Archive for November, 2009

Day 13: Last hours in Reykjavik (and on our trip)

Posted in travel on November 28, 2009 by poojaland

Due to another 10 a.m. check-out time at our hostel, A and I got up around 8. I hopped in the shower, and then we began packing up the last of our belongings. We parked our bags by the front desk, and then set out on foot. We mainly wanted to do some shopping.. We saw and fell in love with some jackets at 66 North, and Icelandic outerwear company, but everything was super expensive (the thin down jacket I liked was $383), so I only left with a kids’ hat (and A with nothing). We found a random store a block away called The Viking, where we each picked up a much cheaper jacket (though wind/water proof, not down). A also picked up a cute wool hat at another store. On our way back to the hostel, we stopped at a famous hot-dog stand where Bill Clinton once ate. I got a hot dog with gremolata (? it’s a variation of mayonnaise) and fried onions. SO GOOD! We were tipped off to the place by Johanna, of course.



Here’s a shot of downtown Reykjavik, which is, conveniently, about three blocks from our hostel:


And finally, we made one last stop, to the harbor, and took some shots of and in front of the beautiful scenery we saw for the first time (all our other outings in Reykjavik were in the dark).


Thank you, Island, it’s been great, and we hope to experience more of you sometime in the future!

With that I’m officially wrapping up the extended blog coverage from our trip … see you in Seattle!

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Day 12: Glacier walking in Iceland

Posted in travel on November 28, 2009 by poojaland

Well, our two-week adventure is just about done. We’re going out with a bang, though, as today was a really fantastic glacier walk in southern Iceland on the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue (don’t ask me to try and pronounce that, I just copied and pasted it from the Web site!). A and I rolled out of bed around 7:30 a.m. and sloooowly got dressed in the dark, as all our roommates (by yesterday morning, there were three other girls in here) were still sleeping. I have a lot of plastic bags in my suitcase, as well as one huge and very loud space bag, so I actually took my suitcase into the hall so I could open it up and root around to get what I needed for the day.

By 8:30, we were in our hostel lobby, and soon after, the Reykjavik Excursions shuttle bus pulled up to get us. After picking up some other folks in nearby hostels, we were off. It was a two-hour drive to the glacier, and around 10, the sun finally started coming up, and we got some great views:

During the ride, I also realized that sh*t, I’d forgotten my gloves!! We stopped at a service station about 30 minutes from the glacier to visit the restroom and buy food, and luckily they had some Polartec fleece gloves for sale. They were a bit small, but I just found the largest pair, and bought them without even looking at the price.

Then, we all (there were about 12 of us, and two guides) arrived at the end of the glacier “tongue,” and split into two groups. Our guide was named Atna (or something … that’s his name in my blog, anyway). We got fitted for crampons, and got ice axes. Then we walked a few hundred feet out past the car-park area, and sat down to strap on our crampons. Atna gave us about two minutes of training on walking with the crampons, and then we were off:

Because no snow had fallen on the glacier, we didn’t have to worry about ice bridges or hidden cravasses. The ground was solid ice, and you could see the blue of the water/ice very clearly (the dust/dirt everywhere is thanks to all the winds and volcanic dust that gets blown around):

Obligatory shot with the ice axe held in a funny position..:

Atna takes us through an ice tunnel:

Atna helps someone get up and out of the ice tunnel:

Etc.:

The weather was of course cold (I’d say in the 20s, Fahrenheit), and we even had some snow flurries. Plus it got windier and windier the higher up we went. Atna would periodically just stop and look around for seemingly no reason at all, and we’d all just stand around him, waiting…waiting…and then he’d whistle some tune after a few minutes and set off again. Very strange, and not super fun when we were amid the wind gusts!

On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped to visit two waterfalls, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss. I’m beat now, so I’ll try to post pics of those later (they’re your basic waterfalls, no offense, Icelanders!). On the 1.5-hour journey from the second waterfall to Reykjavik, darkness quickly fell, and the bus was really silent. We got back to our hostel around 6:30 p.m. Turned out we had a new roommate, also Indian, but from Australia. She (let’s call her S), A and I all hit it off right away, and headed out around 8 (A wanted to shower) to track down an Italian restaurant recommended by the hostel’s receptionist. We set out, and immediately got lost (yeah, surprise! street signs are a rare commodity in downtown Reykjavik, at least for us!). We walked in a couple big circles, asked a couple random folks for help, and then finally stumbled into the restaurant a good 40 minutes later (we discovered on the way back that the place was actually only about 5 blocks from our hostel …). The food was good (especially the delicious warm chocolate cake we got for dessert), but due to super slow service, we didn’t pay our bill until 11:30 p.m. We were going to stop by a bar on the way back to “meet people,” but the cold was getting to us by that point, so we ended up just coming right back. A and I spent some time trying to pack up most of our bags, as we have to check out by 10 a.m. tomorrow. Our flight back home to Seattle isn’t until nearly 5, so we have a few hours to kill between check-out and catching the FlyBus to the airport — we’ll spend those hours shopping downtown, and finally seeing Reykjavik in the daylight for the first time!

