Swiss Alps and the Via Alpina

As in the previous two years, I took advantage of my final spring student tour group ending in a major airport hub (PHL), to seek out a cheap flight to somewhere new to explore – giving myself a little break at the end of very busy stretch of work tours.

This year I found a $450 round trip to Zurich, Switzerland, and thus I went, arriving in the AM May 27th.  The goal of this trip was primarily hiking in the Alps, and fortunately Switzerland has frequent and efficient public transport (train and bus) to get from the cities to the smaller alpine gateway towns.  After making stops in Zurich and Berne to walk around for several hours, I made it to Interlaken in time to also check it out.  But my main target was Lauterbrunnen, where I went the next day by train.  I’d heard of this valley before, how glaciers left behind cliff walls with numerous waterfalls cascading down into the villages and fields of bell-clanking cows.  Stepping out of the train station, I was immediately impressed by the setting, and upon checking in to my hostel, set off on walking up the valley floor, passing several tall waterfalls and looping up above to cliff walls through Gimmelwald and Murren.  This is a great hike and I highly recommend doing it starting by noon, as there’s a big difference in scenery when the sun shines bright on the white waterfalls on the east-facing cliffs.  By mid-afternoon, they are in the shadows.

The next day was a chill day before I began my four day trek on the Via Alpina, so I just relaxed around Lauterbrunnen enjoying the amazing setting.  I was inspired to reconsider the “Top-10 list of most beautiful places I’ve seen” that I had created over a decade previous, and so I filmed and compiled this video:

 

As for the trek I intended to do, I wanted to hike a 4 day stretch Eastward on the Via Alpina, a trail that crossed the whole of Switzerland into Lichtenstein.  The section I wanted to do crosses some fairly high alpine passes, but drops down into the valley villages such that sections can be done in daily doses, staying in hotels, hostels, and B&B’s en route.  Even though my online research told me that it might be too early in the season to navigate the trail, I went ahead and booked lodging in sequential valleys towns, hoping things would work out.  Here’s how it went:

Trek day 1:  Left Lauterbrunnen at sunrise, and hiked up to Wengen and on up to Kleine Scheidegg pass.  Rain was forecasted for today, but all I saw above me was blue sky, and the massive rock faces of Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.  From the pass, I could see that the trail would descend a more sheltered route into Grindelwald, but I wanted to stay higher for the open views, so wrapped around a trail that was actually closed due the snow that still draped it in stretches, up to Manlichen’s peak and overlook, and then descended to Grindelwald from there.  I stayed at Hotel Alpenbick (in their basement dorm) and ate a big dinner.  I had dressed light, expecting wet weather, but instead got a big sunburn.  It was around a 22 mile day.

Trek day 2:  One thing I was learning about the trails in Switzerland, is there are MANY and well marked for the most part, directing you from village to village.  The Via Alpina is not the only trail, and it is constantly being transected by other worthy trails.  So leaving Grindelwald, I decided not to follow the Via Alpina’s gradual ascent up the pass, flanking a paved road, but promptly ascended steeply up to Bort and Schreckfeld to immediately be rewarded with open views over the valley with the snowcaps in the background.  From there I could follow a route that stayed fairly level along the mountainside to the pass at Grosse Scheidegg.  Like the day before, looking down from the pass toward the next valley, I preferred to take the route less traveled flanking the open mountainsides, then down into the valley rather descending directly by the road and shelter of trees.  This was a good call, except that in the process of washing my lunch nectarines from my fingers in a stream, I dropped my camera in water.  I dried it off as best I could, but it ceased to work, and the rest of my trip would have to documented with my iPhone.  My chosen trail did descend back into the valley, rejoining the main route, and even though it had more tree canopy and roadway development, the views were great and the towering peaks seemed omnipresent.  I passed through the main valley hub of Meiringen, and hiked up to the village of Hasliberg-Reuti where I stayed in Pension Alpenbick, where I was the only guest.  It was an 18 mile day.

Trek Day 3:  By this point I was feeling confident that warnings about the higher elevation trails not being passable in the early season were over-cautious protocols.  After all, we’d had 3 straight days of temps in the 80’s.  But on this day, when I hiked the long steep route up to Planpatten and saw snow drifts that still blanketed the narrow ridge lines that I was supposed to cross, and clouds seemed to linger on that side of the valley obscuring both sun and visibility, I realized the warnings were legit and I was worried for the first time.  Since clouds and views over the hill and beyond the bend prevented me from being able to tell just how covered the trail was, I decided to just proceed, telling myself I’d turn around if encountered anything that I considered life threatening.  I grabbed a large wooden stake (pole) to help me keep my footing and balance when I had to cross sloped drifts.  Fortunately, it had been warm enough that the snow was fairly melted such that I could create my own footholds by just firmly planting my feet with each step.  If it were ice, it would have sent me for a ride.  So once I accepted the consequence of wet feet in my tattered running shoes, it wasn’t as bad as it looked.  I passed several chair lifts that were shuttered for the season, and only saw other people in the little hamlets at Tannalp and Engstlenalp.  I was the only hiker, and by the infrequency of other footprints in the snow, I had probably been the only hiker for some time.  When I crossed over Jochpass, the snow was at its worse, but ironically at its easiest.  It no longer made sense to even try and follow a trail when the whole slope seemed to be white.  I saw that if I just stayed close to the ski lift lines, I’d get to where I needed to be, so I implemented a kind of combination of downhill hiking and sliding and promptly got to where the snow petered out, and I could resume on marked paths.  However, at Trubsee, the steep trail down to Engleberg was closed.  I was forced to take gondola (the first working one I’d seen all day) down.  I did not complain.  It had been a long, precarious day.  Though a shorter 15 miles, compared to the previous days, this one felt longer.

