply loving life and all those around them. The music was unforgettable as were the people we met.
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==ON TO ICELAND!==

Inspired by other travelers I met, I decided to start out the 2nd leg of my trip with a stopover in Iceland! Iceland Air (who is among the cheapest airlines to cross the Atlantic) does a brilliant thing where they have you connect in Iceland and you can put up to 10 days between your connections to explore Iceland, without changing the prices of the flights much. The timing of my flight was both challenging and incredibly fortuitous at the same time.
Challenging - Without fully realizing the consequences of it, I booked my flight as a Tuesday night red eye out of JFK, mostly because it was the cheapest. Bonnaroo was the weekend before, so therefore my schedule was 5 crazy nights at Bonnaroo, drive 17+ hours from Manchester, TN to Hershey, PA, to Fairport, NY on Monday, get home around 2:30 am and pack for Europe for the next 2 hours before catching a 5:30 train to NYC. After pulling that all nighter, I then had the red eye, so I definitely started my trip on fumes.
Fortuitous - By sheer coincidence, I booked my flight to land in Reykjavik about 15 minutes before 2 friends from the Cornell Buds landed from their red eye from Boston. I found out this was happening a week or so before I left and couldn’t believe the chances.

The red eye was uneventful, but relatively short, so I only managed to catch a few hours of sleep before we landed. I was soon energized, however, when I met up with Garrett and Kadesch by baggage claim and went to go pick up their car from, all of names, SadCar. And sad it was - a beat up old Yaris with a dent in the side and over 270,000 km on it (about 165,000 miles).

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I was supposed to be in Iceland for only 3 nights, while Garrett and Kadesch were doing 6 nights and circling the island along the popular Ring Road. The plan WAS to explore Reykjavik (the capital city) together the first day, then I would tag along with them down the Ring Road the 2nd day, and then I would have to catch a bus or hitch hike back to Reykjavik day 3 while they continued on. Here are some pictures of the capital, but honestly, you go to Iceland for the outdoors, not the cities (more accurately - the 1 city).

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The view from the top of the church shown below
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There was a really beautiful cemetery recommended to us by a local we met in the hostel bar. Very glad they did
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The concert hall, right on the water
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Day 2
After day 1 in Reykjavik, we couldn’t wait to get out and see the much talked about natural wonders of Iceland. The first day on the road was packed with different things along the “Golden Circle” before we hit the coast and truly started the ring road. One of the coolest things about Iceland is that, for such a small country, they have extremely different and unique natural features. The Golden Circle contained all of the things below, and constituted the first 7 or so hours of our trip. This is totally doable in 1 day from Reykjavik and would be the top thing I recommend if you only have a day in Iceland.

Þingvellir is an area where the various tribes of Iceland met annually back in the first couple centuries of Iceland's existence and also happens to be the location where the North American and European tectonic plates meet. This juncture accounts for Iceland's geothermal power and volcanic activity. Pretty cool because you can actually SEE the 2 plates and can walk between them in 15 minutes. In the pictures below, you can see the edge of the N American plate rising up alongside the path.
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Cool waterfall cascading off the rift.

Gullfoss (-foss means waterfall), which made various lists of Top 10 Awe Inspiring Waterfalls (Iceland has 2 on that list)
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Strokkur - a geyser that spouts water 15 m into the air every 10-15 minutes. I wasn't quick enough to get either of the eruptions that we saw on camera, but the area was cool even between eruptions
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Based on the dude's hat, you know he's a baker. But what is he doing? There's special bread in Iceland made from an ancient recipe and cooked in the ground in these geothermal areas. Later on, we bought a loaf (it weighs a ton!)

and finally, Kerith - a large crater.
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If anyone is trying to look up these things, Icelandic has some weird characters like a d with a line thru it that sounds like "th", so they may look a little different online. They also have an awkward p that sounds exactly like the strange d, but the p can't be at the end of a word and the d can't be at the beginning of the word. Strange language, but we had fun picking up phrases as we circled it.

