Adventures and misadventures in France.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is in two days, New Years arrives in a week, and Max and I will be flying to Boston in just one month – where did 2014 go? Generally, these breaks in posting correspond to life getting busier, and I just don’t have the time (read: motivation) to write about it. My last post was in early November (about a vacation we took in July), so there are plenty of things that I haven’t gotten around to writing yet :

– My parents visited in September

– Business trips to Berlin and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

– Turns out I have astigmatism

– We’re moving to Houston, Texas in February

And, best of all, Max and I are engaged! (whew!)

The Gouffre de Padirac

Summer vacation plans this year came down to the wire. Max and I requested time off in August, intending to spend a week at the beach somewhere, but quickly realized that most vacation rentals had been reserved months in advance. We spent several evenings poring over the remaining options, unable to come to a decision or make any definitive choices. But two weeks before our vacation was scheduled to begin, Max came home from work and proudly announced,

“WE ARE VISITING the Gouffre de Padirac!”

“Uh what? What’s a gouffre?”

“It’s great! I went there when I was a kid.”

And that’s how we ended up driving three hours through the rolling farmlands of central France, then waiting in line for another hour, in the rain, to see a pit.

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Sure, I may have voiced some doubts in regards to Max’s choice of vacation outing, especially considering his last recommendation from his childhood… but the place was surprisingly interesting. The Gouffre de Padirac is a chasm 35 meters across and 75 meters deep. It serves an an entryway to a series of caves created by an underground river. We had the option of taking an elevator or stairs to the bottom, but after too much time spent sitting and waiting that day, we sped down the stairs. Apparently there are about 9 kilometers of tunnels, and 2 of them are open to the public. The highlight of our guided tour was being transported along the river’s narrow channels, in a tiny gondola, in the dark, with other boats whizzing in both directions.

Unfortunately, no photography is allowed in the caves, and the pictures I managed to sneak didn’t come out too well. So here are some pictures from the official website.

In other news, our terrible Ikea mattress has been slowly developing an enormous dent in the middle, that we now refer to as the “Gouffre de Bedirac.”

Bordeaux, la Belle Endormie

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Here are a few pictures from a day in Bordeaux back in August. Bordeaux is known as the Sleeping Beauty city because of its historic centre-ville filled with gorgeous buildings that were once covered in ash and soot. Today, the city represents the capital of wine country in France.

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The Porte Cailhau, constructed in 1495, was the original entrance to the city.

Fountain at the Column of the Girondins on the Esplanade des Quinconces.

IMG_5932The water mirror on the bank of the Garonne River.

The Dune du Pilat

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This past summer, Max and I took a road trip down to the Bordeaux region of France. Neither of us have spent too much time in France’s wine capital, so we packed up Smiley Dog and booked a one of the few hotels still accepting reservations for France’s most popular vacation period : mid-August. Jojo adjusted to hotel living immediately, waiting patiently in the elevator and greeting other travelers in the jobby.

Our first full day, we drove out to the Dune du Pilat, the largest dune in Europe located just West of Bordeaux along the Atlantic Coast.

Having visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, I was prepared to be unimpressed. The Great Sand Dunes cover about 19,000 acres and rise to a level of 750 feet – a mini-mountain range of sand. The Dune du Pilat only reaches about 360 feet at its highest point, and follows 2.7 kilometers of coastline. But honestly? I would recommend the Dune du Pilat any day. Parking was easy, the Smiley Dog was allowed in the park (but not on the beach itself), and the views from the top are incredible. We made our way past gift shops and cafés to a staircase leaing directly to the top of a MOUNTAIN of beach overlooking the sea, with a forest dwarfed behind us and tiny boats in the water below. It had rained the night before, so we were comfortable walking around and digging our feet into the sand. Families had brought picniks, and the more adventurous were “sledding” or parachuting off the face of the dune.

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Adventure tour groups offer plenty of hiking excursions through Iceland’s wilderness. One that caught our eye was a guided hike through the Reykjadalur valley, but it wasn’t going to work with our timing and budget. After some additional research, however, we found a way to get there by public transportation. That’s how Jenny and I ended up taking a Reykjavik city bus, a second bus to Hveragerði, and then walking 45 minutes through the countryside to arrive at the base of a trail marked “Warning : Hot Springs.” Families with small children were hopping out of cars around us, adventure bloggers had rated the trail “beginner” – how bad could it be?

The ‘beginner’ hike quickly turned into a glutes-busting 80° incline up a mountain. Jenny marched ahead to take pictures as I stopped repeatedly to “tie my shoes.” At the top of the ridge, we were treated to views of a waterfall cascading into the valley below. Then we reached our biggest challenge of the hike – thick mud pits dug into the trail by guided tours on horseback.

As we continued along the ridge, a thick fog rolled in, obscuring the trail around us. Suddenly, we came to clearing, and the families we had passed bundled in rain jackets and hiking boots were stripping down to bathing suits and underwear! We had reached the convergence of two mountain streams, one hot and one cold, creating a temperature comfortable for swimming.

Later, we made our way back down the mountain, even more challenging than our hike up. We were soaking wet, with aching legs, and I managed to step in mud up to my ankles. Then it began to rain. From the base of the trail, we marched another 45-minutes back to the bus station, while Jenny endured my whining about wanting to hitch a ride from locals. But our adventure ended on a positive note – Next to the bus stop, we found the ruins of a concrete building covered in graffiti.

