How To Ferry + Train from Dublin to London

Flights right before New Year’s Eve were drastically expensive going from Dublin to London. Instead, we looked into alternative routes since it seemed like that would be a common route for locals and tourists to take. After a short bit of Google research, we found a Sail + Rail option, combining a ferry ride from Dublin to Holyhead across the Irish Sea and a train from Holyhead into central London. I would say it’s usually a better deal to fly (Ryanair fares can be as low as 15 EUR one way), but in our case, flight prices hovered around 150 EUR to 175 EUR per person which made flying very unattractive.

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There are two companies who do this route: Irish Ferries and Stena Line. We booked our Sail + Rail package with Irish Ferries for the Ulysses ferry, a large cruise-like vessel that performs well in most weather conditions. There are smaller, faster ferries that may often get cancelled due to poor weather on the sea, and we definitely did not want to run into the risk of getting our transport cancelled.

When we booked it online, we had paid $88 for two people for the Sail + Rail package. I had emailed to confirm that our tickets included both the ferry and train segments and received that confirmation. However, in the morning when we arrived to the Irish Ferries port, we were told that our tickets did not include the train segment. It was quite an inconvenience, especially since we’d gone through the hassle of confirming what was in the amount we had paid. It appeared to have been some kind of system glitch, as we weren’t the only ones in line with the same problem. It was an additional $20 for the train segment. (At time of writing, it seems as if they’ve changed the ticket booking interface online which now reflects the lowest fare as 46 GBP, which is in line with what we ended up paying)

The rest of the journey was pretty much fine. The Ulysses is a very large vessel, handling about 2,000 passengers and 1,300 cars. Children sail free, so there was an exceptional amount of sick children running amok all throughout the ship. We grabbed a seat in the cafe area so we could have brunch.

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Once we arrived in Holyhead, we had a 30 minute wait for the train into London Euston. Apparently the train before ours had been cancelled, so there were 2 full trains’ worth of passengers waiting for the next train (our train) that was only had half as many carriages. It was very crowded – a lot of passengers ended up standing. A few rows ahead of us, an African family and an Irish man got into a really loud argument over seats and at one point, I think it got physical.

The train ride took 4 hours – we had finally arrived in London Euston station and headed towards the Underground/Tube for local transport. It had been a long 8-hour journey time, but not a terrible way to travel. We got to enjoy a relatively calm Irish Sea and the English countryside on our way into the city!

To Book:

Irish Ferries

Search for the Sail + Rail option – it runs in both directions between Ireland and England.

A Pint-sized Time in Dublin

When we arrived in Dublin on the day after Christmas, we discovered it to be Steven’s Day, Ireland’s version of Black Friday. The walk to our apartment from the bus drop off took us through the main shopping street and it was crazy hectic! Dublin hadn’t been on our immediate radar for Europe, but we had to get out of the Schengen Area for a few days as to not over run our 90-day visa and it was the cheapest destination from Reykjavik. There’s a stereotype that the Irish drink all the time; the stereotype exists because it’s true. Drinking, especially drinking Guinness, is a heavy part of the culture here. We only booked 4 days in Ireland, but at the end of our stay, I wish we could have stayed a bit longer to get out of the city and towards Galway/Cliffs of Moher and enjoy the Irish countryside, largely due to the fact that I was missing the nature and peacefulness of Iceland.

The crazy shopping frenzy ended up lasting a few days after Steven’s Day. I realize we hadn’t been in an “English” speaking country in a really long time, and along with it, the trend of consumerism that gives rise to events like Black Friday. It’s something that we take for granted as “normal” back in America, but having been away for so long and then coming face to face with it in Dublin definitely made me realize that the constant shopping culture isn’t the norm everywhere in the world. We ended up going on a Sandeman’s walking tour around the city that took us through sites such as Dublin Castle, filming locations for PS I Love You, and Temple Bar.

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Dublin Castle
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Along with loads of history about the Castle and some pop culture about U2, I found the most interesting bit to be about the harp. If you look closely at Ryanair and Guinness, you’ll see both have a harp in their logos. The harp is considered to be a national emblem of Ireland

 

We also had the chance to meet up with some friends from New Zealand who were traveling through, heading to a local Irish music pub and some real quality fish and chips afterwards at Leo Burdock. I found the bridges that weaved back and forth over the River Liffey to be especially charming.

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Every big tech company has an “HQ” in Dublin primarily for tax reasons so some neighborhoods feel a bit like Silicon Valley. We walked past the offices of  Google, Facebook, and Airbnb, all in pretty close proximity to each other. The people that we interacted with were all friendly and very funny.

If you find yourself in Dublin, there’s a slew of tourist attractions ranging from historical museums to green parks to intense shopping. Definitely head to an Irish pub (but not in the overly popular and highly priced Temple Bar) for some local jams and a Guinness!

 

I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas in Reykjavik

We chose to stay in Reykjavik for the Christmas holiday because flights before the 24th were insanely expensive. On our first day back in the city, while waiting to check in to our Airbnb, we visited another swimming pool. Reykjavik pools are priced a bit higher at 900 Kr pp, but there was a good variety of pools at this location. The place was packed full of children, however; it seemed like they were on a school trip.

After 8 nights of sleeping in a vehicle, we finally got a peek inside an Icelandic house. The first place we stayed at was quite a large home, with guests occupying the first floor apartment. According to the history of the place, the first floor had been a dentist office while the dentist and his family lived upstairs. High solar activity was still going on, so we attempted to get a glimpse of them while still in the city, standing on the sidewalks in the snow and looking up towards the sky. These houses look a little bare on the outside, but they’re very cozy and warm on the inside, thanks to radiators and heated floors.

