Finding a Sign in Iceland

Here’s the thing about Iceland-it’s a fascinating place; the ever changing landscapes, the unpredictable weather, the unrelenting winds, the extraordinary views, and the food.

But it’s almost as if they don’t want you to know how great it is here. They’re not braggarts or, truth be told, helpful. It’s almost as if they have a national motto, “Welcome to Iceland, now you’re on your own!”

There is a definite lack of signage here. You need to really, really, really know where you want to go and how to get there. 

Yes, yes, yes there are “signs” on the road, but they make no sense – it’s a bunch of consonants strung together with one, ok, maybe two vowels – but Y’s don’t really count.

As you’re driving around in this absolutely stunning country, marveling at the splendor and total mess that is Mother Nature – good luck finding a sign for a “tourist spot.”

In the states we are assaulted with signs – I bet there’s a sign in Hoboken, NJ that says Grand Canyon 2398 miles.

Here – nothing! 

There are few, if any signs alerting you of upcoming attractions and once you actually find your destination out of sheer dumb luck, you are on your own. 

For example – the biggest thing to explode here on this tiny nation is the Fagradalsfjall volcano. It blew its lid in March, 2021 and has become a “must-see” for the vacation-starved, vaccinated masses.

Arriving in Reykjavik you can see the cloud of smoke billowing into the sky, but you have to aim for that plume to find it. There are no signs, no souvenir shops, no instant lava cakes to chart the way. 

Once you find the general area, there’s a parking lot(ish) and some handwritten signs that kind of point the way. 

The “way” is a five to 7 mile walk uphill …. both ways. There’s a “path,” but the way is defined by following the crowds. A slithering mass making its way up and up, forging ahead ever so slowly atop a series of mountain peaks allowing only the fittest and youngest to gallop to the top.

The funnel cake shaped tower of ash is always present, but when you see the river of jet black lava, you know you’re on the right trail. They look like black whipped cream rolling down the mountain filling in the valleys, hardening like freeze-dried ocean waves. And the ocean is what you hear! At first I thought I was hearing things, but the erupting volcano sounds like crashing waves.

Three peaks we ascended, each taller, and steeper than the last, each I swore would break me, each I conquered! But there on top of the last peak, I looked across the valley and saw the biggest sign in all of Iceland – Mother Nature’s fury on display – nature’s neon – the biggest billboard on the planet unleashing her full emotions, on fire, pent-up aggression and anger, and sadness.

It was the most beautiful sign I’ve ever seen – a map in motion – a combustible combination of revolution and evolution with each outburst of molten lava. 

You don’t need to be Jeff Bezos flying in a billion dollar phallic rocket to know our blue planet is beautiful and fragile. Here, she is literally spewing up her guts, heaving up from way below trying to rebuild, regenerate, replace the wrongs up on the surface – perhaps ever hopeful for a fresh start with a future generation who will take better care of her.

Mark Your Calendars: My Camino Starts in 10 Days

Ten days from now I’ll be starting my Camino – a 500 mile walk across Spain. By. Myself. WTFFFFFFfffffffff!?

Seriously, WTF am I doing – what am I thinking?

I am nowhere near ready for this – NOWHERE NEAR.

I haven’t trained the way the books say you’re supposed to train, I’m not sure about my shoes, my backpack is heavy and it hurts. I don’t know where I’ll be staying, don’t know what I’ll be eating, don’t know where I’ll be able to go when – you know – I gotta go, hell – I don’t even know where to put my water bottles on my backpack.

WTF!

I’m full of self-doubt and paralyzed with fear.

And yet, and yet – I’ve never felt more alive.

I’m am so excited to see if I can do this – if I can walk the 500 miles all by myself, sleeping in a different town every night, carrying my backpack, meeting people from all over the world who have their own self doubts, and – AND, drinking a lot of wine.

Like, a lot!

I’ve given myself 45 days to complete my Spanish Schlep – hopefully it’ll be enough time, hopefully along the way I’ll learn something about myself, and hopefully I’ll realize I’ve been ready for this all my life.

Bonus

10 Things you didn’t know about my Camino Plans

  1. My backpack weighs 15.2 lbs and stands 28″ high. (Yikes, I’m only 5’1″-ish)
  2. The heaviest thing in my pack is my toiletry bag – not my shoes
  3. I’m only taking 2 pairs of shoes, but 4 pairs of socks
  4. I’m taking 10 tiny packets of peanut butter, but no jelly
  5. When I’ve gotta go – I’ve got my GoGirl
  6. I’m taking 4 pairs of underwear, but only 3 bras
  7. Don’t worry, I’m taking my Scrubba
  8. I won’t be walking without my Bobbi Brown face cream – Jeezus folks, I’m not a savage
  9. I’m bringing a selfie stick. There I said it. I’ve gone to the dark side. Hate me.
  10. I lied. I’ve booked one hotel – a spa. Because, I’m worth it.