OK, exhausted … Pooja out.

Day 11: Travel day, arrival in Reykjavik and most hilarious pic EVAR!

Posted in travel on November 26, 2009 by poojaland


Oh MAN!! I caught A unawares in our hostel as I snapped a pic of her from my top bunk while she was e-mailing. Thanks for being a sport about my posting this, A. It’s too hilarious for the rest of the world to not see!!

Anyway, moving on … We had a thankfully less dramatic departure from the Netherlands this morning, thanks to the hours of packing we put in last night (though I hardly slept last night, and am really feeling the burn now). We said our goodbyes to U around 9:45 after the taxi guy pulled up, and then we began the fun task of lugging all our bags downstairs and out of her building, and then through the train station and onto the train itself. Thankfully, it wasn’t rush hour — it’s like India times 10 in the train stations then, there’re so many people — but it was still taxing. Thankfully, we had some assistance with bags here and there from some other train riders.

Once we got go Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam (after about a 30-minute train ride from Utrecht), we checked in our bags and then set off to do some duty-free shopping, mainly for items requested by our Dad. We found one item he wanted (Sennheisen [sp?] headphones), but we’ll have to try for the others in Keflavik Airport here in Iceland. Our flight from Amsterdam to Keflavik was about three hours long. We had a great view of Iceland as we flew in; A snapped a few pics from her window-seat vantage point:


As you can see, it’s pretty barren! Though I don’t think we passed over Reykjavik itself, which is where I think the bulk of Iceland’s population resides. After we arrived at Keflavik, got our bags, and began heading toward the exit, we two, among the sea of white people, were of course pulled aside for a random Customs check!! Thankfully, it was painless; they just re-x-rayed all our bags, and then we finally were on our way. We stepped out into the frigid air (-2 degrees C/28 degrees F) to hop on the FlyBus that most people seemed to be also hopping onto. This took us on a 50-minute drive into Reykjavik, and then we hopped a smaller shuttle at the bus terminal that took us to our actual hostel.

Our hostel is right in the middle of downtown Reykjavik, which is really convenient. And though our room is a 10-bed, female-only ensuite (meaning, we share one bathroom inside our room), there’s only one girl in here besides A and me. The guy at the front desk, who I believe is Australian, has been amazingly helpful. He even, at our request, booked a day tour for us (more on that in a sec) and charged it to the hostel. We then paid the hostel back with our own credit cards. After plonking our bags down in our room, we consulted our (via Johanna) Lonely Planet guidebook, and decided to walk a couple blocks down the street to a tapas restaurant. After dinner (which was good, but nothing exciting), we walked a bit further into the downtown area, and swung through a grocery store to pick up some food for tomorrow’s outing. We then came back to the hostel around 8, and are now getting ready to head back out to chillax at a cafe. Apparently the cafes become dance clubs in the late evenings, so A and I will take separate key cards so she can stay out late and party and meet “people” if she so desires.

As for tomorrow’s outing, we’re actually going on a glacier walk, which sounds super amazing. I think we’ll be gone for 10 hours total, but four of those hours will be spent on the road getting to and from the glacier. We get to wear crampons and wield an ice axe and everything! If you want to know more about what we’ll be doing, there’s more info on the Icelandic Mountain Guides’ Web site. Think it’s supposed to be partly sunny tomorrow (or, at least, not wet), so this should be a really special experience. More tomorrow night, of course!

And I must of course toss a huge thank you to Johanna, for the guide book, e-mailed/phone advice and even helping us find this great hostel!

Day 10: Lots of running around

Posted in travel on November 25, 2009 by poojaland

Waited too long to write this up, so it’s gonna be quick. Just got too caught up in catching up with U after our Prague jaunt, and then A and I tried to get the bulk of our packing done. We were successful, in my opinion, but as it’s now nearly 1 a.m., and we’re planning to be up at 7:30 a.m., I’m sure it’s still going to be a bit of a manic morning tomorrow (we’re going to order a taxi for 9:45 a.m. to take us to the train station).