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Our second place was a room in a shared house in a neighborhood close to the downtown shopping street. It was right next to a Bonus grocery store, so we were able to stock up and buy ingredients for a mini Christmas meal. This house really reminded us of our home back in CA – there was a communal kitchen and dining area, and we were able to met a lot of great people in our short stay, including two sisters from New Jersey and a couple from Toronto. According to the aurora trackers, Christmas Eve had the last day of solar activity at levels that were high enough for a potential viewing. Even though chances of viewing were moderate, we opted to tag along with sisters Sarah and Rebecca on their drive towards a darker part of the city. It was absolutely freezing while we hopped between standing outside to sitting inside the car, just waiting and hoping to see the lights, if only for a second. Seeing the lights with our naked eyes was very difficult, but then we spotted a faint patch of light in an area that shouldn’t have any light. Could this be it? My camera and phone were useless, but we managed to capture some photos with Rebecca’s camera that showed us some small green streaks of aurora. It would have been nicer if the lights were thicker, brighter, and more visible to the human eye. But we can say that we’ve seen them in person! It was quite a green Christmas treat 🙂

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Northern Lights!

During the rest of our days, we spent time walking around downtown Reykjavik. Some stores were giving away free cups of soup and hot chocolate as part of the Christmas season. Adults were shopping and kids were having fun in the skating rink.

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As we got onto a 3AM shuttle bus to KEF airport, I was already missing the coziness of Icelandic life. I would love to come back here during the summer to see the country from a different perspective (endless daylight, un-frozen terrain, accessible F-roads through the middle of the country), although summer high season tends to be even more expensive. There’s a lot of wintery holiday spirit that we just don’t find in California. The one major drawback is how expensive groceries are (1 kg of carrots for 500 Kr! Meats at 2600 Kr per kg!) since most things come from the mainland. Despite all that, Iceland definitely has a place on my Top 5 favorite locations of this year.

Iceland Ring Road: Part 3

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Day 6 + 7 + 8 + 9

Day 6:

Like most mornings, we woke up in a parking lot and followed up with a quick breakfast of PB and J sandwiches. It was a short walk from the parking to the Godafoss falls, a short, but massively wide waterfall. When Iceland converted to Christianity around 1000 years ago, the population tossed all symbols and objects of their pagan gods into this waterfall, hence the name Godafoss. From here, it was another beautiful sunrise, with the sky turning yellow, pink, and orange. We spent quite a long time here just soaking in the beauty of all Icelandic nature has to offer.

 

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Godafoss

Continuing on the Ring Road, we stopped in Akyueri town for groceries and to try out those elusive Icelandic hot dogs for lunch. They’re actually everywhere, but we had to stop by 4 gas stations/cafes before we found an Olis that served these. The hot dogs are made of a mix of Icelandic meats. You can get them plain, but I had one with “salat” – potato salad, shrimp salad, and some dried crunchy onions.

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hot dogs!

Day 7:

Since we were a day ahead of schedule as a result of the canceled ice caves, we headed to Snaefellsnes, a far western peninsula and stayed over night in a campsite next to an illuminated boat. The first stop in the morning was a drive through the Snaesfelljokull National Park, home to more caves and cliffs in the ocean. We went in search of these places, but the biting cold kept us from staying outside of the car for too long. At this point, the rains had stopped, to be replaced by hail.

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Snaesfelljokull NP

From the peninsula, we started the long road back towards Reykjavik to Pingfellir National Park to do the Golden Circle on our last full day. On this road, we saw a cluster of fluffy Icelandic horses and just had to stop for some petting and pictures.

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Mid-way, we stopped in Borganes for our last pool experience of the road trip. This was the best facility yet at 650 Kr pp. This place featured six outdoor pools (4 hot pools of varying temperatures, a large cooler pool, and a children’s pool that we found to have the best temperature), a large indoor swimming pool, a sauna room, and a gym. It was here that we had our first experience of bathing in a hot outdoor pool while it snowed all above and around us. It was quite magical.

This night, we parked at the visitor’s center for Alamanngja, the fissure split between the two tectonic plates, in preparation for the following day’s tour around the Golden Circle.

Day 8:

The Golden Circle is usually done as a day trip out from Reykjavik, so this morning we were bombarded with hoards of tourist buses. Gone were the days of peace and quite of enjoying the nature to ourselves. By this time, the rain had left to be replaced by a great amount of snow; as we walked to the fissure, it snowed constantly. Still, I was glad it was snow and not rain; at least there’s a chance to un-stick the snow from your clothes before they get soaked. The point where the tectonic plates diverged was covered by a wooden pathway and some guard rails. The white snow on black rocks made for a great contrast, but after a few photos, we were ready for the car.

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tectonic plate fissure – with crowds of tourists!

Next stop was Efstidalur, a farm to table restaurant and hotel that sold Icelandic ice cream among other things. I was really keen to try proper ice cream from Iceland. It was quite an interesting experience eating my ice cream (lu kek – cinnamon caramel blend) while watching the cows chow down on hay, the very cows from which my ice cream had come from. Along the road from here towards the geysirs, we stopped by the side of the road next to a particularly thick patch of snow for some snow angels, snow balls, and a snow man.

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From there, we headed to the Strokkur Geysir, where we joined the crowds in watching the geyser erupt every 3-5 minutes.

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Strokkur Geysir

Snowing had stopped and resumed after several eruptions, so we headed back to the car for our final destination: Gullfoss Waterfall. Here, we encountered the heaviest snow of the day. Coupled with heavy winds, it was near impossible to walk the path towards the view point, especially with the crowds of people attempting to grasp at the railing for support.

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a barely visible Gullfoss in a snowstorm

We intended to stay over night near or in Reykjavik in an attempt to see some northern lights this night. There was high solar activity, but as the night and the snow raged on, there was no possibility of seeing any lights with this kind of cloud cover. On the drive back to Reykjavik, we encountered a closed section of the 1 (Ring Road), so we had to take a detour up a mountain with heavy rain and some kind of moisture (rain, hail, snow, ice, or all of the above). On a downhill slope, the truck started to lose traction from the ice and lose stability from the wind. For a few seconds, it was kind of terrifying to not have any control over the car. Thankfully, within a minute, we spotted an Olis station and pulled into the parking lot for the night. Using my favorite weather app Windytv, we were able to see that the winds currently were around 36 knots, but would die down to 2-3 knots in the morning. The wind rocked the camper all night and continually blew out the pilot light that ignited the heater and the snow continued all night; it was definitely our coldest night yet.

