Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Eurotrip 2018 - Day 7 (8/11/2018) - More Bruges, then home

For the second straight morning Fran worked out while I continued sleeping.  After freshening up we had breakfast at the hotel (we lucked out with a good hotel breakfast for the third time) and then check out right at the latest time of 11am.  We once again left our big bags in the luggage room and went on a walkabout.  This time we headed clockwise along the outer canal, past Ezelpoort, and then turned back down Vlamingdam St toward the city center.  At Fran's insistence we stopped at a canal bridge to play Pooh Stick, but when she went to pluck some twigs for the game she accidentally dropped her water bottle into the canal!  Things didn't get better for her, as I ended up winning the game despite having to drop twice.  We then found Chocolatier Dumon so that Fran could get gifts for her family and friends.

We made it back to the hotel before 2pm, collected our luggage, and then walked to the train station to catch the 2:31 to Brussels Airport.  The ride took about 1.5 hours, putting us there over 2 hours early for our 6:20pm flight to Keflavík.  We were initially seated in consecutive rows for the first flight when we checked in, but we were switched to the exit row again when we requested to be seated together while dropping off our bags.  With immigration and customs, we didn't really have any downtime during our hour and 25 minute layover in Iceland before boarding the 9:10pm flight to JFK.  The second flight arrived in NYC a little early - around 11pm.  After going through immigration and customs, we picked up our luggage and then said goodbye at the AirTrain.


Pictures: https://photos.app.goo.gl/bf8ATN4xQRNDSGCu6

Eurotrip 2018 - Day 6 (8/10/2018) - To Bruges

I don't work out while on vacation, but I've traveled with a few people who do.  Fran is one of them.  She went to work out @ 7:25am while I continued sleeping, and woke me up @ 8:15am.  After a shower and breakfast at the hotel (which once again provided a good selection), we walked to Brussels-Central to catch the 10:19 train to Bruges.  The train ride took somewhere around 70 minutes, and the train was pretty full with day-trippers.

After arriving in Bruges we walked from the train station to the Academie Hotel.  Our streak of luck ran out, as our room was not yet ready at the time of check-in.  We left our bags in the luggage room and then headed out to explore the city.  Our destination was Belfry of Bruges / Belfort van Brugge, but on the way we stopped at Church of Our Lady and Sint-Salvatorskathedraal.  There was a decently long line at the Belfry, but we opted to wait in it as we figured that we could make it to the top and then back to the hotel by 2:30pm to check on our 7pm hot air balloon ride.  Rain began to fall while we were in line, but thankfully passed by the time we made it up the 366 steps and back down.  We got a €2 discount each on our entry fee (€10 vs €12), as a thrifty group of 8 Spaniards in front of us recruited us and another group of 5 behind us in order to get the group rate for parties of 15 or more.  We were also treated to an extended ringing of the bells while we were up at the top.

We made it back to the hotel right around 2:30pm, and Fran called to check on the hot air balloon ride (we needed to specify where to be picked up if it was still on).  Unfortunately, the ride was cancelled due to the weather.  We found out later that night that the back-up ride for early the next morning was also cancelled.  Fran took the news kinda hard, but I tried to show appreciation for the effort that she put into arranging the surprise.

We left the hotel again at 3:15pm, this time heading south.  We picked up some frites for me and a roll for Fran, and ate our snacks by Minnewater Lake.  We meandered northeast along the outer canal all the way to Gentpoort and then Kruispoort (and the adjacent Bonne Chieremolen windmill).  We then turned back in toward the town center.  After a wrong turn (directed by Fran's gut), we righted ourselves and stumbled upon an impressive whale-shaped art installation called Skyscraper (the Bruges Whale).

We made a brief stop at a drug store, and then headed for the Markt.  At this point it began to rain lightly again.  We made it to Markt and then continued on to Burg Square before heading back toward the hotel to find dinner.  We settled on an Italian restaurant where I had the spinach and ricotta tortellini while Fran had the penne with a vegetable sauce.  We then headed back to the hotel around 8:30pm and called it a day (besides making the unfortunate phone call at 10:15pm).


Pictures: https://photos.app.goo.gl/bf8ATN4xQRNDSGCu6

Monday, August 20, 2018

Eurotrip 2018 - Day 5 (8/9/2018) - More Brussels

We overslept this morning, missing the hotel breakfast which ended as we woke up at 10am.  After getting dressed, we instead found an Express convenience store to buy some yogurt and bananas.  I also picked up a waffle from Maison Dandoy, which appeared to have been a popular place for waffles the evening before; at €7, their waffles were more expensive and fancier than what you could get at the numerous other places that charged the (apparent) standard 2 Euro for a plain waffle (though a typical waffle at those places was somewhere around €5 after adding toppings).