After we finished up these opening impressive attractions, we got on Route 1, the Ring Road that circles the island. We stopped first at Seljalandsfoss, a large waterfall that you can walk totally behind for some cool photo ops.

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"Burst Mode" - one of my favorite things on my new phone's camera :)

Our hostel that night was in Skogar, right next to Skogafoss. Hungry by the time we arrived, we decided to take advantage of Iceland’s unique “Midnight Sun”, getting dinner and doing some relaxing before going out to see the waterfall around midnight. Yes, the pictures below were taken after midnight :)

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Before I went to sleep, I gave into my instincts that had been bugging me all day. Knowing that I was supposed to be turning around after that night and heading back to Reykjavik, I was getting extremely jealous of Garrett and Kadesch circling the country and seeing breath-taking sites for the next 5 days. So, after some quick internet searching (which we had to camp outside a restaurant for), I bought a cheap plane ticket to France on Tuesday, letting me stick with them for the rest of their trip. Hearing this, Kadesh was very excited; Garrett was just tired :)

Day 3
The amazing and highly varied sites continued on Day 3, continuing thru South Iceland. Most of our time these first few days were driving from one amazing sight to another, so I'll continue the photo montage with descriptions. To give you an idea of the weather, it was totally overcast thru all of Southwestern Iceland, which constituted the two and a half days of our journey. Ironic that we never saw the sun since Iceland is known for having 24 hour sun this time of year. Once we moved significantly east, however, the sun came out, much to our great delight.

Dyrholaey were towering cliffs by the sea with lots of birds, a lighthouse, and gorgeous views of the waves crashing down onto the black sand beaches below. There was also some hiking trails that allowed you to walk all the way out to the edge of the rocky outcropping. Oh and of course is the picturesque arch that is featured on a number of Icelandic postcards and the like.

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The Iron Islands?
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A dizzying look down

This was a simple little cave area with a name that I can't find right now, just off the Ring Road. My favorite part of this were the strange hexagonal pillars of rocks that provided for easy and fun climbing. Debate over how the rocks could have formed in this unique way dominated conversation in the car for the next 30 minutes.

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Skaftafell - part of the Vatnajökull national park, this is the most accessible part of Europe's largest glacier, covering over 81,000 km^2. This glacier accompanied us along the Ring Road for 2 incredibly beautiful hours. After getting educated in the visitor’s center and talking to the cute Icelandic girl behind the desk about the available trails, we were excited to stretch our legs on the first true hike of the trip. Heading up the mountain, it took us about 45 minutes to reach the scenic outlook, where we snapped some pictures of the gigantic glacier. To repeat a phrase we all said so many times here, “I have never seen anything like it before.”

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Knowing we would come back to do a little walkiing on the actual glacier, we continued our hike over to _______, another postcard-featured waterfall. I’d love to talk to a geology expert about how these rocks formed in this way.

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I just mailed a postcard to a friend that looked exactly like this
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Another different camera feature on my new phone - this one is just silly :)

Another waterfall on the hike back down:
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It was 7 pm by now, but with plenty of light still available, we headed down the trail to the glacier. After carefully reading the signs warning about the dangers of walking on the glacier, especially without guides or full equipment, we decided we could handle it and started hiking up. We had some fun, but turned back after not too far. Like I always say - I do some dumb things, but always in a fairly smart way.
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The last stop before our hostel that night resulted in my favorite pictures, maybe of the entire trip. Described as a “lagoon”, Jokulsarion is at the base of another one of the glacier’s tongues that extend out between other existing mountains. It was about 9 pm by then and the light was perfect and just made the pictures.

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Since I had spontaneously jumped onto the rest of the trip, I did not have reservations at the hostels along the way like Kadesch and Garrett. Knowing that right around the summer solstice was the busiest tourism time for Iceland, we weren’t sure how many nights I would be sleeping in the car. This appeared to be one of those nights, as the hostel was all booked up. We were all tired, so the other 2 went to bed, but not being in any rush to head to the car, I headed to the common area to start this blog entry.