Trek Day 4:  Due to the nature of the previous day, I decided to alter my hiking plans and forgo my intended last leg of the Via Alpina, as it would be passing another high pass of unknown condition.  So I slept in a bit, enjoyed a nice breakfast at my Engleberg Trail Hostel, and mapped out an alternate route.  I hiked up to Ristis, Brunnihutte, and the panorama at Rosenbold, and wrapped around the mountain side, without having to navigate snow or high passes down into Wolfencheissen.  While that ended my alpine trek with a more leisurely 10 miles, I promptly caught a train to Luzern where my walking was not finished.  I retired my old trail shoes in a park, and took a nice chilly swim in Lake Luzern, checked into my Backpackers hostel, cleaned up, then went about exploring the town, spending my last Swiss Franks on a donner box, and grocery store bread, cheese and beer to be consumed on the promenade banks of the river while the city transition to night.

The next day, June 3, was all about travel.  I took an early morning train to Zurich, and another to the airport.  I flew to ATL passing the 9 hours watching four forgettable movies.  I retrieved my car that I parked in hotel parking, grabbed a quick dinner with cousin Jeremy, and then drove on to Asheville to happily see my awaiting fiancée Kim and pooch El Guapo.

In summary, this was a great little week-long escape into stunning nature.  The Swiss Alps are deserved of their beautiful reputation.  The Via Alpina is not like a US long distance trail that takes you away from human activity for days on end, but rather links you to numerous villages that dot the valleys and mountain sides, and connects to many gondolas and lifts to ease your journey if you are so inclined.  For the most part, I would say that the human activity and amenities do not detract from the stunning nature around you, but add to it with charm.  I particularly enjoyed that these amenities of public transport, frequent food and lodging meant that I could make such a trip, traveling light with a relatively small carry-on backpack, meeting my needs along the way.  If you come before mid-June, the trail conditions in the passes over 2,000 meters might be sloshy, but there are plenteous simpler trails to explore at lower elevations (however those may not lead you to the “next valley” if you are planning a point to point thru hike).  I had reserved each of the places I stayed in, so I was sort of locked into a route.  While I probably could have just shown up without reservations or a set plan to some places as it was still early in the summer season, I get the impression it would be challenging to trek the Via Alpina relying solely on serendipity.  Places may fill up, or you will end up staying at a much more expensive place than you wanted.  Switzerland is already very expensive for transport, restaurants, and lodging, such that I would be hesitant to do a prolonged, meandering trek.  The more frugal way to do it would be to carry camping gear, and you can eat pretty well from the grocery markets in the hub villages; however, the terrain forces you into some grueling steep ascents and descents, and I was so glad I was only carrying my small, lighter pack.  Pros and Cons.  In any event, make sure you get out of the villages, charming as they are, and away from the busloads of Asian tourists, and put your feet upon the vast network of walking trails in Switzerland.  It so often feels like walking through a movie or a painting, idyllic and all around you.

(For an expanded photo look into this trip, feel free to visit my facebook album for Switzerland 2017 )

Iceland: Land of “Fire and Ice”. Land of the “higher than” Price.

Every year, I try to visit a new country, and this year’s selection of Iceland was somewhat of a “bucket list” fulfillment, but like many of my trips as a “scavenger” traveler, the real catalyst was opportunistic convenience and costs.  My busy spring tour season wrapped up, as it does most years, with one of my favorite schools, Carlthorp, and their trip ends in Boston.  Last year when their trip ended, I utilized Boston as a hub to close out my tour season, found a cheap flight to the Balkans, and took a personal expedition of 11 countries in as many days.  This year, I found a cheap flight from Boston to Reykjavik, Iceland on WOW Air.  $368 for a round trip, direct flight, spanning 6 days.  Not bad!

Greenland by AirWOW Air is a budget airline that publishes cheap fares, but charges you for any “extra” services such as choosing your seats, or utilizing the overheads for carry-ons, or in-flight drinks/food.  The only thing that is “included” is the space under the seat in front of you for a small backpack.  For me, budget travel and minimalist travel go hand-in-hand, so I readily accepted the challenge of limiting my luggage to the nook at my feet.  I was not deterred by the fact that I would be leading two back to back tours for 10 days leading right up to the Iceland trip that would require additional packing.  I saw it as another opportunity to “retire” some un-needed clothes on that part of the trip.  That’s been my pattern of late, I treat my travels like Goodwill donation bins, and come home with less than what I brought.  As for the few clothes I “did” want to keep for the duration of the trips combined, I had a chance to do a quick load of laundry in Boston before my WOW flight left.

