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.

Today was fanfriggintastic!

The alarm clock went off at 6:38 as planned but I couldn’t move – I lay there terrified, not knowing if I was up for beginning this crazy adventure- walking 500 miles from southern France across northern Spain ending in Santiago de Compostella.

Officially this walk, this pilgrimage is called the Camino de Santiago and the route I’m taking is called the Camino Frances. It begins in the most charming walled town of Saint Jean Pied de Port and that’s where I was this morning, in bed trying too figure out if I can actually do this Spanish Schlep.

The forecast had been calling for rain – not ideal for walking up and over the Pyrenees especially when the route is mostly through farm fields and dirt paths. There are two routes we “pilgrims” can choose to our destination- Roncesvalles – the Valcarlos Route made popular with the midieval pilgrims because it’s not as steep or as strenuous, but it’s a tad longer – OR the Napoleon Route- a kick your ass 17-mile killer hike with a total elevation climb of about 3000 feet.

Being only 5’1″ – naturally I chose the Napoleon Route.

I had read that this climb will humble even the most fit. I thought that was just a bunch of talk – I mean, I hike in the Colorado Rockies – I know stuff, I can climb.

Uhhhhhh……

So I pulled my shit together and rolled out of bed. I got dressed, put on my headlamp and walked out onto the streets. It wasn’t raining – I thought it was a good sign.

The walk (many call it “The Way”) leads out of Saint Jean on Rue D’Espagne through the ancient walls. The path is marked with red/white stripes and yellow/blue shells and yellow arrows. (Wait, isn’t yellow the color for cowards- THAT was the sign I was looking for!)

As I joined the other early risers there was a sense of anticipation and excitement – we were doing it, we were joining those who have come before us….. we were doing something that doesn’t make sense to the sane among us!

As the street winded out of town and to the left – there it was – the wall. I mean this road went straight up. You couldn’t see the end because the road just went straight up into the clouds.

Deep breath… one foot in front of the other and repeat for 17 miles.

And then the rain started, misting at first but a cold and refreshing wake-up call that this walk is serious shit.

I gave myself a pep talk, I can do this, it’s only rain I’m not made out of sugar. And so it went for 17 miles.

The mountains were shrouded in fog – you couldn’t see 20 feet in front of your feet which was a good thing cause I couldn’t see the mountains after mountains that I had to climb. All I could do was listen to my own breathing, my spastic staccato of my new hiking poles touching the ground out of synch with my pace, and this beautiful symphony of voices and bells – no, not the bells of St Mary, but the bells the local farmers put on their sheep, cows, and horses. The animals roamed freely mixing with us pilgrims as we struggled onward and upward – I’m sure the sheep were like, “Whose the sheep now.”

It was so great to hear voices from all over, the loudest and cheeriest were the Irish; you could hear them cursing (or praying) up the mountains with their “Jesus, Joseph, and Marys. The French talked non-stop with their “ooh la la’s,” the Americans were the heavy breathers, the Italians made the unbearable almost bearable with their voices that make every sound better, and then there were the Brazilians and the Koreans. The Australians were loud and I always smiled when I heard them- I had to fight the urge to say, “Hey mate, let’s ditch this drudgery and go party.”

I bitched and moaned to anyone who would listen, and every single person offered their encouragement – especially the young Italian brothers, tho I think they’re hoping I’ll do their laundry.

By hour five I came upon wild blackberries and began scarfing them down. The bushes were picked empty and I was quite proud of my passive aggressive assault on the path. “That’ll teach you – I’m going to eat this mountain clean of your berries, take that sukkah!”

It took me 7.5 hours to follow the same path Napoleon carved out with his troops, and by the time I reached Roncesvalles, the sun was beginning to shine and I was beyond proud of these stubby legs and tired feet.

Tonight I’ll sleep like the dead, set my alarm clock to ring again at 6:38 and rise in the morning full of confidence knowing that, yeah, I’ve got this!

When God gives you Covid – You Make Vodka!

At Denver International Airport – All Masked Up and Ready to Go!

September 9, 2020

So… Here I am planning another long distance walk (ok, escape). 

I marched some 500 miles across Spain four years ago and I loved it. Loved it! I pushed my fat ass further and farther than I ever thought possible and I fukkin loved it. I dream about going back to the Camino de Santiago and rejoining the pilgrims as they push themselves past the wine, windmills, and wild paths. 

But- 

It’s a big ass world out there and I’ve got a big ass waiting to see it all. 

I’ve decided I’m going to try to plod along England’s Pennine Way-the Brit’s granddaddy of grand walks. 

The Pennine Way (to be known to all as TPW) has a reputation of being a soul crusher. TPW runs some 250 miles up England’s spine up and down its famed hills (I’m from Colorado and I’ll be damned if I’m going to call a molehill – foot hill a mountain) 

But, it’s not the elevation that reportedly kills you – it’s the bogs, the wind, the rain, and the assumption that walkers will and do get lost! TPW is earth’s “Black Hole” – there are scores of stories of amateurs and professionals getting lost along the way. Not encouraging news to me considering I get lost in my own home. 

HOLD THE PHONE – I’m not doing this!! I’m going to Iceland! 

Whaaaaat?!

Yeah, I know-fukkin Covid! 

I was all prepared for the green, lush English landscape, pub crawls, chips, and fried fish – but the gods had other plans. 

I’ve had to scrape my plans and luckily, my little brother is my big savior! We’re off to the land of Fire & Ice. Two weeks of traveling around Iceland. 

This should be fun(ish)

Me and my bro – isn’t he the best?!

I haven’t spent this much time with my brother since he was a college student teaching English in Bordeaux and I was a 20-something young TV producer teaching everyone everything I knew about anything. We traveled together through France in the early 80s long before there was Google and Tripadvisor. Back then there were no spouses, no children, no iPhones, and no Trump! We had a blast. 

C’mon- those glasses – I’m so Madonna

But that was nearly 40 years ago! Since then, I’ve gone grey, gained weight, had twin daughters, and have gained a huggge dependence on white wine. He’s gone grey, had 4 children, and his weakness is the lager. 

We’re not the same people we were when Madonna was worried about her “Holiday.” Our holiday will be a test of our enduring love, independence, and discovery of us as adults. I can’t wait to discover what we discover!

We’re huge fans of making friends with the locals
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

Why Schmoopee?

Why not?

The word makes me laugh, it makes me smile, it makes my children smile and it brings me joy. That’s what I’m after now – I’m a seeker of joy and I hope I share some joy with the world (joy “TO” the world would have been better, but the grammar police would be all over my ass).

I’m done with work! Finally. After nearly four decades of working, I am finally swimming on my own. The sharks I will now be swimming with offer me joy – not agita.

I took this picture of some fabulous sharks off the coast of Playa Del Carmen last year when I was diving with my teen daughter. It was one of the most thrilling, terrifying and joyous days of my life. I’m heading back south of the border in hopes of seeing these bull sharks again and yes, to again spend another day experiencing joy.

shark