I did meet some lovely people there that night, but that will have to wait for the next blog entry. I'm currently in Paris and want to go enjoy the lovely weather and surroundings.

Finally, a couple of random pics from a souvenir shop:
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Posted by danza 01:29 Archived in Iceland Tagged waterfalls cliffs nature friends usa glaciers outdoors world_cup car_travel Comments (0)

Helsinki and Estonia

Winter weather along the Baltic

storm 40 °F

Hopefully some of you out there noticed that I had a little hiatus with these blogs for the past month and a half. I have been back in the states for that time. Originally this break was only going to be for a week so I could be in my friend Brad’s wedding (which was awesome), but various circumstances convinced me to extend that break for about a month. While I was thinking this would be a relaxing “funemployment” month, I made sure to stay busy. 2 weeks in San Francisco to scout out future living options when I move there in a few months + Bay2Breakers and other mayhem. Back in NY, I helped my family pack up and move out of our home of 25 years into a new home, and managed to visit Chudy in Buffalo, go to my 5-year Cornell reunion and the music festival Bonnaroo!!! down in Manchester, TN. All of these things were totally incredible, seeming to get better and more ridiculous which each successive event.

Now that I’m heading back to Europe (I’m sitting in JFK right now), I realized that in all the excitement, I never posted my last blog entry from Finland and Estonia! Here is the last of the 1st half of my journey:

This first leg of my European travels concluded with a couple countries that seem to be largely forgotten to many travelers of Europe - Finland and Estonia. While the other Scandinavian countries seem to be common tourist destinations, Norway with its incredible fjords and natural wonders, Sweden and Denmark with their capital cities ever rising on the tourist destination lists, Finland seems to be the ugly stepchild. While the stepchild part may be accurate (they are physically and genetically different than the other Scandinavian citizens), the ugly part definitely is not.

This status of “forgotten tourist destination” plays out heavily in the feel of the city. Helsinki was probably THE LEAST touristy city that I’ve been to thus far, and was accordingly the least tourist-friendly. That doesn’t mean that they’re not friendly to tourists, but, for example, very few things are translated and displayed in English and this was one of the only cities I visited without a free walking tour. Strangely enough, everything in Helsinki is displayed in 2 languages, but those 2 languages are Finnish and Swedish - 2 very different languages. Because Sweden controlled Finland for much of their history, there is a large amount of Swedish influence apparent and there are parts of Finland that actually speak Swedish as their primary language.

After staying exclusively in hostels for the previous few cities, I was excited to be sleeping on the couch of a Fairport friend - AJ Marini - who has been living in Helsinki for more than 3 years and is about to Finnish up (haha) with a masters degree in Old Music with the violin. Education is totally free in Finland even for foreign citizens, which I found amazing. Staying with someone who knows the area is always a different and great experience.

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AJ rockin out on the violin

My trip actually coincided (not coincidentally) with one of the largest Finnish holidays - Vaapu. Though Vappu is technically on the 1st of May, the big celebration of Vaapu is on April 30th, when university students and others flood the streets of downtown Helsinki. The usually strict enforcement of “No Open Containers” is ignored on Vaapu and thousands of people stroll around passing beers, ciders, and bottles of champagne between each other. Vaapu also happens to line up with the end of the year at universities, so it is co-opted by university students as a joint holiday. Bizarrely, the vast majority of current and former students attend the Vaapu in a pair of overalls, a different color for each university in the area. The main evet for the pre-Vaapu festivities was the “capping” of a statue in the central square area. A lucky group of students first clean the statue and then put a graduation cap on it.

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The Finnish grad cap, which you can see on the statue's head in the last photo, resembles a sailor’s hat and seems a lot better than our square-topped caps

After witnessing the capping along with a couple thousand other people, we wandered over to the square in front of the main Lutheran church, Helsinki Cathedral, which was packed with another couple thousand people.

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The night continued with us bouncing between groups of AJ’s friends in the streets, then at a couple restaurants and bars where I learned a good deal about Finnish culture from some born and bred Fins. Finland, for example, gives more money, per capita, to music and the arts than any other country in the world. They also lead the world in # of new, original operas written in the past 10 years, which is impressive considering its small size and smaller population. All of this makes it a great place for a musician to find work and make a living.