Wanna see my route – click here 

Chimera overlooking Paris

Notre Dame: Stairway to Heaven(ly) Views of Paris

For one of the best photo ops in Paris, climb to the top of Notre Dame

There are bells up in that tower – grab the kids, grab some water – we’re going to the top! Yes, you can do it!

One of the most fun and most memorable things to do in the City of Lights, is to climb up to the top of Notre Dame to see the cathedral’s largest bell, its monstrous gargoyles and to be rewarded with one of the best views in all of Paris.

A chimera sits atop Notre Dame

One of the hundreds of chimera perched atop Notre Dame guarding the cathedral and its city

Getting to “QuasimodoLand” demands climbing up 387 steps and no, there isn’t an elevator. You need to be fit; not like marathon runner-fit, but “kind of” fit. Kids and grannies can tackle this with no problem. There is a built-in break during the climb and since this is not a “guided tour,” you can set your own pace.

You’ll start your climb in the North Tower where you’ll buy your ticket. Note the staircase is narrow and the steps are fan-shaped, so if you’re claustrophobic or wearing high heels – skip this.

Atop Notre Dame

Atop Notre Dame picture perfect for all your selfies

On your climb up, let your mind wander and your fingers travel along the smooth stones that make the staircase. Imagine yourself a mason, or sculptor having to put these stones (millions and millions of them) in place, one by one. Don’t rush it, this isn’t the Grand Prix. As the stairs climb ever higher and higher, you’ll be on autopilot as you go round and round and round and round. Don’t think of your legs, let your mind drift and think of all the secrets these stones hold, what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard. Give these stones a good o’ pat on the ‘uhh brick – they’ve survived the revolution, wars, diseases, despair and Jerry Lewis!

About halfway up (and remember you’re still in the North Tower) you’ll reach a small gift and book shop (how clever of them to place this at such a strategic spot). Take a breather here, take a look at the plaque near the steps leading up to Esmeralda’s Cell, which includes an excerpt from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Wire protection surrounds a walkway atop Notre Dame

Wire netting protects walkers and photographer from any danger while climbing to the top of Notre Dame

Perfectly choreographed, a guard will open the door to the upper staircase, and you will resume your climb. You’ll soon reach the open gallery of the North Tower, where a narrow open walkway leads across to the South Tower. (Don’t freak out – there is a protective wire structure that keeps tourists, young kids and the stupid from falling.)

This is a great photo-op and you’ll be able to take some snaps of and selfies with the gargoyles and chimeras.

And what a sight they are to see

One of Architect Eugene Violet-le-Duc's chimeras sits atop Notre Dame

In 1845, Architect Eugene Violet-le-Duc added the chimeras to Notre Dame

Just like your fellow climbers, they come in all shapes and sizes: skinny, chubby, some have hunched shoulders (those are the teenagers), some are chomping on grapes and some look bored out of their minds (those are the French teenagers).

The real working stiffs of Notre Dame - the gargoyles

The real working stiffs of Notre Dame – the gargoyles, perhaps the world’s most famous waterspouts

The gargoyles are really interesting.

There are hundreds of these monstrous figures, projecting from building’s façade and towers.

They were never part of the original construction.

The first stone of Notre Dame was laid in 1163, but the gargoyles were added later in the 19th century; and they weren’t added to attract tourists – these gargoyles are working stiffs.

Planted firmly in place with their mouths wide open, they were added to serve as gutters to drain rainwater off the roof and far from the cathedral’s walls to prevent damage.

The chimeras are the real “bling,” and they’re brilliant.

Created only to serve as decoration, some are half-man/half-beast, some have eagles beaks and wings, or serpents tails, even lions talons – but they’re horrific, grotesque and fantastic.

The best-known chimera, le Stryge or “the vampire,” is perched atop the left-hand buttress of the North Tower overlooking the city. His face is world-famous – the star of many postcards.

Chimera overlooking Paris

Strike a Pose! Looking out over Paris is the most famous chimera, le Stryge

A wooden staircase will take you to the belfry to see the 13-ton Emmanuel bell in the South Tower. It has been here since 1685 and is the biggest and most prominent of Notre Dame’s bells. Originally all 11 bells were rung by hand, but in the 20th century, electric motors were installed. Sighhhhhh, no more swinging from the ropes.

It’s a bit of a tight fit in here, you’ll have to channel your inner Quasimodo to squeeze in and out the doorway.