Our trip back to Utrecht was uneventful; we checked out of our hostel (which, for the great reveal, was the Prague Lion — I’ll try to write more about it later) around 9:45 a.m., and stashed our luggage in their luggage-storage room. Headed to Old Town Square and picked up those last-minute souvenirs I mentioned yesterday. Then we sat down for a huge breakfast at a restaurant in Old Town Square, right in front of the Astronomical Clock. It was sunny/warm enough that with the help of the nearby heater lamp, I was able to enjoy my breakfast in just my T-shirt and thin microfleece — really nice way to stay goodbye to the city. Oh, and FYI, Johanna: Not much further action on the whole Christmas-tree/booths thing. The light strands had been put up about halfway down the tree, and the booths had red felt roofs, but that was it.

Got back to U’s around 6:30.. more paneer for dinner, and two servings of tea to bookend the food. Then we were delighted to discover an episode of “Australian Border Patrol” on the TV. Saw an amusing bit on a Chinese lady who was very distressed that she couldn’t bring her boxes of mushrooms (with no name in English) into the country …

OK, fading fast, I’m off!

Day 9, part II: Anticlimax

Posted in travel on November 24, 2009 by poojaland

Well, our evening plans unfortunately went poof tonight … We set out in the dark and drizzle at 7 as planned to meet our tour guide for the pub tour. We met at the appointed place, waited and waited for others to show up, but no one else came. We were then informed that the guide (who only shows up after the guidees have arrived; in the meantime, there’s some other hired dude you wait around with) doesn’t do tours with less than three “discount” customers (we had a half-off coupon from our hostel). In the end, the liaison with the guide — who had the guide on his cell phone — was like “Sorry!” The guide wanted us to talk to him on the liaison’s phone, but we were like “No, never mind, we’re leaving.” So then we spent a good 40 minutes wandering around nearby streets looking for a “fun” bar were “we [could] meet people” (I’m quoting my sister here, though in actuality, she was looking to more meet “people” of the male variety, though she has a man already!). That was a no go, so we slowly headed back towards our hostel.

A block from our hostel, we perused the menu of a restaurant we’d walked by and eyed a few times over the past couple days. We decided to go ahead and order one dish and one dessert to split between us, and ordered it as a take-out item, to avoid having to tip (plus, it was a bit of a hoity-toity looking place). We then enjoyed a lovely dinner of pistachio-encrusted chicken breast with a lemony cream sauce, and pineapple slices with mascapone cheese, coconut milk and raspberry sauce.

Around 9:15, we wandered back outside and scouted out two bars across the street from that restaurant we’d eaten food from. We went into one, but just ended up sitting by our lonesomes at the bar. There were a few groups of people in there, but they all kept to themselves, and the layout of the bar wasn’t such that we could easily join in any of the various conversations. So after the one drink… back we came. Our clothes and hair were saturated with cigarette smoke (I swear, one of our two people smokes here — annoying), so we’ve each just finished taking a late-night shower.

Hopefully, we’ll get to bed at a decent time, as tomorrow will be a whirlwind for us. We have to check out of our room by 10 a.m. Then we’ll stash our luggage in our hostel’s luggage room. We’ll make one last, quick souvenir run, likely to the Old Town Square area, and then by 11:30, we have to get to the metro (subway) station a few blocks away to head towards the airport. Then we transfer to a bus that takes us the last leg. Our flight back to the Netherlands is at 2, so by 5 or so, we should be sipping tea at our cousin’s in Utrecht. We’ll be heading out of the Netherlands for the final time Thursday morning (en route to Reykjavik), so tomorrow night will also be a bit busy, in that we’ll hopefully get everything nearly packed up and weighed, etc.

We’re nearly to the home stretch of our two weeks of travels, and I must admit I’m really looking forward to relaxing in my own home! But we’ve definitely been having a great time out here.

Day 9: Second (and final) full day in Prague

Posted in travel on November 24, 2009 by poojaland

So I’m doing my Day 9 Part I blog update while Ms. A is (take a guess) sleeping, of course! To recap the day’s activities …

We rolled out of bed this morning around 9:30 not really knowing where exactly we’d go. However, I was craving some TGI Friday’s (don’t laugh — I LOVE their Sesame Jack Chicken Strips appetizer, and all of their Seattle [and nearby] locations have closed — Julie, you’ll understand!!), and we’d spied one during our tour yesterday. So as it was about 11 by the time we were ready to head out, we made a beeline for Old Town and TGIF. Thankfully, their menu did contain my beloved chicken strips, and I devoured them with a tasty house-made raspberry iced tea. SO GOOD!