Day 9:

The next morning, dark clear-ish skies awaited us. Fearing any more traffic conditions, we headed out when the winds were low and ended up at another Olis close to the city. We sat in the booths for heat, eating a light breakfast of jam and toast, using the wifi, and took turns packing up our gear and cleaning up the camper for return. Ansel and Alexis headed off to the airport for their respective flights while we remained behind in Reykjavik for 5 more days.

Our Icelandic road trip adventure came to a close! The weather is unpredictable and fierce, nearly violent at times, but it was a treat to enjoy the winter season and all of the snow that comes with it. The mountains are not entirely unique to Iceland, but the combination of waterfalls, black sand, glaciers, rivers, and canyons create a highly variable environment to ensure that you’ll never be bored. Throw in the complete freedom of a road trip and you’ve got the ideal mix for an Adventurer’s Experience!

Iceland Ring Road: Part 2

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Days 3 + 4 + 5

Day 3:

We woke up at the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon to a bit of light rain and a lot of wind. Breakfast was a repeat of dinner – grilled cheese again. After a bit of debate, we ran to the nearby bridge for a group selfie with the canyon. We got mildly wet, but it was worth it. My waterproof boots were still completely soaked (and would be for the next few days) so I ended up wearing my loafers in the car for most of the day.

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Fjaorargljufur Canyon – view from the bridge near the parking lot

Skaftafell National Park sits on the edge of the largest glacier on the island, Vatnajokull. We stopped by the visitor’s center for a bathroom, some heat, wifi, and information on what we could do. The lady behind the desk pointed to a map and gave us 3 options: hike to Svartifoss waterfall, hike to a glacier, or drive up to a glacier. After a glance at the other people in the center, who were completely soaked and dripping water, we decided to opt for the “drive-to” glacier. After a few minutes, we pulled into the parking lot at the glacier full of other cars. I put my feet back into the soaked boots and could barely get the door open to get out; the winds were probably up to 45mph along with intense rain. It was horrendous! We managed to walk/crawl to the glacier, vibrant blue chunks of ice peeking out of milky brown water.

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part of Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Iceland

My lower body got soaked again (my upper rain jacket was holding up quite well), but this time I was prepared to only wear a single layer: dry pants to change into!

A little further down the road, we stopped by Jokulsarlon. We had booked an ice cave tour here, something we were all looking forward to, but got an email this morning stating that the ice cave tour was cancelled due to heavy rain and flooding. Instead of stopping here for the night, we decided to continue onwards to Hofn, a town on the southeastern coast. We popped out of the car to view the glacier from above, more vibrantly blue glacial ice. Across from the glaciers, there was a large crowd in a parking lot that piqued our interest. Here, we found a black sand beach full of huge chunks of clear glacial ice. They looked like diamonds in the sand (later we discovered this is an actual attraction, called Diamond Beach, named for the way the ice is sprinkled across the sand).

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Diamond Beach

As it had been all day, it was very cold, very wet, and very windy. After 10 minutes of leaving the beach, I realized I couldn’t find one of my loafers. I was horrified that I’d lost one, most likely at the parking lot at the beach. Thankfully we hadn’t gone very far, and when we went back, it was only a few minutes before I spotted my poor black shoe in the black sand.

Following a dinner of pasta, we ended up in Hofn with a stop at a gas station to refill on water, wash dishes, and get gas. At Kuku Campers, we were given a discount card for the Olis chain of gas stations. The gas discount was almost nonexistent, but we received some good discounts on food as well as free coffee.

Day 4:

The following day was a driving day. We woke up in Hofn to great weather, clear skies, and dare I say, a tiny bit of sun! Today, the Ring Road would take us up the east coat of Iceland and amazing views of the country’s landscape. There were so many waterfalls, or rather water trickles compared to the larger falls, that carved into the sides of the mountains. We made many random stops throughout the day to take photos, including a sighting of Icelandic horses, an abandoned barn, and waterfalls that flow up due to the wind.

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Views from the road

After daylight hours, we ended up in Egilsstaðir, a northeastern town, at another local swimming pool (entry 700 KR pp). These facilities were much better – two hot tubs of different temperatures, one ice bath, one cool pool, one warm pool, and a sauna, plus a gym and free Wifi. After 2 hours of soaking in the pools and a few trips to the sauna, we went to prepare dinner in the camper in the parking lot. It was over another hour to our stop for the night at Dettifoss, so we were able to charge and conserve enough energy to keep the heater going on all night, but there was an incessant beep that kept us up anyway.

Day 5:

Morning arrived with an amazing sunrise around 10AM, with blue and pink lights in the clouds that hovered over the waterfall. The parking lot to Dettifoss was a 1km walk. This waterfall is extremely large and powerful that drops off into the canyon below. It was really calming and wonderful to be so close to such beautiful nature. By now, we were in the northern part of the country and the tour buses (and the Chinese tourists!) had thinned out considerably. Selfoss, another beautiful cascade of white water, was a short walk away.

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Selfoss

After the morning waterfalls, we headed towards the Myvatn area, an area in north central Iceland that has a cluster of attractions within a short range of each other.

  • Viti Crater, a vibrant blue lake in the summer that is completely white and frozen in the winter img_4352
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  • Grjótagjá cave, used as a film location for Game of Thrones starring Jon Snow and Yigrette (fans know what this cave is!). Unfortunately, the cave seem quite flooded, and there was no room to walk around inside
  • Hverfjall volcanic crater that, after a hike to the top, provided panoramic views of Lake Myvatn and the surrounding landscape

The main attraction for the day was at Myvatn Nature Baths.