You'll have to duck to get into Notre Dame's belfry

You’ll have to channel your inner Quasimodo to get in and out of Notre Dame’s belfry

After leaving the belfry – get ready for the piece de resistance – the top of the South Tower. To get here you’ll have to squeeze your way up a two-way corkscrew staircase to the viewing platform. But once there, c’est magnifique! You’ll have fabulous views of the cathedral spire, the flying buttresses that keep the whole building from falling down, and breath-taking views of Ile de la Cite and Paris in all directions. Once you see this view you won’t even remember the climb – yeah, it’s that good.

The view from atop Notre Dame

With a view like this, you’ll soon forget you had to climb up 387 steps

Been There/Done That

The tower is open daily and the Tower Tour costs about 8 Euros – OR – is free with the Paris Museum Pass.

The entrance for the visit of the tower is located OUTSIDE of the cathedral, on the left-hand side of the facade, Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. Here’s a link on how to get to Notre Dame

My advice, plan this visit after a couple of days of seeing museums – the kids will love this excursion as it really burns off that energy and angst.

Climbing the South Tower is great for kids of all ages (yep, even those hard to please teens). The steps up the tower are really easy to climb (loads of kids and grannies do it), but the steps are quite narrow, and it wouldn’t be easy to manage carrying an infant in a baby backpack or if you’re wearing heels.

And after this climb you won’t have any guilt for eating those crepes, ice cream bars or extra glass of wine!

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn: Kick ’em in the Baltics!

A popular day stop for the Baltic Cruises is Tallinn.

Wait, what???!!!

Tallinn what? Where and what is this place you call Tallinn?

Tallinn, Estonia

As the morning sun rises and our ship sails in to port, the medieval city of Tallinn greets us

I get it. A lot of people (myself included) have never heard of Tallinn and you know what – that’s almost criminal.

Tallinn was first recorded on a world map in 1154 and is now the largest city and capital of Estonia. It should be your next must-see destination. (See it here on a map)

A medieval, walled-city, this place is full of history, charm and ghosts! Yep, ghosts.

Listening for ghosts in Tallin

Calling all ghostbusters! With their ears up against the walls of the “Virgin Tower”, my girls try to hear something – anything – spooky inside of these Medieval walls.

At its historical heart is Toompea, covered in ankle-twisting cobbled lanes, lined with medieval houses and surrounded by guard towers and Gothic spires. The old town has been astonishingly well preserved despite being extensively bombed during World War II. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997.

But, I’ll be honest with you, history has not been kind to Tallinn – it’s been tossed around like a football for centuries. Its location – on the Gulf of Finland and just 43 miles south of Helsinki- has long been a strategic point between east and west and has been targeted by invaders over the centuries – the Danes, Swedes, Russians, Nazis, the Russians again; they’ve all muscled their way in over the years.

You would think Tallinn would wreak of nervousness and well, its architecture does. In a word Tallinn’s exudes defensive.

One of Tallinn's medieval towers

Once, more than 40 towers protected medieval Tallinn, now only half survive

High walls, gates and guard towers dating back to the 13th century surround the city. By the 16th century, Tallinn was one of the most fortified cities in northern Europe, complete with a network of secret, underground tunnels. (You can still explore them if you’ve got the nerve and don’t suffer from claustrophobia).

The city has a violent past and spooky stories and reports of paranormal activity persist. Hmmmmm, Estonia just so happens to have the highest number of meteorite craters per land area in the world, coincidence …. I think not!

Almost every house in Old Town is “haunted.” Some ghostly accounts are legendary, others are just creepy.

Briefly:

  • Neitsitorn (the Virgin’s tower) once a prison for prostitutes now a cafe, employees and customers report hearing eerie footsteps and scratching noises
  • #10 Suur-Karja is a house dating back to the 13th century. During renovations in 1928, workers supposedly found a skeleton sealed up in one of the house’s walls and since then residents say they’ve heard strange noises, scratching and mysterious voices
  • Gustav Adolf Gymnasium students and staff at the school report hearing ringing bells and seeing women in nun’s habits wandering in the corridors
  • Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square) was the scene of public executions and gives many visitors the creepy crawlies

Ghostly street

There’s an entire street named for ghosts in Old Town. Vaimu (Ghost) street between Pikk and Lai first showed up in 17th century records. It’s had many names through the years. In German it was Spukstrasse and in Russian it was called Strashnaya ulitsa (scary street). One mayor even wanted to change the name to ‘Evil’ but as you can imagine, the townsfolk shot that down.