Iceland itself proposed some challenges to the budget, minimalist traveler.  Average daytime highs in late May were in the upper 40’s and the lows in the lower 40’s; and wet and rain are common.  This wasn’t a trip to beach where I could just throw in a couple pairs of swimsuits and flip-flops and get by.  I packed my scrunchable down jacket and rain jacket, and would wear them every day as needed.  I packed my running shoes and chacos.  2 pairs of light pants and lights shorts, and other re-wearables completed my bag.  I would have left my laptop behind, but I needed it a good bit during the lead-up tours, so it went with me, adding some weight, but didn’t take up much space.

Iceland’s biggest challenge to my travel ethics was to my frugality.  Once you get past the inviting airfare, Iceland is notoriously expensive.  I reminded myself, this was not one of my Latin American trips where you can afford to treat yourself well, and fly by the seat of your pants from day to day.  After purchasing the flight, I did some research online, and wisely decided that I should book most of my principal lodging and shuttle services in advance:  KEX hostel bunk in Reykjavik, $40 a night.  5 hour bus to Thorsmark hiking hub, $60.  A bunk in the Basar Hut, $50.  In writing these out, these prices actually don’t seem that high, but most of the places I’ve traveled lately, have cost a quarter to a third of that.  I contented myself in the knowledge that though expensive, I was still traveling “my way” and it was costing a lot less that the way many other people were traveling staying in hotels, and sticking to the packaged tours.

Reykjavik
Reykjavik

I arrived Reykjavik airport at 6am, and promptly caught a shuttle to town.  It was Saturday, May 28.  I walked around the main streets getting a feel for the place.  Even though nearly everything was closed, I could still tell by signs, décor, and architecture where the main drag was.  I took it as an opportunity to also quietly scout out the prices on menus posted in the windows.  Typical dinners would be $30 and a beer $11.  I expected the city to come to life as the weekend morning gained steam, but by 9 and 10, the city seemed very sedate.  I found a 24-hour convenience store and bought some breakfast items, as well as trail food for when I would go on my hike.  I went to my hostel and learned, I’d need to wait another 4 hours before I could check into my bed.  So I left my bags at reception and headed back out into the town.  I walked around some of the same buildings again, this time showing more life, and even a little sunshine was peeking through the clouds.  I declined going to any of the museums, well because of price, but also because I’m often at some of the best museums in the world, and I quickly get museum fatigue, where I lose interest in what I’m seeing and find myself just going through the motions room after room.  I got some fish and chips (cheaper to go) at a restaurant near the pier, then headed to one of the neighborhood outdoor thermal pools.  Iceland is famous for its hot water pools, and I doubted I would go the the famous and expensive Blue Lagoon, so I set my sights on where the locals go.  Besides that, I hadn’t bathed in a few days, due to my overnight flight.  The pool looks just like your local park or rec center pool, except it’s all hot water, and there’s probably more adults there than kids.  I lounged there for a good bit, then made my way back toward the hostel.

I decided to make an additional stop at the city’s flea market which only happens on Saturday.  There a vendor was selling samples of one of Iceland’s national dishes: fermented (rotten) shark.  I bought some and the lady told me it’s best to taste it first than smell it.  She was right.  I put it in my mouth and while it wasn’t that disgusting at first, once I breathed through my nose, the odor from my mouth cavity then filled my nasal cavity, and my nose hairs started to burn and I wanted to spit it out.  I reluctantly, but hastily chewed and swallowed it down and opened my mouth to let fresh air in.  Not wanting to waste my purchase, I ate a few more smaller bits of samples, downing them like a shot of strong liquor – swallowing them fast before the stench and taste could settle in.  I couldn’t eat any more, and eventually I threw the rest away.

ReykjavikI had already done some “window” shopping walking around the main commercial streets, so I knew if I wanted to buy any “souvenirs” this flea market would be the place for me.  I have no use for trinkets, mugs, or stuffed puffins or winter garb brandishing the Iceland flag in the tourist shops.  The flea market was selling things that had been worn and lived in, and it was cheaper; though not as cheap as our US thrift store prices.  I wanted to get things that would be of practical use to me on my planned hike into the mountains on over ice fields, so I bought a scarf (that would double as a gift for my girl-friend) and a very un-Iceland beanie hat (it had the face of any angry afro black man on it).  Lastly, I found a serendipitous bargain.  The hostels in Iceland typically charge $10 for linens if you didn’t bring your own.  As a budget, minimalist traveler, I had not brought my own sleeping bag.  There in the flea market, a lady was selling light, brand new sleeping bags for the equivalent of $8.  These were by no means quality sleeping bags, but it would serve the purpose of giving me a light weight portable bedding for the duration of my travels, and save me the extra costs for linens.  So I bought one and headed back to the hostel, feeling proud of my clever finds.