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It is similar to the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, but less crowded, less touristy, and a bit more affordable at 3500 Kr per person (compared to 5000 Kr at the Blue Lagoon, which is also manmade). The baths draw water from hot springs below, so you’ll wade into spots of extremely hot or cold water inside the pools. I LOVED the bath water. There was a main warm pool, a second cooler pool with a better view of the lake, a hot steam room, and a small 41C pool. The minerals and sulfur in the water left my face so so soft, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. We stayed in the pool for 3 hours before finally getting out to make dinner. After dinner, it was about an hour’s drive to our next waterfall – Godafoss.

Icelandic Ring Road: Part 1

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Day 1 + 2 Route

Day 1:

The day was finally here – we were headed to Iceland, the land of fire and ice! Iceland had been one of my top desired travel locations for several years for it’s far-away exoticness. But with the rise of WOW Air entering the domestic US market with super cheap flights to Europe, Iceland has become more accessible than ever.

We flew WOW Air from Paris to Reykjavik. This airline is extremely strict when it comes to the size of your carry on baggage – 1 small carry on plus a personal item. Anything exceeding their “small” dimensions gets an additional fee tacked on. After a short 3-hour flight, we arrived in the Keflavik airport. Stepping outside into the parking lot, we were met with stinging cold winds. We had planned for an 8-day road trip on the Ring Road, which would take us around the entire country, with two of our friends: Ansel from college and Alexis from church. We ended up choosing a camper van from KuKu Campers. We had heard great thing about them through various blogs and reviews, so we were looking forward to checking them out.

A large 2014 Dodge Ram 1500 with a camper in the truck bed arrived to pick Alexis and the two of us at the airport; Ansel had picked up the camper earlier in the day. From there, we headed immediately to Bonus Supermarket, a chain of “discounted” grocery stores in the country. Food is definitely on the expensive side in this country (a McDonalds meal cost $13.5), and even in this discounted store, basic groceries such as produce and meat were very expensive. We were able to pick up enough groceries for 4 people for $89 – primarily composed of pasta, pasta sauce, bread and cheese…

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Transportation + Accommodation for the week

During the winter, Iceland only gets 5 hours of daylight. By the time we had gotten our groceries sorted out, sun had already set. We drove 130km out from the airport to our first stop for the night – Seljalandsfoss, one of the larger waterfalls in the country. Although it was dark by the time we arrived in the parking lot, the waterfall was lit up by lights, it was quite unreal to see a waterfall glowing in the dark at night. There were several tour buses full of Chinese tourists when we arrived. Dinner of a makeshift risotto was served, and by 8PM, we were all quite ready for bed. The camper bed was thin and the heater, seemingly working when we went to bed, had apparently shut off in the middle of the night. No wonder if felt like my sleeping bag was attracting the cold to me!

Day 2:

In the morning, we woke up at Seljalandsfoss to hoards of tourists and buses. We hiked to and behind the waterfall for some views and pictures, attracting a lot of rain and mist.

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The view behind Seljalandsfoss

The next stop was Skogafoss, another famous waterfall in the south of Iceland. The weather had cleared up slightly, allowing a hike to the observation point via stairs and some really great photo opportunities. Iceland is powered heavily by energy from their waterfalls, and every major fall we’ve seen is quite impressive in terms of power.

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Skogafoss behind us

The rest of our day didn’t go so well. There is a plane wreck site, Sólheimasandur, along the route that seems to be a popular “must see” site. The site, while previously allowing tourists to drive directly up to the site, no longer allows cars near it. Instead, the plane is a 4km walk from a parking lot, 8km round trip. The walk to the site was easy, the 4km path is well marked and flat. There were a couple of people already there taking pictures, including one guy who was attempting to get a time lapse without people in it.

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posing inside the plane

I felt a few droplets of rain when we decided to head back. These droplets soon multiplied rapidly and a fierce wind joined them. The 4km walk on the way back to the car was, as a result, quite miserable. My waterproof shoes had been doing well of keeping the water out, but they were no match for the amount of water leaking into the top of the shoe from my drenched pants, which were tucked into the shoe. By the time we were back at the car, there was an inch of water inside my waterproof shoe! And as for waterproof shoes – the waterproofing lies in the shoe’s ability to keep water out, leaving the inside of the shoe barely breathable and therefore slower to dry. In this weather, the Dryohaley Arch was not visible (although the guys braved it to try and see it), and the Reynisfjara beach, a black sand beach with cubed rocks, also had high winds, high rain, and very low visibility.

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Reynisfjara Beach

In the car, I was down to my shorts: both layers of pants were completely wet. We took advantage of the heater coming through the dashboard to attempt to dry my jeans; surprisingly, by the time we reached the next town, Vik, the pants were 90% dry. Yay for cheap polyester Forever 21 jeans!

Icelandic life loves a good swimming pool. Nearly every town has one, denoted by a little sign of a person in water. After the afternoon we had just had, a warm thermal pool sounded amazing. The Vik Swimming Pool (450 Kr pp, roughly 100 Kr to 1 USD) was quite small, with only one heated (and not very hot) outdoor pool for the winter. There was also a sauna, which was perfect. The showers were warm and felt great, not to mention taking advantage of the hair dryer to attempt to dry my wet clothes. After an hour of warming up, taking a shower, and drying off, we were ready for our stop for the night at Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. Grilled cheese made an easy appearance for dinner before settling in for another night’s sleep in the camper. Alas, we woke up several times in the middle of the night when the heater stopped working (again!). At this point, we’re assuming it’s a battery malfunction because a series of beeps accompanied the heater failure.

Bonjour Paris: City of Lights and Romance

Paris is one of those places that could not be missed on a trip to Europe. It is a city of lights, art, romance, culture, and glamour. It’s also one of those places that run the risk of being overhyped. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to be impressed with some of the attractions we saw. We were also lucky to have had a friend from home, Alexis, join us for most of our time here. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we arrived on Day 1 of a 3-day period with super high level of air pollution, causing the city to set driving limits (even vs. odd numbered license plates) and free public transportation. We saved a ton of money on public transport in the first few days.