It began to rain as we finished our breakfast in Grand Place.  The temperature was in the 60s (F) all day, getting cooler as the day wore on.  For an indoors activity, we headed to the Royal Palace and did the free walk through.  The rain had subsided by the time we were done there, so we attempted to walk to Parc du Cinquantenaire, but instead headed the wrong way up Rue Royale.  We realized our error after a while, retraced our steps, and then headed east on Rue de la Loi to the park.  After some indecision, we tried to check out the Art & History Museum, but it was closing right when we walked up to the doors at 4pm.  Instead, we took the Metro to Botanique (via the 5 to Arts-Loi, then switching to the 6) to try to check out the Botanical Garden.  However, that turned out to be closed as well; I'm not sure if it was due to the storms earlier that day (as a sign indicated) or if we were just later than their opening hours.

From there we walked back to the city center, with a detour through a street festival that we stumbled across.  We picked up some frites at Café Georgette, just about a stone's throw from our hotel; we sampled the curry ketchup and samurai sauces, with the curry ketchup easily being the more tasty of the two.  We then headed over to the Prince's Gallery to look through a prominent bookstore there, and then picked up a couple more waffles at one of the stores by the Manneken-Pis; I got a regular/Liege waffle with Nutella and ice cream, while Fran got a Brussels waffle (which she kept calling a Belgian waffle, much to the delight of a couple of the clerks) with dark chocolate and strawberries.  We took the waffles back to our favorite spot in Grand Place to eat them before stopping by Express for bottled refreshments on the way back to the hotel, where we arrived around 7:15pm.


Pictures: https://photos.app.goo.gl/bf8ATN4xQRNDSGCu6

Eurotrip 2018 - Day 4 (8/8/2018) - To Brussels

At the time that I booked travel for the trip, there were only two direct flights available between Iceland and Belgium.  Both left in the morning, but one was significantly cheaper than the other.  That is how we ended up with a 6:15am flight from Keflavík to Brussels.

We set an alarm for 3:15am, intending to depart by 3:45am.  After leaving 10 minutes later than planned, stopping to top up the gas tank, then return the car to Avis, we were cutting it a little close on time.  But we got to the airport before 5am, and went through the automated check-in and self-bag-tag without too much hassle.  We even had time to pick up some additional breakfast snacks before getting on the plane.  Although I was tired, I didn't really get any sleep on the ~3.5 hour flight.

We arrived in Brussels around 11:30am.  We took the train from the airport to the Brussels-Central station (which was an easy process that should be the model for all cities), and then wandered about to find our hotel (the Hotel Floris Arlequin Grand Place) in the middle of town.  We once again lucked out in having our room ready early, so we were able to stow our gear and rest for a few minutes.  After mustering some energy we walked out to Grand Place and happened upon a free walking tour that was starting within 25 minutes.  The temperature was in the low 70s (F), so it was quite comfortable all day; our time in Belgium coincided with unseasonably cool weather.

The walking tour was put on by Bravo Discovery.  It started at 2:30pm and lasted somewhere between 2 and 2.5 hours.  Fran thought that it was a good tour, and I thought that it was pretty solid as well.  The guide walked us around the Grand Place while explaining the history of some of the buildings, then took us through the Royal Galleries and over to, and into, St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral.  We then walked through Brussels Park, by the Royal Palace, and ended the tour at the steps overlooking Mont des Arts.

After the tour we walked to Rue des Bouchers in search of dinner.  We settled on a Lebanese/Pakistani restaurant called Le Prince.  I had their felafel sandwich platter with rice, which was pretty good; Fran had the felafel sandwich and an order of hummus.  After dinner we headed back to the Queen's Gallery so that Fran could buy some pralines at Neuhaus.  We ate some of them while people-watching in Grand Place, then wandered about some more.  We stumbled upon both Jeanneke-Pis and Manneken Pis, and wandered into an area in the southwest part of town called Stalingrad.  There we stumbled upon a street carnival, and couldn't resist a ride in the Ferris Wheel.

After leaving the carnival we walked back to Grand Place and stopped at at cafe for a (non-alcoholic) drink before heading back to the hotel.