ReykjavikBack at the hostel, having completed my hot bath and flea market shopping, I was able to claim my bed and try to get some much needed sleep with an afternoon nap in my new sleeping bag.  I felt like I had “seen and done” as much of Reykjavik as I wanted, but as the evening came around, I felt compelled to go back out and observe a bit of the night life on a Saturday night.  This close to the summer solstice, this far north, the “night life” is barely night at all as it never gets dark.  The bars and restaurants resembled more of a club scene that doesn’t appeal to me, particularly traveling alone, and particularly with the drink prices.  But this night also happened to be a big game in the NBA, with my OKC Thunder hosting the Golden State Warriors in a potentially huge upset.  However, in Iceland’s time zone, the game was being played from 1am to 3:30am.  But that’s sort of peak party hours for young people, so it worked out.  I lingered around walking about till the game started and I found what appeared to be the only sports bar on the main drag, and indeed it was showing the game on all of its screens.  For the price of one beer, that could have have bought me two Asheville beers of superior quality, I watched the game among other shouting American fans.  OKC lost the game, and would go on to lose the series.  I left the bar at 3:30am and it was brighter out than when I had gone in, but the streets were not any less empty.  It was graduation week, and queues of dapper dressed young people were still waiting to get into the preferred venues.

Thorsmark

Laugavegurinn TrailI was able to get in a few hours of sleep before it was time to get up and go catch my shuttle to Thorsmark.  I would be returning to Kex Hostel in a few days, so I decided to lighten my backpacking load by leaving behind my laptop, my Chacos, and some clothes I could do without.  The bus that took us to Thorsmark would have to drive over gravel roads carved through glacial river fields with very few bridges, so it was jacked up on big 4×4 tires.  On the way, it stopped at a few overlooks of waterfalls, volcanic eruptions damage, and one of the other nearby hiking hubs.  It eventually got to the Basar Hut that I had reserved at 1:30pm.  I was very glad to finally be out in the great outdoors of Iceland, and to be in nature of my own devices with the things I’d already brought and purchased to get by, and no need to do any additional shopping.  I used the remainder of the day to do a 6 mile hike on the other side of the glacial river valley.  It took a bit to get orientated to the trails, but I found them well marked and maintained, and extremely scenic.  Thorsmark is known for its trees, but I could hardly call it a forest.  The arctic birches and evergreens grow low, like miniature trees, and even then scarcely, such that most of the time, the trail offers a panorama free of covering canopy, shrub or tree.

Laugavegurinn TrailOne of the things I enjoyed on the bus ride out and doing the hike, is that I was meeting people.  The previous day in Reykjavik, I barely talked to a soul as I wandered the city and in and out of the hostel.  Now, out in the open landscapes, I was meeting people, learning of their travels and plans.  A number of Americans are going to Iceland.  A polish girl was the only other inhabitant in my hut, and I met a German guy who was planning on doing the same trek I was the next day, so we agreed to do it together, especially since much of the trail was still covered in snow, the intermediate huts were closed, and we would have to do the whole 16 mile hike in one day.  It would be good to have a cohort in the effort, and thus we did started at 8am the next morning after I got a much needed long night of sleep.

SkogarfossThe trail I researched to hike is the southern terminus of Iceland’s popular Laugavegurinn Trail.  I probably would have tried to hike the whole thing (some 40 additional miles) but there is still a lot of snow on the trail and none of the shuttles are running to the northern terminus, nor are any of the huts open that I would utilize for lodging.  So the last leg of the hike, from Thorsmark to Skogar was all that I could do, and even then there were warnings of deep snow blanketing the trail when it crosses between the volcanic summits of Eyjafjalla and Myrdals volcanos.  Though not the full, hike it made for a full day packed with lots of variety.  I was very grateful that the day started off with sunshine and clear skies.  The vistas over the glaciated valleys were spectacular.  The trail hit sort of a rolling plateau where the snow fields began, and it was probably merciful that the sun gave way to clouds here and prevented me from getting sunburned any worse on the white landscape.  While the snow covered the trail, it also conveniently left the footprints of others who had passed by, helping to keep us on the right path.  And it wasn’t “fresh” snow, but packed snow with a loose layer for decent traction on top, so it largely held firm and was manageable, though I was wearing my running shoes, that slowly absorbed some of the melting snow onto my feet.  When we crossed over the pass and descended down the valley toward the coast, the trail flanked the Skogar River, and as if flowing down a staircase, it took us by countless waterfalls every 15 minutes or so, each one outshining any in Western NC in both size and grandeur.  We kept up the jaunt down along the river, and the clouds started to drop a light rain on us and for the first time I started to feel cold, and I added layers.  The river’s grand finale was the great Skogarfoss Falls where it drops over its final cliff before crossing the agricultural plains into the Atlantic.  It’s an impressive sight, and it was both comforting and sad to be at the end of the trail.  My hostel and a hot show and meal were waiting for me, but we had left our remote journey that started without encountering another soul on the trail and landed back into thick of the tourist hordes with their selfie-sticks, being dropped off by interval busloads.