My favorite aspect of the city is the general uniformity of buildings in Paris. They are known as the Haussmann building – generally 6 or 7 floors tall, cream colored walls, stonework carvings around the windows, balconies on specific floors, and dark roofs with small rooms and intricate windows. These buildings lined wide boulevards, creating a spacious feeling.

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example of a Haussmann building on the left

The Louvre

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Entrance to the Louvre

Boasting the title of the “largest museum in the world”, the Louvre holds an impressive collection of art, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Ticket prices were 17 EUR purchased online. The museum occupies several large buildings that once composed the royal palace. The iconic glass pyramid stands at the entrance to the Louvre, which opens up underground. Pick up a map at the information desk, and off you go on an adventure through history and art. It was very impressive and terrible overwhelming at the same time:

  • Ancient Greek and Roman statues
  • Egyptian antiquities
  • Grand Gallery that hold paintings by famous artists through hundreds of years, including a room that houses the Mona Lisa (behind glass and a railing to prevent people from crowding up against her)
  • Islamic arts
  • Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas
  • Coptic Egypt
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Mona Lisa

We spent nearly an entire day there, from 10:00AM to 4:30PM. By the end of the day, my head wanted to explode from all of the artwork we had seen. Still, I feel like one day is hardly enough to actually take the time to appreciate each piece of art.

The Eiffel Tower

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This is iconic Paris. We went to the tower just after sunset from the Louvre, so we were able to enjoy the tower lit brightly by all the lights. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower in pictures and in Vegas plenty of times, but the real thing is indeed breathtaking, especially when you’re standing so close to it. The base of the Eiffel Tower is gated and guarded, requiring everyone to go through a security checkpoint before being able to enter. A man in front of us had a cable lock that was being confiscated. Once inside the base of the tower, there are a handful of cafes, as well as the entrance to the stairs (7 EUR) and elevators (11 EUR to second floor/17 EUR to the top) that can take you to the top of the tower. In the evenings, on the hour, the tower has a mini-light show of sparkling lights all over, a glittering show that lasts around 5 minutes.

Champs Elysee and Arc de Triomphe

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Champs Elyees is Paris’s most famous boulevard, stretching 1.9 km from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. The boulevard is lined with the world’s best brands and stores, as well as McDonalds (rumored to be the store with the most sales in the world) and a Five Guys. During December, the street is home to a robust Christmas market, selling mulled wine, waffles and crepes, chocolates, and other holiday foods along with holiday products. Both sides of the road are lined with vendors and people.

The end of Champs Elysee culminates at the Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph) that details all the major French victories in war. The arch itself is extremely large, resulting in a 4-way arch. Every inch of the walls is covered with engravings or plaques from war victories dating far back in time. I recognized names of Dutch cities, German towns, some of which we had visited a few months back. The arch ran out of room, resulting in more engravings and plaques placed on the floor beneath the arch. A flame stands lit along with wreaths of flowers to remember those who fought in these wars.

The best place to get a picture with the arch is in a circle on the median that divides the two directions of traffic.

Notre Dame

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inside the Notre Dame

Of the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” fame, entrance to this medieval Catholic cathedral is free. It stands 226 ft tall, the exterior walls full of engravings and gargoyles. There are different sections on the façade, so you could stand directly in front of the entrance and stay mesmerized for hours trying to distinguish the different carvings. The interior is quite dark, with light only coming through the stained glass window panes. Upon entering the cathedral, tourists are shuffled along a guided path that takes you past many chapels, each with their own stained glass, as well as exhibitions (there was a Christmas model on display when we went).

Shopping in Paris

While you can find nearly any kind of shop or brand here in Paris, we made a straight beeline to the Decathlon on Boulevard de la Madeleine. Decathlon, the brand we had discovered and researched extensively, is a French company. There are many locations in Paris, but there is only one store in the center of the city. The retail space holds what seemed like all of their SKUs, divided into sections by sports. Everything you could possibly want or imagine, they probably have it here. We were on the hunt for warmer layers for our upcoming trip to Iceland. All of our gear cost less than $100 for two people, a massive bargain compared to the outdoor retailer REI at home.

Day Trip – Versailles

My childhood obsession with Marie Antoinette stemmed from a fictionalized version of her diary, and the French Revolution from Dickens’ ‘Tale of Two Cities’. A trip to Versailles, a short train ride out from Paris, was definitely a must. The palace grounds are a short walk from the train station. When we arrived in the morning, the weather was gloomy and foggy. Unfortunately, the weather and the fog seemed to get worse as the day went on, rendering a terrible view of the gardens of Versailles, which is more than half of the attraction!

A walk through of the palace is a walk through of extravagance and wealth of the French monarchy up until the late 1700s. It’s not hard to see why the poor rebelled against this small group of royalty and nobility that lived such lavish lives of the time. Rooms included the King’s bedroom chamber, dining rooms, entertaining rooms, and drawing rooms. Most rooms were adorned with paintings covering every inch of space, from ceilings to each wall. A free audio tour is included with the price of admission, so they provided a little bit of history and context behind each spot. The most popular room is the Hall of Mirrors, a long hall with glass windows on one side and a pane of mirrors on the other. How this place must have looked back during the time of royal balls and events!

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Hall of Mirrors
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the King’s dining table and seats for his audience

From the palace, we headed out into the gardens towards the Grand Trianon and Little Trianon. The gardens, spanning about 800 hectares, is an attraction of its own here in Versailles, with wide pathways that were carriage paths, fountains, and sculpted shrubbery. The grandeur of it all wasn’t in the cards for us, however, so we walked through the gardens at a relatively quick pack to get to the Grand Trianon, the king’s “summer home” to escape the pressures of court life in the main palace. This was also the place that he had rumored to house his mistress. The rooms were more of the same as in the palace, although scaled down in a bit in its lavishness and intricacies. The Little Trianon and the Hamlet are both Marie Antoinette structures, both built during her time as queen for her to further escape from the realities of court while the French sped towards the revolution. The Hamlet is a mini-English countryside village, complete with rustic buildings, working mills, goats and hogs, and small plots of farmed vegetables; this is where Marie came to live the “charmed life” of a farmer, playing dress up and directing her servants around her.