Pictures: https://photos.app.goo.gl/bf8ATN4xQRNDSGCu6

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Eurotrip 2018 - Day 3 (8/7/2018) - Snæfellsnes Penninsula

The plan for the day was basically to drive counterclockwise around the Snæfellsnes Penninsula while stopping at various landmarks that Fran had picked out.  We would then spend the night at Reykjavik Lights Hotel (where we had stayed the previous night) again.  It was windy and cold (in the 50s (F)) all day, with a bit of light rain in the morning but only cloudy the remainder of the day.  We left the guest house around 10am then swung by Stykkishólmskirkja church before stopping at a bakery for breakfast on the way out of town.

We headed west along Route 54, then continued on 574, looping back to 54 on the south side of the peninsula.  Along the way we stopped at (or drove through)...
  • Kirkjufell / Kirkjufellsfoss - a picturesque mountain next to a tourist-friendly waterfall
  • Þjóðgarðurinn Snæfellsjökull - Snæfellsjökull National Park
  • Saxhólar Crater - a crater with some steel steps installed to guide you to the top; Fran drove for the segment to get us there
  • Djúpalónssandur beach - a black pebble beach with some great rocky views
  • Londrangar - a coastal rock formation with two large basalt towers; we took a long walk between the adjacent parking lots here
  • Ytri Tunga - a beach where a colony of seals resides
  • Gerðuberg Cliffs - cliffs composed of basalt columns

After all that we continued south along Route 54 toward Route 1, which we took through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel (which required a 1000 ISK toll (about 10 USD)) to Reykjavík.  There was also a stop for gas somewhere in there.  We made our way to the hotel (without using GPS this time) around 7:45pm.  After some indecisiveness, we had dinner at the pizza place next door to the hotel called Eldsmiðjan - it was not very good.  We then returned to the room to prepare for a very early morning the following day.


Pictures: https://photos.app.goo.gl/bf8ATN4xQRNDSGCu6

Eurotrip 2018 - Day 2 (8/6/2018) - Glymur, then Stykkishólmur

Our general plan for the next couple of days was to drive up and loop around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  Fran kindly did all the research and planning for this, and had picked out a few sights to stop by.  We had booked a guesthouse in Stykkishólmur, but had not settled on a specific route or itinerary.  During breakfast at the hotel (which was quite a nice spread), we made an impromptu decision to go see Glymur, the second tallest waterfall in the country.  Fran had previously indicated an interest in this waterfall, but we weren't sure if it would be on the way, and how conveniently it would fit in with the rest of our plans.  A little research revealed that it wouldn't require too big a detour, and that the hike to get to it was a doable 3 hour round trip.

We took off in the car a bit after 10:30 and made it to the trailhead parking (with help from the GPS nav) by noon.  We didn't initially plan to hike to the peak, as the information sign indicated that it would take about 3 hours to do so.  However, we made good time and reached the top after only about 90 minutes.  Getting there required a stream crossing, which I was very apprehensive about.  However, with Fran's guidance we ditched the traditional crossing point, which had a guide rope, and forged our own crossing path a bit upstream.  It was a fearful but fun experience, especially since I can't swim.  The water wasn't terribly deep (maybe knee high at the deepest point that we crossed), but the flow was decently strong and the depth wasn't apparent until the actual act of crossing.  Fran was very helpful in leading the way and making sure that I was OK, though I continuously (and still) joked that she was trying to kill me.  I should also note that she is a much stronger hiker than I am - her legs and lungs just won't quit.

Besides the stream crossing, most of the hike wasn't too difficult, though there were a couple of tiring segments and a couple more steep portions where the fixed guide rope was almost certainly required.  We made it to the top, admiring the beautiful views the whole way.  Near the top Fran noticed that most people were crossing the stream again upstream of the waterfall and going back down the other side.  So we did the same.  The water flow was much weaker for this crossing, but the flat rocks that we initially tried to cross over were very slippery.  After I nearly wiped out, Fran helpfully led the way through a new route that took us into deeper water (again, only about knee high) but with much surer footing.

On the other side we stopped to lunch on some cheese sandwiches that Fran and prepared at the hotel breakfast, in addition to the copious other snacks that she had brought on the trip.  The temperature hovered around 60 degrees Fahrenheit during the hike, but the wind really picked up at the top so it felt much cooler.  The hike down was easier with a more gradual incline, though the fierce wind made a couple of stretches nontrivial.  We made it back to the car around 3pm, doing the round trip in about 3 hours (including lunch).