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AJ and I with some of his friends

We went out to a party at AJ’s friends’ place that night, and partied til the early morning. The actual holiday of Vaapu is traditionally celebrated by going to a particular city park in Helsinki, right on the water, and picniccing there with friends. That seemed like an awesome way to celebrate a holiday, however it was Finland and only the beginning of May, so the weather forecast was for cold temperatures and freezing rain all day. With the usual holiday plans ruined and most businesses closed for the holiday, we knew there wouldn’t be much to do on Vaapu, so we just decided to stay up as late as we could on Vaapu eve and sleep as late as we could the next day. Mission accomplished - we didn’t wake up until almost 3 pm the next day, which I haven’t done in a long time.

The big thing that I had to do in Finland was do some SAW-UNA. It’s not "go to the sauna" there, it is “let’s go DO sauna”. This is a large part of Finnish culture dating back hundreds of years. There’s an old Finnish saying: “when building a house, first build the sauna, then build the house.” The spiritual center of the home, saunas were always the cleanest, healthiest area of the home, so it served as the site for everything from relaxation and meditation to childbirth. There is a specific protocol for sauna, so I was glad to have AJ show me how it is done. I liked it so much that I went back later in the week.

Photos from around Helsinki:
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This is the Finnish Parliament building
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I can't remember what this building is.
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This is the "Church of the Rock" - blasted out from true, natural bedrock
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The Russian Orthodox Church
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This is one of the few monuments in Helsinki. I honestly can't remember what it is a monument to, but I know that it was designed by a school teacher who won the design contest for it.
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This was a random greenhouse that I stumbled upon. It looked nice and free, so I checked it out. The thing that I love about the random attractions you stumble onto is that they are often VERY random and interesting. This one had a girl doing some sort of rope acrobatics in the back above some plants:
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A few days before I went to Finland, I got a message from Anosh Shah. He is a friend that I had pledged DKE with back in the day, but we had fallen out of touch and I don’t think that I had talked with him since I graduated Cornell 4 years ago. That being said, I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw that I had a message from Anosh. He had seen me traveling around Europe, and was currently living in London. Armed with a holiday on the following Monday, he was looking to get out of England for the weekend and, knowing that I had been traveling around Europe, wanted to know where I’d be. Sometimes, you gotta love FaceBook.

Anosh joined me for my last full day in Finland, and we checked out Suomenlinna - the old sea fortress a mile off the coast of Helsinki. Pretty cool place with a tasty brewery:
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Much of the island reminded me pleasantly of the Shire :)
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One thing that made Suomenlinna so great when it was built was this dry dock. The first of its kind, workers could build or repair ships in this dock, and then they would pump water in using a windmill-driven pump and float the ship out.

AJ and his girlfriend Liis then treated us to a wonderful home-cooked dinner of mashed potatoes and reindeer! Most of the traditional Finnish food is of the ‘meat and potatoes’ variety, plus a good selection of fish mixed in there. It was absolutely delicious (I still need to know what she did to those mashed potatoes. My hunch is A LOT OF BUTTER :)). Fun side story: I had decided and confirmed with AJ that it would be a good idea for us to bring a bottle of wine with us for the meal. After we got off the tram near his place, Anosh and I started looking around for a place to buy said bottle of wine. After finding a place that was closed, we asked a woman walking by to help us find an open store. She informed us that there was absolutely no place to buy wine on Sunday (not true for beer). Persuaded by the disappointed looks on our faces, she offered to sell us a bottle of wine from her apartment! 10 euros got us a bottle of (Californian) Pinot Noir, and we were off to AJ’s! It took him a few minutes, but eventually he asked, “Wait a second - where did you guys get this bottle today” hahaha

Tallin, Estonia:
I thought that I should start out with some quick oreintation-type facts about Estonia, since most people don’t seem to have ever heard of it. To be totally honest, I don’t think I had heard about Estonia until my well-traveled cousin, Holly, told me that if I was going to Finland, I should definitely stop over across the water. Anyways, Estonia is the northern-most of the “Baltic” countries located in eastern Europe. It is right next to Russia and is a short ferry ride from Finland (Google Maps). Being so close to Russia, you would be correct in assuming that it was part of the USSR before the fall of Communism. And boy are they glad to be free and independent.