Jokulsarlon GlacierMy next day was fairly open.  All I had to do was get back to Reykjavik, and I knew there was a public bus that could take me there in the afternoon.  But when I checked the bus schedule, I found that they had gone to their summer schedule and were running the route twice a day.  That meant I could use it to go further along Iceland’s south coast and still return back to Reykjavick in the same day.  I looked at the timing and decided I would go to Jokulsarlon where a massive glacier dumps ice into a big blue lagoon which sculpts them into unique shapes as the melt and drift their way into the Atlantic.  It was a good plan, but here my lack of research showed and I had grossly miscalculated the timing in the cost.  Rather than being a fairly short drive that would cost me $20 round trip, it resulted in me being on the bus route for nearly 10 hours, and spending less than 2 hours at the actual glacier lagoon, and the total tab was more like $135.  I was frustrated with the inefficiency and cost of the day, and that along with the discovery that I had forgotten my charger adapter at the last hostel and with some annoying drivers, and some sea birds that kept dive-bombing my head as I walked near their nesting fields, I was in a sour mood.  Fortunately, the scenery from the bus was excellent, so the ride itself was not a bore, and I know some places I would focus on if I am every to return to Iceland.  Some of the stops en route were long enough that I could get out and look about.  So I saw a lot; but most of it was from a bus window and I didn’t get back to Reykjavik Kex Hostel till around midnight.  I don’t regret the decision to do it, but if I were to do it again, I would have tried my hand and hitch-hiking there, or near there, as a number of other travelers told me they had done quite easily.

The Free Shelf BFWith a new day back in Reykjavik, I could get back on my feet and resume my “efficient” touring and frugal ways!  I had discovered that the hostels in Iceland have a convenient “free” shelf for in the kitchen and in the fridge for the orphan items people leave behind.  I fully admit to being a scavenger with pride.  It is a necessary role in our materialistic world.  Miser, I can also be called, but Free-loader I am not.  I fully expect to carry my own burden and pay my share, but when others, in their excess, have left behind or given away things that they no longer value or need, but which still have potential value to others, it is a service to the world that we scavengers make use of such things.  On this morning in Reykjavik, rather than pay for the $14 continental breakfast the hostel offered, I walked to the nearby convenience store and bought a liter of milk, and some lunch meat and cheese. I helped myself to the Cheerios, hot chocolate, and juice from the free shelf.  I then made sandwiches with the free bread and spread, for lunch/dinner for the day’s outing.  When I learned the hostel’s own “Golden Circle” tour was sold out, they helped me book one that was even cheaper for the afternoon.

Golden FallsMany tourists to Iceland stay in Reykjavik and the just do the various day tours run by various tour operators directly from the city, utilizing an efficient network of buses collecting people from their various hotels.  The most popular of these is the Golden Circle trip, which runs from 6 – 7 hours.  It’s a bit unfortunate that I did it AFTER going into the further interior of Iceland, because I found the tour overall less-impressive.  The Golden Falls were indeed some impressive falls not just the sheer volume, but how the earth has opened up with plate tectonic drift.  But the other falls and crater were mere roadside stops, and the famous Geyser that gave its name to all geysers is dormant, but the nearby ones that are active pale in comparison in both size and color to what I saw in Yellowstone last summer.  Plus it was pretty miserable day wet with rain, I could feel a fresh cold coming on, my off and on sore throat seemed to be getting more sore, and I had an intestinal geyser of my own to contend with.  I was very impressed with the driver guide, who not only gave commentary on the sites, but really did a great job of summarizing all of Iceland’s geologic and cultural history in an interesting and clever way.  I told him I was also a tour guide, and gave him my compliments.

Blue LagoonProbably Iceland’s most famous site is the Blue Lagoon.  When I’d first heard of it, I pictured (thanks to the pictures) a colorful natural thermal pool that gives way to the ocean.  And while that’s mostly true, when I heard that the “natural” lagoon is also a highly manicured, resort-like enclosed spa with another big price tag, I figured I would just try to make use of the more natural and local thermal pools on my outer trips.  But my other travels never really afforded that experience, and since I could feel a nasty cold coming on, and lingering congestion in my chest/throat, I decided I should treat myself to the Blue Lagoon on my last day.  I was actually easier and cheaper than I thought.  I was able to switch around my return shuttle to the airport for my 3:30pm flight, to take an early morning shuttle to the Blue Lagoon, spend all morning there, then an afternoon shuttle directly to KEF airport to catch my flight.  So on my last day, I ate my breakfast from the free shelf at the hostel, and paid if forward by leaving behind my sleeping bag with a note that said “Free, used 5 times” and hopped my shuttle to the Lagoon. I’m glad I did it.  The perfect way to spend my last morning.  I had plenty of time there with nothing to do but just lounge around in the warm water.  And when I moved around, squatting neck deep in the water, to the various pools and sections of the lagoon, it was a refreshingly slothful pace.  (On much of my previous touring, I literally ran to fit in the different sites and views I wanted to see/do).  The long soak in the warm water and the silica mud facials and the hot steamy sauna and the massaging waterfall may not have gotten rid of my ailments, but I certainly felt better while I was there.  I had some highs and lows as a budget, minimalist traveler, but mostly, mostly highs and I deserved to pamper myself a little before heading home.