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Little Trianon

The weather showed no signs of improving by late afternoon, so we trudged back through the misty gardens towards the palace exit. At this hour, the crowds were much heavier than in the morning; definitely come early for a more relaxed view of the palace! As mentioned before, an audio tour is included in the price of admission, but a more elaborate and story-like tour with Rick Steves is also available for download.

Round trip train tickets from Paris: 12 EUR RT

Entrance to Versailles, the gardens, Grand Trianon, Little Trianon and the Hamlet: Passport ticket, 20 EUR pp

 

We spent a total of six days in Paris, and as a city of this size, there’s definitely more that we didn’t see. We were also able to catch up with an old friend/housemate from CA on one of the evenings – it’s always fun to see familiar faces while on the road. I had thought that Paris would be over-hyped, and although in some ways it is (it’s not significantly more romantic or brightly lit than other cities we’ve been in), I still had a magical time.

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Golden Spain

From Barcelona, we had three more stops in Spain, giving us a total of three weeks in this splendid country: Mallorca, Seville, and Granada.

Mallorca is a small island off the eastern coast of Spain. It’s known for its beautiful beaches, clear waters, and cliff-side rock climbing, a fun and charming resort town and a popular vacation destination. All of these facts are true about Mallorca – but not in the fall/winter. We had rainy weather the entire time we were there, and the water was quite cold. Architecture in the entire island has pretty brown stonework and green wooden shades. Palma, the main city on the island, is home to a large cathedral, palm trees, ocean views, and narrow alleys. We based ourselves here for the duration of our stay as public transport options from here to the rest of the island were plentiful.

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View from cathedral in Mallorca

Deia is a village on the west coast of the island nestled in the Tramuntana mountain range. The bus dropped us off and the village was empty. It was very quiet, but very picturesque: more warm rock walls, green window shades, and cobblestone paths. Houses were built into terraces in the mountains. IT was one of those places that have amazing views when you’re driving into or out of it, but difficult to get the whole picture when you’re in it.

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homes in Deia

A few days later, we ventured to Alcudia, a small town on the northern tip of the island. We went on a rainy day so our excursion options were limited until the rain passed. We sat under the covered bus stop and ate some clementines and jamon while watching the rain slowly die down. From the main bus stop, we walked to the port/harbor, full of empty hotels and restaurants, empty playgrounds on the beach, and sailboats in the harbor. A group of young Chinese women were taking turns posing for pictures in the sand. The water, after a quick touch, was very cold – it was very apparent that Mallorca and its warm Atlantic waters is strictly a summertime treat. Our stay in Mallorca was perhaps a bit too long, but it was nice to enjoy the laid-back pace of a small(er) Spanish city without hoards of tourists.

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streets of Alcudia

Seville is located in southern Spain, in the Andalusia region. We arrived in the evening after a short Ryanair flight. We had been flying Ryanair for each leg of our trip in Spain – they really are a low cost carrier, and it shows:

  • Seat backs don’t have pockets
  • One flight had 1 magazine per row of seats, another had no magazines at all
  • The emergency information cards are printed on the backside of the seats – no need to replace them!
  • Duty Free items for purchase are printed on a single sheet of white paper with the product name, regular price, and Ryanair price. Forget those glossy catalogs
  • Planes were horribly decorated in navy blue seats and yellow plastic on the seatbacks and the cabin baggage covers
  • Some planes had this weird smell

Our flights were about 15 – 20 EUR per flight per leg, so what could you really expect?

Seville is home to more traditional activities and customs when one thinks of Spanish culture, such as bull fighting and flamenco dancing. There are flamenco shows all over the city, most with dinner for an added fee. We found a small theater, Casa LaTeatro that had rave reviews on TripAdvisor (mostly 5 stars with a handful of 4 stars). It was nestled in between two meat vendors inside the Mercado de Triana, a blink-and-you-miss-it type of place. The theatre had a small stage and sat only 20 people. Our showing at 1:30PM only had 3 members in the audience, but the performers were as passionate as ever. After the show, they came out to pose for pictures.

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front-row seats

Seville’s streets are lined with orange trees. We snagged one to try – it ended up being horribly bitter and sour. It turns out these oranges remain sour and never sweeten. The old town area is full of Moorish architectural influence, adding a touch of character to cobblestone roads and narrow streets. One of Seville’s main draws is the Alcazar Palace – the home of the royal family and where the current Seville family still resides. We made the minor error of visiting the palace after our short detour to Granada, so the palace paled in comparison to the Alhambra. Still, this is where they filed Dorne from Game of Thrones, so it was fun to walk around trying to trace the exact filming spots.

We sandwiched a short trip to Granada in between our stays in Seville, a short 3-hour drive away. Bus and train options are available, but the cheapest option was to use Bla Bla Car. It’s Europe’s version of Uber for long distance trips. We found several drivers doing the Seville > Granada > Seville route, and at 12 EUR per person each way, it was a bargain. The experience was pretty good; neither driver spoke English very well, but in the first car, there was another passenger who spoke English (had studied in the Midwest for high school) who was able to communicate really well.

Granada’s crown jewel is the Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex in the Moorish style known for its beautiful gardens and intricate stonework. Tickets sell out rapidly, so the only time we could get in was the same day we had arrived in Granada in the afternoon. Ticket prices were 14 EUR pp, granting entrance to all of the gardens, the Generalife, and the Nasrid Palace (guests are given a specific time slot in which to view it). The weather was perfect for our afternoon trip, full of blue skies and sunshine. The walk through is well labeled with signs directing you towards the next site, which was immensely helpful because the grounds can be quite confusing to navigate on your own. My favorite part of the site was the Generalife, mostly in part due to its landscaped gardens and dancing waterfalls.