Al fresco dining awaits you in the alleyways of Tallinn

Al fresco dining awaits you in the alleyways of Tallinn

For all that ails you

The Town Hall Pharmacy on Raekoja plats, dates back to 1422 and is the oldest in Europe that has continually operated from the same premises. The pharmacy sells today’s medicine and mementos of times past. In its back room, you’ll find its stocks from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

For all that “ales” you

Serving up “historically authentic” cuisine is the kitschy medieval Olde Hansa Restaurant with its bonneted waitresses and merry men. In the summer you can dine alfresco and chow down on bear, elk, wild boar and rabbit. You can chase all that down with beer that is served in heavy earthenware steins. The kids will be delighted and you’ll be a tad nervous when they serve your food and say, “Here are some weapons for your food.”

Dining in Tallin's open square

One of the many pleasures of exploring Tallinn is stopping to have a beer in the town’s open square

The beer goes down nicely and will get you in the mood to belt out a tune. You’ll have a huge selection of songs to sing. Estonians have one of the biggest collections of folk songs in the world, with written records of 133,000 folk songs. Move over “Roll Out the Barrel.”

Bitter Memories

Today old wounds still run deep in Tallinn.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral aka “The Russian Church,” is beautiful but has caused some agita for the locals.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral aka the “Russian Cathedral” is beautiful – stunning even, but most Estonians don’t like the church.

It was built here in 1900 over the supposed grave of a legendary Estonian hero—Kalevipoeg.

That in itself was a bitter pill…. but it was built to facing the national parliament – a total smack in the face by the Russians during a period of Estonian national revival.

But it is the battle scars from war that have yet to mend.

In 1940, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, conquered by the Nazis and then retaken by the Soviets.

The Soviets bombed the hell out of the city and many Tallinn citizens were deported or imprisoned by Soviet forces for alleged conspiracy and collaboration with the Nazis.

Those in Tallinn will freely talk about Soviet/Estonia relations – but they’re not obsessed. Our guide and others are now focused on the future with hopes of attracting more tourists to this fascinating, colorful and quirky town.

Been there/Done that

Estonia itself is the smallest of the Baltic countries (the others being Latvia and Lithuania). It’s smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined. The official language is Estonian but nearly everyone speaks English and the EURO is used since Estonia joined the EU in 2011. ATMs are abundant and major credit cards are widely accepted. Wear comfortable shoes (those cobblestones and charming, but not good for high-heels) and bring along a sweater or light jacket it can be cool even in the summer. Street food is plentiful (try the roasted nuts).

Ghost Tours are popular here are some links:

Tallinn Ghost Tour

EstAdventures

Like A Local

Copenhagen: A Fairy Tale Walking Tour

“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” ― Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid

If you’re looking for something different to do and something that will engage, entertain and even educate the kids, take a walking tour of Copenhagen with Hans Christian Andersen.

Copenhagen walking tours

Hans Christian Andersen brings history to life in Copenhagen

American Richard Karpen decked out in top hat and traditional long coat, guides you through the Old City in full character channeling Denmark’s beloved fairy tale author.

Along the way “Hans” introduces you to Danish life and customs, pointing out architectural highlights all while bringing to life some of his most famous and beloved tales.

“Hans” is enchanting, simply enchanting. His tales of history and of life in Copenhagen in the days of the real Hans Christian Andersen cast  a magic spell over his clients (young and old) who tail along like little ducklings eager to hear more.

Copenhagen

Hitting the streets of Copenhagen with Hans Christian Andersen

A familiar sight on the streets of Copenhagen, no one takes a second look at “Hans” as he winds his way through the streets and through Denmark’s history. Walking along side him, the day’s hustle and bustle melt away as you’re transported back to the 1800’s.

I’m not kidding, “Hans” never breaks character! The kids and you will truly believe you’re spending 90-minutes with the man who wrote “The Little Mermaid”, “The Snow Queen”, “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and so many more classic tales.

My kids were so enthralled with the tour that once it was over, they demanded we go straight to the nearest bookstore so they could buy the complete works of Hans Christian Andersen!

When was the last time a tour-guide inspired your kids like that??!!

Walking Tours of Copenhagen

Hans Christian Andersen brings history to life on his walking tours of Copenhagen

Been there/Done that

The walking tours meet inside the Tourist Information Office daily at 10:30 AM from mid-May to mid-September. “Hans” is easy to spot ‘cuz he’ll be decked out in his top hat and long coat. All tours are in English and last 90-minutes. “Hans” gets it – he will stop for breaks, snacks or nature calls as often as you want or need. He’s a real crowd pleaser.

The Tourist Information Office is located near the intersection of Bernstorffsgade and Vesterbrogade streets, near the Main Train Station and next to the Tivoli Gardens. The ticket price for the walking tours is 75 Danish Kroner (12 US dollars/10 euros).

Don’t forget to bring your camera, wear comfortable shoes and carry a sweater/light jacket even in the hottest months, Copenhagen’s weather can be cool.

Click here for full details about the Hans Christian Andersen Walking Tour of Copenhagen

Click here to see a map of Copenhagen