Skogar RiverIn retrospective, I think I largely used my time well and did a lot.  I would highly recommend for anyone to go to Iceland, especially if you’re in a position to take advantage of affordable airfare.  I know Iceland Air often does specials where if you’re flying with them to other parts of Europe, you can do a free stopover in Reykjavik.  Although, I would suggest that your stopover be more than just the popular Blue Lagoon (near the airport) and Golden Circle (near Reykjavik).   I did a little research on car rental prices for comparison after the trip, and I think it would save you money to go that route if you are traveling with at least one other person.  I also saw a number of sleeper van type vehicles that a couple people could sleep in.  To me, that would be ideal because it would give you freedom to plan your days, stock up on groceries, and not have drop a lot of money into lodging and restaurant meals https://www.happycampers.is.  Nearly all of the “nature” sites are free to park/enter, with access off the main ring road.  My favorite part was definitely the hike from Thorsmark to Skogar.  Getting to Thorsmark (or Landmannalaugar to hike the whole Laugavegurinn Trail) is not something you could do in a rental, not only because most rentals couldn’t handle the rocky road, but also because it’s not a loop hike – you’ll end miles away from the start, so that part my best done through the shuttle services http://nat.is/travelguideeng/hiking_laugavegur.htm.

VikThough the expense of things was a bit of killjoy, I enjoyed the challenge it presented to my budget-minimalists ethics, and I feel like I came out on top.  And I had to learn not to take cost of things personal – against Iceland or the person on the other side of the counter.  Prices weren’t jacked up beyond normal to take advantage of tourists, they’re just high for everyone – locals and tourists alike.  I suppose it’s the nature of commerce being on an isolated European island with majestic, but limited natural resources.  As for Icelanders themselves, I did not see a proclivity toward excess and fancy living.  Homes and cars, even in the city, were simple favoring practicality over luxury.  I saw little evidence of their population having a very wealthy class or an impoverished class.  Jobs that we might consider menial labor – bus drivers, servers and sales clerks were not handed off to an under-paid immigrant or minority class.  They all seemed to be healthy-looking, educated locals who played their roles with friendly professionalism.  There seemed to be an air of equality across the island, in both city and rural settings, and I think that is worth the “higher than” price tag.

(To see more of my photos, feel free to visit my Iceland 2016 Facebook Album)

The Balkans, in Bulk. So many borders, so tempting to cross them all.

(A few months prior to creating this Itchy Foot Prints blog, I made a whirlwind trip through the Balkans, and attempted a sort of travel blog by making daily Facebook posts throughout my travels.  I’ve compiled them here to add them to my travel writing collection)

Being the land mass between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the Balkan region has the “oldest” parts of Europe. A lot of old structures – churches, mosques, cobblestone plazas, fortified walls & castles – but mixed with very modern efforts of capitalism and to establish government and border identities that might reverse the historic tide of misfortunes. Everywhere are the remnants of millennia of overlapping empires, and very recent decades of regional factionalism, and war scarred buildings. Most cities had designated pedestrian zones, lively and abundant with outdoor cafes at cheap prices, especially for Europe. Each border crossing required a passport/customs check, and exchanging money; which was easy and rather fun considering most of the rest of Europe has gone with a near border-less union and common currency. I had great weather, except in Sarajevo, where the rain somehow seemed fitting as I stood in the place where an assassin’s bullets sparked the global chaos of the 20th Century, and walked a hillside of untimely graves all placed there just 20 years ago. While Dubrovnik gets the “photography” award, Kotor was a favorite – rustic with both man-made and natural fortifications on the Adriatic. Albania was very fascinating – often chaotic, but charming in its lack of global commercialism; the streets were the markets and the roads often shared by shepherds tending their flocks/herds. Ukraine was the most fashionable and urbane, but lacked a festive or touristy vibe, perhaps due to the ongoing conflict with Russia. I recommend “Triposo” as the travel guide/map App for the ultra-light traveler, and above all, I highly recommend this region. Sure, over-priced Western Europe will always rule the tourist hordes, but go to the Balkans, sooner than later. My route: 11.5 Countries in 13 days. In order: Belgrade, Serbia / Sarajevo and Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina / Dubrovnik, Croatia / Kotor, Montenegro / Shkoder, Lake Komani, & Valbona, Albania / Prizren, Kosovo / Skopje, Macadonia / Sogia, Bulgaria / Bucharest, Romania / Chisinau, Moldova / Tiraspol, Transnistria / Odessa & Kiev, Ukraine.2015 Balkans Start

May 22, 2015 ·

Finished my last spring tour this morning. Now it’s Boston to the Balkans. Clean shaven. Clean Benjamins in my wallet. And a new “no international fee” credit card. Clean clothes in my small backpack. Downloaded guides to 11 countries in my Triposo App. A mostly clean inbox and an almost clean To Do list. Ready to go.

 

May 23, 2015 ·

Due to flight delays I did not arrive to Belgrade until 4, jet lagged and very sleepy. But I rejuvenated once my feet hit the street. I can’t imagine a better way and day to experience Serbia’s capital – a sunny Saturday wandering monumental churches and govt buildings. Then watching the sunset transition of Kalemegdan fortress and park overlooking the Danube and Sava confluence while music from a festival played all around. And finally treating myself to a traditional dinner and drink overlooking the city’s most lively drinking and folk singing pedestrian street Skadarlija. A good 8 hours in Belgrade.