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The Generalife
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Intricate stonework

With our tour of the Alhambra out of the way, the rest of our time in Granada was a bit superfluous. We walked around the different neighborhoods, narrow alleys populated with restaurants and tapas bars. The St. Nicholas Square sits directly across from the Alhambra on a different hill, offering a really great view of the entire Alhambra complex and how it sits on top of the mountain. This square is also home to a great number of hippies (disheveled clothing and dreadlocks) selling various products that they’ve made, as well as casual musicians. The group of hippies have one person who behaves as a lookout – almost as if on cue, everyone started packing up their products rapidly into their backpacks and leaving the square; one minute later, a police car had rolled up. Looks like selling random things in the square isn’t exactly legal.

We returned to Seville with Bla Bla Car to prepare for our flight to Paris. Our favorite grocery chain in Spain was Mercadona. Fresh produce is quite affordable and plentiful in Spain (EUR to USD nearly equal at this point):

  • 100g of fresh arugula for less than 1 EUR
  • 1 kg of chard for 1.8 EUR
  • 1 kg of clementines for 1 EUR
  • a 6-pack of 8oz yogurts for 0.7 EUR
  • The most delicious freshly baked egg tarts (layered flaky crusts)
  • A large selection of jamon, anchovies, and other meats

On our way out of town, we stopped by the store to pick up 8 egg tarts, some clementines, and a pack of jamon for the road. Before we got onto the plane, we’d finished all the clementines and the jamon, sincerely regretting that we didn’t buy more. Overall, Spain was a delight and we really enjoyed our time in the country.

 

Left a Piece of my Heart in Barcelona

After a short time in Athens (fell in love with a cat and observed first-hand how the Greek economy is suffering), we were off to Spain! Our first stop was Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain. We had met a man in Amsterdam who said, “Barcelona is not Spain!” The Catalan language is different from Spanish, which sounded like a mix of Spanish and French to me, but I was happy nonetheless to finally put those 4-years of high school Spanish to good use!

 

We spent a total of 6 days in Barcelona in the Las Ramblas neighborhood just near the port. It is a touristy neighborhood, but with a local atmosphere. Apartments sat above stores and cafes on the ground floors, and it seemed like every café was full of locals, drinking beers, coffee, and having tapas. Like many of the streets in Barcelona, Las Ramblas is a wide boulevard with a major pedestrian sidewalk running down the middle of the street between car lanes. The pedestrian walkway is full of sidewalk cafes selling large jugs of sangria, paella, and tapas meal sets and stalls selling gelato, flowers, and other traditional tourist souvenirs. The alleys stemming from Las Ramblas hold several tourist attractions, including the Mercado de la Boqueria, a wide open outdoor market selling local delicacies (fruit shakes! Fresh fruit! Fish and sea urchins! Iberico!) that reminded me of the outdoor food markets in Asia. The Catedral de Barcelona is only a short few blocks away, along with other basilicas and museums. It was also in Barcelona when we finally stepped foot into Decathlon, a French retailer of sporting and outdoor products that blows American retailers such as REI out of the water in terms of sheer quantity of products as well as its affordability.

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Iberico – the best jamon (ham) in the world!

Barcelona, although with its grand streets, is not completely flat. On our second full day, we decided to check out two of the city’s more famous attractions: La Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell. Without really knowing the distance, we decided to visit these places on foot instead of opting for public transport. Our walk took us through many neighborhoods as well as major shopping streets. One of the curious things about Barcelona intersections is its shape; instead of a square, they are octagonal, allowing for parking spaces on the diagonal sides. This is due to the octagonal shape of their city blocks.

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La Sagrada Familia – still in construction!

The La Sagrada Familia is iconic Barcelona, its towers sticking out drastically from the rest of Barcelona’s buildings. This basilica is 134 years old and still incomplete; after the artist Gaudi’s death (Gaudi’s artistic strokes are all over Barcelona), the church’s construction halted with the death of his vision. It costs 15 EUR to enter the church. Both on the exterior and inside, the walls are a dazzling display of colors, stained glass windows, and carvings. It is definitely clear that the building had been constructed under different directions, creating a disjointed effect.

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entrance to Parc Guell

From La Sagrada, we headed towards one of Gaudi’s other masterpieces: Parc Guell, a municipal park that sits upon a hill, requiring quite the trek upwards. Although the park is free to enter, a ticket (7 EUR) is required to enter the Monumental Zone, the park’s entrance, the terraces, and other of Gaudi’s famous mosaics. We tried to take a leisurely stroll after the uphill climb, but it was starting to sprinkle. To beat the rain, we headed back towards Las Ramblas. On this day, we walked 10.01 miles without even realizing it.

Although the architecture and art were beautiful, the highlight of our time in Barcelona was visiting an old friend and spending a “Catalan Sunday” with her and her family and friends. We were to meet at Placa de la Vila de Gracia on Sunday to watch the weekly Castellers (the human towers), a traditional Catalan activity. Our friend Cristina used to participate in this, and I still remember her showing us pictures back in Palo Alto over a year ago. The plaza was packed, and not a tourist in sight. Groups of people were dressed based on their group’s colors: red shirts, blue shirts, and light blue shirts. The castell (tower) is formed entirely by human coordination and strength, with the stronger members forming the base and the children forming the very top of the tower. While we were there, we got to watch at least 7 successful tower formations (the youngest climber reaches the top, completes a salute, and then the tower members must climb down) as well as a few tower collapses, which was nerve-wracking to say the least. More technical details on the activity can be found here. I loved watching the camaraderie, not just among each group, but also between groups. The Human Towers of Catalonia are actually designated as a UNESCO Intangible World Heritage, and it was quite amazing to see it.

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up close and personal with the human towers – look at that teamwork!

We spent a few hours watching the performances with Cristina, her wife, and their newborn baby. They were joined by two of their friends, and the 7 of us headed to a local tapas bar for a bite to eat. Tapas bars are all over the city and can run from very local to very touristy. This one was very local: purchase a drink and get a “free” tapa for 2 EUR while a la carte tapas were 1.5 EUR. Following tapas, we headed to Cristina’s friend’s home for some coffee. They all spoke in a blend of Spanish and Catalan, and although I couldn’t understand most of it, it was a very welcoming experience. By now, it was nearly 6PM, and we headed back to Cristina’s home for a traditional Catalan dinner: Spanish omelets, iberico salami, and bread rubbed with tomato. The dinner was deliciously homemade and it felt very cozy.