On the walking tour, we were actually informed that in 2014 they are celebrating the longest period of independence (20-some odd years) in 200+ years. It was the Germans before the Russians, and the Russians again before the Germans. The Occupation Museum explained how the Germans were, at first, welcomed during WWII because the Estonians thought that they couldn’t be any worse than the Russians. When the Germans were expelled, Estonia had a couple day period in which they tried to appeal to the international community as an independent state, but the Allies were too busy negotiating for peace in Europe to stop the Russians from taking back what had been theirs.

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Old Soviet statues in the museum

While I am anxious to tell you about what a lovely, medieval city Tallin is, I feel like I can’t leave this topic and brief history of Estonia without mentioning the Singing Revolution, when Estonia peacefully won their independence from Russia in 1991. You can get the full details in the wiki article, but imagine an actual revolution and independence won with nightly vigils of joyful singing. Very inspiring stuff. With Estonia entering its 20s, it is slowly becoming somewhat of a tourist destination. Though still forgotten about by most travelers, Tallinn is a beautiful and unique town with lots of attractions for tourists. Tallinn itself was an old medieval city that has survived largely intact to this day. Of the large stone wall that once completely encircled the city, about 20% of it is left along with a handful of buildings and alleys from as far back as the 14th century.

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The town square, right next to...
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The town hall!
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The Russian Orthodox Church built during the latest occupation. It is a wonderful piece of architecture and a major tourist attraction, which doesn't make many Estonians happy as they would rather divorce completely from Russia and its influence.
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The old city wall
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One of about a dozen towers still standing along the wall, this was known as "Big Bertha"

Just some good shots around Tallinn:
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In the ancient town hall, there was a little restaurant that served soup and biscuits in a very medieval setting
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You didn't get any silverware, just a bowl of yummy soup :)
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While there, Anosh and I went to the Occupation Museum and I was hoping to go to the KGB museum, but got sick and didn’t make it. Interestingly enough the KGB museum is located in what used to be the actual KGB headquarters on the top floor of a hotel. Actually that was the only hotel that an foreigners could stay in when visiting Tallinn, so the headquarters were well situated to listen in on the guests. They also have beautiful locally-made souveniers that are packed with some of the country’s finest natural resources, including amber, cedar wood, and lots of wool.

Though it was a brief stay, Anosh and I made the most of it, going out and enjoying beer prices that were about half of what it was in Finland. There were plenty of interesting bars to check out, including some with great beer selections from across the world, but definitely the most fun was The Lab. Adorned with enough high school chemistry equipment to make Walter White blush, The Lab was decorated in all sorts of neon/blacklight paints and served drinks in test tubes and Erlenmeyer flasks. Better than that, they also had a number of flaming shots, which excited Anosh and I immensely at that point. After each flaming drink, we would go back up to the bartender and ask him to make us his next-most ridiculous flaming drink!

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Drink #2 -
Step 1 - Light alcohol on fire
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Step 2 - Pour the flaming liquor into a tray
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Step 3 - place the glass in the middle of the flaming liquid
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Step 4 - Let physics do its thing!
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Just a damn darn ridiculous flaming tour of glasses
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The next morning was rough on all of us, but more than anything due to the fact that it snowed! In May! I know that it happened in a handful of places in the US after I got back, but that won’t stop me from complaining. After only a day and a half (wish it could have been more), I ferried back to Helsinki and flew to Oakland, CA a day later. And thus the first leg of my big quarter-life crisis was concluded. Hope you enjoyed!

Posted by danza 16:46 Archived in Finland Tagged architecture helsinki singing_revolution vappu anosh flaming_shots Comments (0)

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