We hopped back on Route 47 and took that to Route 1, which we then took north to Route 60.  The plan was to take Route 54 toward Stykkishólmur, but the GPS navigation kept directing us back south and counterclockwise around the peninsula.  So we abandoned the car navigation.  We later realized that a portion of Route 54 on the north side of the peninsula was a gravel road, and that the car navigation probably didn't route over that road.  In any case, we were confident in Fran's printed map and my downloaded Google Map, and took that road west.  Fran took the wheel for most of this portion of the journey.  This was actually the fastest that she had driven (~90 kmph at the fastest), as she had only driven on local streets while learning and getting her drivers license in NYC.  She was initially quite apprehensive, but grew more comfortable as she went along.

She turned north on Stykkishólmsvegur, and took us to Helgafell, a privately owned hill that is called a holy mountain.  Climbing the hill costs a little money, and you're supposed to climb up in silence without looking back in order to have 3 wishes granted; which we did.  It was extremely windy at the top, where we looked around for a bit before heading back down.  We didn't have far to go from there to Stykkishólmur, where we eventually found Hótel Egilsen, which is where we had to check in for our guest house, Bænir og Brauð.

It turned cold that "evening" (I use the quotes because it didn't really get dark until around midnight, though sunset was technically between 10 and 11pm; sunrise was technically around 4am, though it was light out before that); I'm not sure what the temperature was, but it was cold and windy enough that I definitely didn't want to be outside at all anymore, even with a jacket on.  We still had to find dinner somewhere, and walked to a nearby restaurant called Narfeyrarstofa around 9pm.  The wait was a little long (I guess for a small town Stykkishólmur gets quite a few tourists coming through), but the veggie burger was surprisingly good.  After dinner it was back to the guesthouse to turn in.


Pictures: https://photos.app.goo.gl/bf8ATN4xQRNDSGCu6

Eurotrip 2018 - Day 1 (8/5/2018) - To Reykjavík

The trip really began the night of August 4, when Fran and I met at JFK airport.  Our WOW Air flight to Reykjavík (actually, the international airport is technically in Keflavík) departed at 12:40am the morning of August 5.  We arrived with plenty of time to spare (she arrived earlier because she took a cab because weekend subway work disrupted her planned route to the airport), and checked in together.  Our initial automated check-in had us sitting separately, so we went to the desk to request seats together.  The agent was able to place us together in an exit row, which meant tons of leg room (though my "window" seat didn't have a window).  She also informed us that our tickets included a checked bag, which I had spaced out on having requested - I thought I had only paid for a carry-on, and not a checked bag.  Needless to say, it was convenient not having to lug my big backpack and her suitcase around for any of the flights on the trip.

The flight took about 6 hours, arriving in Keflavík around 11am.  I got a tiny bit of sleep on the plane, but Fran didn't get any at all.  During the flight she surprised me with the announcement that she had arranged a hot air balloon ride for us for Friday evening in Bruges.

When we went to pick up our car rental, the agent informed us that they didn't have any cars in the class that I had paid for (economy), so they upgraded us at no extra charge to a Renault Clio.  It was still a small car, but included a GPS navigation system and Bluetooth audio - both handy additions.  We found our car in the lot and then drove about 45 minutes (guided by GPS nav) to the Reykjavík Lights Hotel.  Our room was ready when we checked in (even though we were a couple of hours early), so we were able to settle in for a bit.

After 15 minutes or so, we headed out on foot to go explore the city.  Our hotel was about a mile outside the city center.  We walked north to the water, and then headed west along the coast into the center of the city.  The weather was pleasant, with temperatures in the mid 60s (F); I didn't need a jacket, and was even a little warm some of the time when the sun was out.

Our first real stop (though there were a couple other brief detours along the way) was Harpa, a stunning building that housed a concert hall and conference center.  We didn't do anything in particular there besides wander around the building in admiration.  After that, we walked to the nearby Arnarhóll hill, where we killed a bit of time and played a few friendly games.  We then walked down Hverfisgata, which appears to be the main strip in town, and found Brauð & Co., a bakery that Fran had enjoyed when she was last in Reykjavík.  We bought a couple of treats and then headed to the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral, where we were able to look in for a bit before being kicked out for a concert.  We enjoyed a cinnamon roll from the bakery outside the church, then decided to head back to a vegan restaurant called Gló for dinner.  I had some sort of BBQ bowl there - it was pretty solid.  After dinner we walked back to the hotel, where we immediately crashed around 7pm.  We both woke up for a couple of hours around 1am, but then fell back asleep until around 7am.


Pictures: https://photos.app.goo.gl/bf8ATN4xQRNDSGCu6