Belgrade, Serbia

May 24, 2015 ·

Arrived Sarajevo in a downpour but it let up enough to go explore this fascinating city of cultures and religions mixing amid a sad legacy of jockeying external empires and internal purges. This vantage overlooks it all. Where a 1914 assassination sparked the Great War, and Muslim cemetery below holding victims of the 1990’s civil war.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

May 25, 2015 ·

Left Sarajevo on an early morning train to Mostar and its famous Ottoman bridge, then hopped a bus to Croatia’s jewel on the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik. Its walled-in fortified old city is so well preserved and packed with all manner of tourists that it feels like Disneyland. Both worthy of the acclaim and visitation, but overrun. And it’s not even high season yet. I’m pretty sure today will be the most “touristy” day of my Balkan journey.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

May 26, 2015 ·

I took advantage of a clear sky sunrise to jog up to the fort overlooking Dubrovnik and around its city walls before hopping on a last minute bus to Kotor, Montenegro early enough to lunch in this plaza and take it at slower pace which is good because the fast pace caught up with me when climbing the fyord fortress. Not feeling well. NOT joining the other “young” backpackers on their pub crawl tonight. Old man needs rest, but I do really like Kotor!

Kotor, Montenegro

May 27, 2015 ·

I made it to Albania today. Apart from hiking up to this hilltop castle overlooking Shkoder, it was a mostly uneventful day. Which is good because I remain sick with what I’m pretty sure is the stomach flu. Here’s hoping for a good nights sleep and better health tomorrow.

Shkoder, Albania

May 28, 2015 ·

For the first time on my trip I’m spending a 2nd night in the same country. Though definitely not in the same place. A full day of travel via shuttle, ferry the length of lake Komani, and more shuttles brought me to Valbona. I had planned to do a lengthier trail run but my lingering stomach bug limited me to an 8 mile hike with the four hours of light I had left. Wish I had better health and more time to explore more of the surrounding rugged beauty.

Valbona, Albania

May 29, 2015 ·

Even as a self-proclaimed geography nerd, if I were asked to label a map of all the Balkan nations prior to this trip, I would have failed. But “knowing” the political borders does little to explain the demographics within and without. Being the overlapping land between Greece and Rome, Byzantium and Catholicism, Ottoman and Austo-Hungarian Empires, Muslims and Christians, the communist block and the “free” world, this region is like putting Green Life’s and Ryan’s Steakhouse Buffets together in one room and a food fight breaks out. The containers get seized and re-seized mixing all the while. The creation of Yugoslavia in the wake of The Great War hoped to establish an all-inclusive buffet for Slavic people caught in the middle, and though they look the same and largely speak the same language, there were deep nationalistic and religious differences within. Internal pluralism did not win out. Perhaps here in Prizren, is where the complexity of it all is best witnessed. Kosovo is Europe’s newest nation but its independence from Serbia is not universally recognized at the UN. Mostly Orthodox, Serbia has been charged with crimes against humanity against the mostly Albanian Muslim civilians amid the Kosovo War. Retaliatory crimes have since taken place including looting and vandalizing the Christian churches, which are now under official guard and restoration. This all seems surprising walking the streets this Friday afternoon, as these very religious shrines are surrounded by bustling pedestrian lanes full of fashionable young people and cafes with a decidedly cosmopolitan air. This is additionally surprising seeing all the Albanian flags flying. I know there is a lot of ethnic Albanian nationalism here, but my little jaunt through Albania showed me it’s probably the least cosmopolitan nation in Europe (the best reason to go in my opinion). So it seems while the forces of fragmentation in this part of the world have used consolidation and displacement to build successful political and cultural identities from centuries of overlapping food fights, things are still mixed together.
As to my own “constitution” I feel better overall today but my bowels mimic the history. Like 1918, this morning I consoled myself that I had just taken the “poop to end all poops” and peace would surely follow. And it did for a spell, but it set the stage for more advanced and terrible poops. I suppose I should see this as my body’s necessary deployment to rid itself of a power-mad regime or dictator, and call it a “just war”.