The rest of our time in Barcelona was spent dodging rain, window shopping at Decathlon, and eating that amazing iberico jamon. We also managed to squeeze in a private class of muay thai and I managed to semi-communicate with my instructor in Spanish. One of the things that struck me was how clean everything seemed; this mystery was solved when we were walking to the airport bus at 4AM and I saw these massive street cleaners spraying down the boulevards for the new day. I was sad to leave as I really enjoyed our time here. Definitely going on the “will return” list!

 

Tip: The BCN airport is easily connected into downtown Barcelona via Aerobus. A single ticket is 5.90 EUR and a return ticket (valid for 15 days) is 10.20 EUR. They also run very early and very late into the night, making it convenient to catch those pesky Ryanair-schedule flights.

Last Port of Call: Kusadasi to Ephesus

Our last port of call before the end of the cruise was in Kusadasi, Turkey. Originally, this ship had been bound for Istanbul, but in light of possible security issues, the ship changed the final destination to Athens.

There is a way to travel from Kusadasi to Ephesus via a combination of public bus and a short taxi ride to the entrance of the site. We had budgeted this to be 25 USD for the two of us for round trip. The previous night, we had made plans to tour Ephesus with our new friends: Steve and Kevin and their wives. The 6 of us disembarked the ship and went in search of the public bus route when the other Kevin started talking to a local guy offering rides. The local guy offered to drive us to and from the Ephesus site for 120 USD (20 USD per person). We rarely take offers such as these, but the rest of the group is much less budget-sensitive than we are, so they thought it was a good deal. We ended up paying 40USD for transportation to and from Ephesus, which is more than we had budgeted, but we mostly went along for the company.

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Admissions was 40 Turkish Lira (around 11 USD). The driver dropped us off at the upper entrance to Ephesus, allowing you to walk downhill instead of up. We started the Rick Steves audio tour and walked through the ruins. It was similar to the Roman Forum, but much larger and sprawling in scale. We saw some interesting sites, including an old public bathroom with ancient toilets carved into a large rectangular rock. Ephesus used to be a bustling port and trade town, but over the years, sedimentation caused land to form all around it, essentially moving Ephesus inland.

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After the tour, about a 2 hour walk through all the ruins, the driver picked us up and drove back to the port. The landscape was quite beautiful, large groves of olive trees covered the rolling hills. We were dropped off in a shopping street in Kusadasi, a modern take on the “bazaar”, that sold 100% Authentic Fake watches and handbags along with carpets. This area prides itself on its excellent quality of fake products. Kevin popped his head into a watch store to take a look at the goods; a Chinese-based movement Hublot cost 25USD while a Japanese-based movement Hublot cost 175USD. Both knockoffs looked strikingly similar to the real thing. Other stores sold “handwoven” carpets and tapestries and real fake handbags. After a short stroll through the thin alleys, we returned to the ship empty-handed just in time for lunch.

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As our last port of call, there was only one more sea day before disembarkation in Athens. We were having a really enjoyable time on the cruise and were quite sad to see it end. A brief peek inside Celebrity Life:

  • Most of the evening shows were fantastic. My favorite were the shows put on by the production cast members, although it was hard to follow along the storylines. There was a Rob Lewis – Phil Collins concert that was baffling because we didn’t know who either performer was. The illusionist wasn’t very good as an illusionist, although it was entertaining.
  • We had to drink over $324 worth of beverages to make the drink package worth it (compared to the value of the other perks) so each day we started out at Café El Bacio for fancy tea and coffee. On most days, we were able to rack up between $60 – $70 in drinks (aside from the two days when we were off the ship for the entire day). If we didn’t have the drink packages, we’d be perfectly fine chugging water or smuggling drinks in our hand baggage, but it’s also really easy to just drink the whole day away. Regular tea, coffee, and juice at the Oceanview Cafe buffet is free. Ordering drinks was also a good way to get to know the bartending staff, many of whom soon knew us by name. They earn tips for every drink ordered, so we made sure to order from the staff members we liked.
  • We bounced around between the buffets for lunch and breakfast and the main dining room for dinner. Most nights, we found the appetizers to be tastier than the entrees. The attire for dinner was Smart Casual on most nights and Evening Chic for two nights, although many were dressed in traditional “formal wear” for the latter. On the first Evening Chic night, we ended up with our friends in the buffet for dinner, so we didn’t have to dress up. Turns out we didn’t really need anything that fancy at all.
  • For dinner, we had requested to sit at a larger table (for 10) to meet people, but we ended up at a table for 2. It worked out – we didn’t have to be forced to socialize with others if we didn’t have to.
  • Demographics of the ship: predominantly American and older, a sharp contrast to the type of people we had been interacting with for the past 9 months
  • Frequent cruise patrons brought business cards or custom “keep in touch” cards to swap with new friends. We were given a card by a couple during the one time we had lunch in the dining room at a table for 6, none of whom were particularly interesting.
  • Cruise staff LOVE to take photos – upon embarkation, at each port of call, at dinner, for formal nights, etc. These photos are then printed out and displayed in the photo center in hopes that you will purchase a single print for … $25. It is an unbelievably a waste of photo paper.
  • We quickly got into the habit of looking forward to receiving the following day’s schedule of activities every night after dinner. There is something almost mind numbing about being given a schedule and picking and choosing your activities from it. There’s no stress of what to do or how to do it – just show up at the designated time and expect to be entertained. Activities ranged from adult coloring time to Silent Disco (imagine a group of people dancing to music from headphones in an otherwise silent room) to trivia.

Overall, the cruise was a really nice way to “splurge” after somewhat roughing it on the road for the past 9 months. In fact, we liked it so much that we ended up with a serious case of “post-cruise blues” for several weeks after.