Next, we wandered around Old Town a bit, looking for a souvenir for Mom. Didn’t find much, but as it was nearing the hour (of 1), we headed back to Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock, to see the little ceremony that goes on every hour (and apparently has gone on every hour for 600 years now). There was a huge crowd gathered at the base of the tower. The ceremony itself lasted only maybe two minutes, and featured the “12 Apostles” rotating behind the windows above the clock dials. Plus there were some little figurines under the window who pulled/rang little bells and moved a bit. Ooh la la! After that, we paid about $5 to take two elevators up to the top of the Clock tower. Once there, we had yet another amazing view of Prague. Here are some of the best pictures (I should mention here that we brought along my little 8.1 megapixel digital camera, but also my dad’s 12 (?) megapixel Canon DSLR, which of course takes far superior pictures. Nearly all the Prague photos are being taken on the Canon):

Looking west toward Prague Castle (notice the dark spires way in the background):

In the center of this shot, which looks down into Old Town Square, you can see the Christmas tree that’s been erected. When we walked back through the Square a couple hours later, they’d started putting lights on it. Looks like they’ll have some sort of festival or event there; all those brown, box things were little booths with numbers. Maybe we’ll try to wander through there later tonight or in the morning to see what’s going on:

Next, we set out for this shopping mall A had seen earlier in the day, which boasted 200 shops inside. We browsed through several, but didn’t buy anything. I did grab some kiwi gelato on our way out — yum. Then, we headed to the Jewish Quarter to a store our tour had swung through briefly yesterday. Our tour guide had recommended it as a good place to buy cheap(er) garnet jewelry (which the Czech Republic is known for) and glassware made in the C.R. We found a cool glass bowl for Mom, that we think she should keep on the dining-room table as a centerpiece (it’s not made for putting food in). The store nicely had it delivered to our hostel tonight, but it’s going to be a bit of a task getting it home on Icelandair, as both our big checked bags were nearly at the limit of 50 lbs …

Finally, to finish up our outing, we walked back across the Charles Bridge, to check out the art and jewelry for sale by local artists. At that point, our run of good luck with the weather unfortunately ran out (though thankfully, it was dusk at this point), and little rain drops began falling. The artists all either quickly packed up and left, or covered their wares with opaque plastic, which didn’t make for the best shopping for us. So we crossed over to the west side of the Vltava River, and went into a glassware/jewelry store, where I found a cute clear-and-green turtle which I can put on a shelf somewhere, and a bead bracelet. And then, I’m afraid to say, we were silly Americans yet again and stepped into a McDonald’s to enjoy some fries and a Diet Coke. What can I say, I get cravings for McD’s fries! Interestingly, I ordered a large size of both the fries and the soda, but what I got was the equivalent of what would be a medium for each in the U.S. …

Around 5:30 p.m., we arrived back in our hostel. A did some Internet business, and then of course fell into bed. Now it’s 6:45 p.m., so I’m going to go shake her awake, as we have to head to Wenceslas Square at 7 for tonight’s Pub Tour. More later!

Day 9: First full day in Prague

Posted in travel on November 23, 2009 by poojaland

So it’s been a long, but very enjoyable first day here in Prague — and we’re actually not done with our day yet (it’s now 6:30 p.m.; we left the hostel around 9:45 a.m., and only got back maybe 30 min. ago). We’re heading out to an hour-long ghost walk/tour around 8 (it came for free with the ticket to the tour we just got back from). As I type, A is zonked out on her bed. I tell you, that chick naps when and wherever she can — on the trains, on 90-minute flights, while we’re in our hostel between activities …

Anyway, when I got up around 8, I checked the weather forecast. I saw that the temperature would be the same for both today and Tuesday (upper 40s), but that while Tues. there was a 70% chance of rain, today there was only a 20% chance. So A and I decided to indeed go on the foot/boat/tram tour I mentioned in yesterday’s post. We hit the shower, and were on the road headed to Wenceslas Sqaure (same guy the Christmas song is about, although they don’t sing the song in the Czech Republic). We had to buy our tour tickets nearby, but the map and instructions were confusing. As far as I could tell, the tickets were for sale either in some place called Muzeum, or in a KFC (yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken). Went to the Muzeum, which turned out to be the underground Metro station. No go. So then we wandered into the KFC. The lady at the counter was like “You don’t buy tour tickets at the KFC.” Yes, I’d also thought it hadn’t made sense, but a day of travel for us wouldn’t be complete without some sort of foible like that! Anyway, we then decided to just go across the street to the tour’s meeting place. The guy there thankfully pointed us to the actual ticket office, which was in a corridor next to the KFC (I of course looked closer at the brochure for the tour later, and discovered the fine print where they gave this vital information). We got our tickets, and then were off on our tour a few minutes later with our fun Czech guide. There were about 10 other folks with us, all from the U.K., mainly from Ireland.