Prizren, Kosovo

May 30, 2015 ·

Perhaps it was the snub of the neighboring Greeks and the complicit phil-helene international community who forced the newly independent Macedonia to take the awful name of “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” claiming it was not the legitimate heir to that name and the homeland heritage of Alexander the Great and the spread of Helenistic culture to the benefit of modern civilization. Skopje is a capital city designed to impress, and make a statement. The current government is on a massive unabashed building spree to showcase, to prove, their historic contributions to culture and civilization. The city center is full of modern neo-classical buildings and bridges, many still under construction. And anywhere that it’s possible to put a statue, there’s a statue to some person of note, the most massive one being of Alexander himself. You can’t help but think that they let things get out of hand. It comes off feeling more like Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas – a new disneyesque pretend capital. The verdict still seems to be out for the locals. For such an ambitious project of glorified public space, the surrounding pedestrian lanes and cafes were surprisingly barren for a Saturday afternoon. Recent protest have decried the escalating cost and mismanagement of the project. Maybe when the it’s done, and with time, it will become a happening and appreciated place. Meanwhile, I’m sure the Greeks are humoring themselves that these gaudy measures only prove the republic is unworthy of the “class” in classical. To its credit, the city is the most developed of those I’ve seen on this trip so far. I could see new bike lanes as part of the city overhaul, and snow-capped mountains are in the visible around. It would be nice to visit again in 10 years and see if the city center indeed does become vibrant and proud, as intended. But for today, I’m glad that I kept it to just a 2 hour walk around between buses transferring to Bulgaria, a scenic drive in an uncrowded bus with wifi! Good news, my health, appetite, and energy are restored and I’m feeling good!

Skopje, Macedonia

May 31, 2015 ·

I had a full day in Sofia, Bulgaria and had planned to spend it doing “city” things as a nation’s capital deserves, and indeed I did those things – government buildings, monuments, historic churches, parks and pedestrian zones. But I actually ended up spending the majority of the day traveling to the outskirts of town, riding cable cars up the slopes of Mt. Vitosha, and hiking the final few km to the rocky summit with expansive views over Sofia. Very nice to enjoy some nature exploration on my mostly “urban” circuit, the same way I would if I were a local – just wish I had El Guapo with me like so many Bulgarians out with their dog friends. A good day and hopefully a decent restful night – I board an overnight bus to Bucharest tonight.

Sofia, Mt. Vitosha

June 1, 2015 ·

I arrived to Bucharest on an overnight bus with very little sleep and have had all day to explore. That’s plenty of time for a cursory overview so I took my time and even went on my first “guided” walking tour and went to a museum exhibit for a little more depth. The stories sound similar to the rest of the Balkans – a proud and independent minded people who were pulled between Eastern and Western Empires for centuries, then emerged from two world wars under a repressive Communist block, only to be free from that in the last generation. One ruler who kept the invaders at bay through inhumane public punishment during his short reign (impaling) has been passed on to us as the horror figure Dracula. The legend of his ghastly deeds now draws a lot of tourist dollars to Romania – particularly Transylvania, which I would go to if I had an extra day. Tonight I hope to catch up on sleep on a long overnight sleeper train to Moldova.

Bucharest

June 2, 2015 ·

While my entire trip has been among the post WWII “communist block” of Eastern Europe, my arrival today into Moldova via overnight train is my first foray into the former Soviet Union. Moldova has the distinction of being Europe’s “least” visited country, which makes me all the more proud to be here, though I’m afraid I can’t brag about what everyone else is missing out on. There’s not much to miss here in the Capital Chisinau. It took me a spell to find a good outside cafe to eat/drink with a decent park or plaza view. These have been quite abundant everywhere else. But I wouldn’t say I’m bored and ready to move on. There’s an authenticity here of busy streets with a bustling market atmosphere of people trying to eek out a living. Without the allure of many “sites” to see, I went to the national museum showcasing remnants of how the larger world left its mark here. They speak Romanian, a Latin language now orphaned from “Rome” when the Slavs occupied the rest of the Balkans, but the people look more Northern European than the other countries I’ve visited. I’ve seen memorials to overcoming German-fascist occupation and Stalinist deportations, but judging by street scene here, I can’t see that capitalism has been all that great either. The churches stay in business here as I witnessed – always open, all generations coming to pray.

Chisnau

June 3, 2015 ·

Ever heard of the country of Transnistria (Transdneistr)? Me neither prior to this trip. The lack of attention is largely due to the fact that they are the only ones who see themselves as an independent country. When Moldova left the Soviet Union, this eastern part didn’t want to go with them. After a short civil war ending in 1992, we’re left with this little semi-autonomous country the maintains its own border patrol and currency. Statues of Lenin and old Soviet tanks adorn some of the government spaces, such that it’s becoming a “back in time” Soviet side stop between Moldova and Ukraine. I was expecting to see a rather grey and worn city during my two hour stop in the capital Tiraspol, but was surprised to find clean and manicured streets with healthy looking people walking about, the girls looking like sorority girls with the hot summer weather.
I’m now in Ukraine – got hassled some by the police upon arrival, but now enjoying a fancy dinner in the main pedestrian zone of Odessa before boarding an overnight, first class sleeper train to Kiev.

Tiraspol

June 4, 2015 ·

I spent ALL day walking around admiring the Great “Gates and Gaits” of Kiev. A massive city with many beautiful things to see. The old “gates” have little left of them to show for the Kiev-Rus Kingdom that dominated Eastern Europe a 1000 years ago up until the Mongol invasions, but the many orthodox churches and monastery complexes are entered through their own impressive baroque gates. The most eye-catching “gaits” might be all the women walking to and fro. It’s summer and the women are sporting their legs with short skirts and dresses and stilt-like high heels you’d expect to see on a red carpet runway. Apparently that’s an everyday look here. The high fashion sense certainly makes me look shabby walking around in my last semi-clean clothes on the last day of my trip.

Kiev