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A bus and another bus later, we arrived back at our hostel with just enough time to pack up and hop on a shuttle to our final destination : the Blue Lagoon spa. We spent the next several hours soaking in the warm mineral water, sipping skyr smoothies, and rubbing clay masks on our faces with new friends from the hostel. It was the perfect conclusion to several exhausting days of adventures.

After night #2 of very little sleep, Jenny and I hopped out of bed, grabbed some granola bars, and hurried to board a shuttle to our first activity of the day – riding Icelandic horses. Before the trip, I had warned Jenny –

They’re going to try to send us with the inexperienced group – don’t let that happen! We may only have 5 hours of riding experience between us, but we’ve totally got this!

Out on the trail, we followed guides through lava fields, and it became very clear that my horse had no intention of moving quickly or following directions. Jenny, of course, was already communicating with her horse through clicks and BRRR noises. As the group came to a split in the path, they have us the choice of continuing along slowly, or joining a faster group. Jenny and I began to line up with the faster group, until my horse suddenly turned and dashed back to the slow group. By the time I finally managed to slow the horse, the guides just shrugged with a look that said “Clearly this is where you belong.” So while Jenny was learning to tölt and gallop, I remained in a single-file line, surrounded by children and nervous tourists.

Once we arrived back at the stable, the riding company had already prepared us a bagged lunch and a taxi to our afternoon activity, a bus tour of the Golden Circle (the most accessible, and therefore tourist-packed, sightseeing trip near Reykjavik). Our tour guide was a nutcase – as our bus made its way from Geisir and hot springs, to the Gulfoss waterfall, he regaled us with anecdotes about Icelandic elves and trolls. We passed rolling fields of plastic-covered bales of hay and he proudly announced that it was Iceland’s national marshmallow farm. When we stopped at the Þingvellir National Park, he showed us where the North American and European tectonic plates were ripping apart, causing the island’s volcanic activity and hot springs.

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Langjökul, Iceland’s second-largest glacier

In the evening, Jenny and I made our way to Tapas for dinner, where we treated ourselves to the only fancy meal of the trip : seven courses including lobster, whale, puffin, and brennivín, Iceland’s signature schnapps.

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I’d recommend Ishestar’s Horses and Golden Circle tour to anyone based on the pacing and organization of the day.

Iceland – Reykjavik

Jenny and I arrived in Reykjavik super late. Iceland has an excellent tourism industry, with activities, lodging, and services for any price range. We reserved our shuttle ahead of time, so our names and flights had already been paired with a direct service to Kex, our hostel. At 2 am, we shuffled into our 14-bunk room, and attempted to locate empty bunks without waking the other sleeping travelers. Impossible. I almost threw my duffel on top of a person disguised as a comforter, and Jenny had to stomp her way to a top bunk. After a disorienting visit to to the communal bathroom, we finally bundled in to get some sleep.

The next morning, we were happy to discover that our hostel was centrally located. Just a few blocks away, we found Harpa, the city concert and events hall, and the Kolaportið Flea Market. Neither of them kept our attention for too long, but they would be good places to find original gifts and souvenirs.

After a tasty lunch of fish & chips with several kinds of skyr sauce… Hold up. I can’t go any further into this post without declaring our newfound love for skyr, Iceland’s “yogurt” made with skim milk. It has a texture similar to greek yogurt, with a milder flavor. You can buy skyr anywhere in Iceland, in many different forms – snack pack, dessert, smoothie, dipping sauces… Jenny and I saved a lot of money on food by just eating skyr all the time. Skyr skyr skyr skyrrrr Ok I’m done. Sorry. Skyr.

Anyway, we took a free tour after lunch, which was a great way to not only learn about Reykjavik’s history and famous landmarks, but also their celebrity gossip.

– Iceland’s government personnel and buildings have little to no security, because the country has very little crime. Reykjavik’s only jail is located the center of the city, right across a rowdy bar scene. The inmates claim this is the worst punishment of all.

– In a scandal referred to as “the situation,” many children were born to single Icelandic women after WWII soldiers stationed in the area had moved on. Icelanders are given last names based on their father’s first name. These children were given the family names Hansson and Hanssdottir, or simply “his son and “his daughter.”

– Iceland was originally a pagan country, but country became Lutheran after respected community leaders came together and decided. Once a decision had been made, the entire population essentially shrugged and converted.

The tour brought us to an area of the city not often frequented by tourists – the Holavallagardur cemetery. The legacy of Iceland’s pagan viking heritage is still apparent today – each grave plot is marked by a dark, twisted tree.

Then, I had the terrible idea of proposing a walk to the south side of the city to check out Nautholsvik beach and the Perlan observatory. Nautholsvik attracts locals with a free swimming area and an outdoor hot tub, both heated by geothermal springs. Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on over an hour of walking, through mostly industrial areas, with only a paper map to guide us, as Iceland’s daily rain shower swept in.

Having arrived in a far corner of the city, with no bus in sight, our only remaining option was to stay the course and make our way to the Perlan. We were treated to an amazing view overlooking the city and Mount Esja, plus a cafe for cappuccino and more skyr.

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Forging ahead into the drizzle, we circled back towards Hallgrimskirkja Church, the tallest building in Reykjavik, and the Einar Jonsson sculpture garden.

Kex Hostel was hosting a block party that night, so we spent the evening enjoying a free concert and fraternizing with fellow travelers and the occasional hipster. As the concert ended, we followed the crowds to experience the infamous Icelandic nightlife at Austur. We spent the next several hours dancing with beautiful and welcoming Icelanders to an amazing DJ set. At 3:30 am, we headed home past clubs with lines still out the door, and the sun already rising behind us.

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