The weather, though brisk and chilly, was really beautiful for an outdoor tour. And the sights…wow, they were truly amazing. I swear, every single building in this city is photogenic and photo worthy! I was snapping pictures left and right. I would love to post a ton of pics to go with this blog post, but I’m just going to choose some of the highlights for now.

So again, the tour lasted six hours. We got a quick primer on the history of Czechoslovakia, Prague and the Czech Republic, and then set out from there to walk around the Old and New Town sections on the east side of the Vltava River. We stopped for some lunch (included in our tour fee), where Anuja and I sat across a woman and her 12-year-old niece from Ireland. The niece, Kiera, was quite thrilled to hear we were from Seattle, and quickly revealed her “Twilight” obsession. Kiera and her aunt are from a small village an hour’s drive from Dublin, so Kiera was actually quite fascinated with all things American (she’s never been anywhere in the U.S.).

After lunch, we hopped onto a boat and took an hour-long cruise a bit down the river and back (to the left is a shot from inside the boat; that’s our tour guide in the yellow jacket). We also were treated to a beverage of our choice during this. We got our first glimpses of the Prague Castle (the world’s largest ancient castle) and went under the famous Charles Bridge). Then we walked across the Charles Bridge and hopped a tram up to the Castle. We spent some time walking around the castle grounds, and went on a tour of the Basilica of St. Vitus, which took 600 years to build. Then, as the sun was setting around 4:30, we parted ways with our guide. A and I took some snaps of the city from our high vantage point, and then began the walk down and toward our hostel. We stopped for some Starbucks on the way (it got a wee bit colder once the sun was fully set), and had a nice 30-minute walk along the waterfront.

… and now it’s a few hours later …

So we arrived at the start of the Ghost Walk around 8:30. Turned out there were only two other folks there, an Irish couple we’d met on our earlier tour. The “tour” (more a jaunt around a few nearby blocks) took an hour, and no offense to our guide, but even that was a bit too long for me! The stories were interesting, sure, but her delivery needed some work. Everything was a bit too dramatic.. i.e., “And THENNNNNN, out of the DAAAAAARK, the ghost of the buuuuutcher jumps OUT! WHOAAAAA!” And despite their being only four of us, she still used a microphone. We did get some laughs at certain points when someone dressed up as the ghost she’d just discussed jumped out at us from behind a building, but in general….yeah. I’m glad it was free!!

After the tour, A and I decided to walk balk to our hostel, and try to find a cool-looking place to have some dessert and drinks. A few blocks from our hotel, a group of young guys came out of a bar and said “You guys speak English?” We said yes. They said, “Do you know where ‘Dkjeoreuiysya’ [insert name of Czech dance club] is?” We said “Uh, we just got here last night.” Then they said, “Well, would you like to join us for a beer?” We said, “Um, sure!” The nearest place was the one they’d just emerged from (I think they’d been in there inquiring about said club), and A and I were amused to discover it was also the place in which we’d had dinner the night before. Turned out the guys were all from Denmark, in their mid-20s, and in Prague to do something school related (they’re going to be some kind of commercial truck drivers) and then party/drink/dance before and after the school stuff. They were all very funny and chatty. One guy was quite tipsy, and his eyes nearly popped out of his head when I said I was 31 (“WHAT?! I’m only 24! I’m a baby!”). We all hung out for just over an hour or so, as by that time their feet were itching to get to the dance club. It was quite entertaining, glad we finally got to meet and chat with some interesting people.

As far as tomorrow.. no firm plans yet. At the very least, we want to do some souvenir shopping, and then in the evening, we’re going to go on another tour with this company we did the two tours with today. This one’ll be a traditional Czech dinner, followed by a pub tour. Kinda wish we’d done an organized tour in Amsterdam, as they’re a really great way to find out interesting info about the city you’re in, and not have to deal with getting around town on your own. Plus, then you also find out the spots you want to go back and explore more on your own.

Some of my favorites for today — view of the Prague Castle from our tour boat (and yes, I believe that entire stretch of buildings comprises the castle):

Looking back on Charles Bridge:

Me and A, self-photo at the bottom of Prague Castle, with Old Town in the background:

From the Charles Bridge, looking to Old Town: