Europe


(with minimal contribution from Saqib Siddik, who was asleep on the plane ride home while I was writing most of this blog post 🙂 )

my husband, Saqib, on ice

my husband, Saqib, on ice

Iceland. Land of Fire and Ice. Nature in the colors black and white: black sand, soil, and dried lava; white snow-capped mountains. A place of stunning contrasts. This trip was something we have thought about doing for years, and our schedules finally lined up for us to make the journey. We knew from our research that Iceland has epic, otherworldly landscapes. And seeing the majestic mountains, ominous glaciers, steamy sulphur springs and geysers, bubbling mud pits, lava flows, volcanic ash, and dangerously beautiful terrain in person was breathtaking. We lost count of the number of times we would crest a hill and be blown away by the scene in front of us. Iceland is an island of extremes, few trees, shortage of farmable land, and wildlife specially equipped to handle the harsh cold — an isolated island where locals and tourists alike must be resourceful, if we are to travel around the entire country. We did. And we would change hotels and cities and log several hours on the road every day for an entire week on our own Viking saga.

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Day 1

  • Reykjavík: We began our journey in Iceland’s capital in the southwestern part of the island country. We flew in via Icelandair, which teased us with “Northern Lights” along the tops of the overhead compartments. The weather was still cold in late March — near-freezing temperatures but with very gusty winds that made it feel much colder. We shopped and dined on Laugavegur Street in the afternoon, after checking in at Fosshotel Reykjavík, the hotel chain’s flagship location. The hotels chosen for this trip all turned out to be quite nice and cozy.

    Saqib & me in The Blue Lagoon

    Saqib & me in The Blue Lagoon

  • The Blue Lagoon: We enjoyed a couple of hours relaxing, swimming, and applying a silica mask to our faces in this mineral-rich, geothermal pool in the middle of a lava field, where it was freezing above water but toasty and comfortable below. Locker rooms include showers and other bathroom facilities. Dinner was at LAVA Restaurant, with rock formations right outside the windows providing a natural setting. The Torched Arctic Char starter with fennel, pearl onion, cucumber, toasted bread, and aioli was exquisite. We ate much more fresh fish (every day) in every city we dined in, including salmon, tuna, haddock, cod, and more. Saqib also had lobster and shrimp. Lamb is also an Icelandic specialty, so we had that too.

Day 2

  • snorkeling in Silfra

    snorkeling in Silfra

    Silfra: After departing Reykjavík to head southeast, we spent the afternoon in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, where we suited up in a warm suit and dry suit with thermals underneath to go snorkeling in the fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The water was crystal clear, giving us a pristine view of the underwater moss and rocks. Shallower parts required us to meander through without hitting the rocks, or else we risked putting little tears in our dry suit, which would get us completely soaked. Porous gloves on our hands let water in but warmed the water as it passed through. The mask left our lower cheeks and lips exposed, so at the end of the roughly 45-minute swim from one end to the other, our lips were so swollen, we looked like we had gotten lip injections.

  • Geysir Hot Springs: active geysers shooting into the air.

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    steam from underground

  • Gullfoss: Stunning waterfalls plunged into the deep canyon of the Hvita River.
  • Icelandic horses: We saw many (super cute) Icelandic horses standing out in fields along our route throughout the entire country. Icelandic horses are an extra-furry, small breed the size of a pony. We approached a group of them. They were very friendly, letting us pet them. We interacted with a few more groups of horses in later days in other parts of the country.
  • Minilik Ethiopian Restaurant: We had a delicious dinner at a very well-rated, rare find in Iceland. Service was slow, but the ambience was cozy and warm. An unexpected charm in the middle of Iceland.

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    Icelandic horses

  • Northern Lights – 1st encounter: After nightfall, on our way to our next city, Vík, we kept an eye out for the #1 item on our bucket list: the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). We were traveling on Ring Road, which goes around the country, more or less along the coast. The stars were out on this clear night, and I (Julie) was checking the Northern Lights forecast. All of a sudden, Saqib (who was driving) spotted a white streak across the sky to his left and alerted me to it. We didn’t know if it was a cloud or what we hoped it was. We then spotted a couple of cars ahead that had pulled over to the side of the dark road, so we optimistically followed suit. I quickly grabbed Saqib’s camera from the back seat, and in the next several minutes, he captured our first sighting of the magnificent Northern Lights — faint but clearly green and dancing gently in the night sky. We were giddy but still hoped to see better aurora in the days to come. We also saw the Seljalandsfoss waterfall lit up at night, which was powerfully eery.
  • Icelandair Hotel: This was the first of two Icelandair Hotels we stayed in, and both had humorous no-smoking notices in the rooms, complete with ridiculous folktales.
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Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Day 3

  • Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach: We started the morning on one of my favorite excursions of the trip: running around on exotic black sand as roaring waves crashed onto the beach in Southeast Iceland. Impressive rock formations jutted out of the Atlantic Ocean and towered over us on land. One inspired the architectural design of a church in Reykjavík which we would visit on our last day. Black sand and soil can be seen over much of Iceland.

    Photo Mar 27, 3 53 04 PM

    Skaftafell National Park: Vatnajökull glacier

  • Skaftafell National Park: We strapped crampons over our winter boots (spikes to walk on ice) and hiked up onto the Vatnajökull National Park glacier. I thought we were going on an easy stroll on flat ice, but it turned out to be a somewhat strenuous 2-hour trek across very uneven, unstable ice and densely compacted snow with large cracks and steep drop-offs to avoid. But the scenery was awe inspiring and in fact, the filming location for the movie Interstellar’s ice planet scene.
  • Hotel Skaftafell: Not the most luxurious of accommodations but more than decent and a welcome respite from the active afternoon we had just had, this hotel was set against beautiful, snow-capped mountains.
Glacier Lagoon

Glacier Lagoon

Day 4

  • Glacier Lagoon & Ice Cave Tour: We saw a seal swimming in the Jökulsárlón Lagoon, surrounded by large pieces of glaciers that had broken off from the much larger sheets lodged between mountains. Another round of strapping on crampons. On this morning the bottom of Saqib’s shoe had fallen off, so the staff at the glacier park taped it together with electrical tape until we were able to buy him a new pair later that day. An off-roading vehicle took us on a very bumpy roller coaster ride with small drops and steep inclines to get to another glacier and an ice cave. We walked onto the glacier and explored the ice cave.

    Saqib in an ice cave

    Saqib in an ice cave

  • Höfn: We had lunch at Restaurant Z Bistro in a city called Höfn in South Iceland, where we experienced small-town charm at its finest. We asked our server where we could find new winter hiking boots for Saqib, and she directed us to a camping operation with a store, Pjónustumidstöd SKG, run by a relative. They weren’t open for business at that time, but our lady server called her relative, who met us there right away. No luck in finding the right shoes in the right size, though they had a nice selection. Still, the owner was most helpful and circled on a map a few other stores we should check out. A convenience store and a hardware store both sold shoes! But we ended up buying from the apparel store she told us about.
  • Herad: We took a most scenic drive to our next city of Herad, with looming mountains on one side and steep cliffs into the ocean on the other, going through long mountain tunnels, and watching the sun set against a haunting, deep blue sky. We stayed at another Icelandair Hotel that night.
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coastal drive to Herad

Day 5

  • Café Nielsen: a restaurant in an old house with a small lunch buffet and shop.

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    Dettifoss

  • Dettifoss: Getting to this misty waterfall required a good, long hike across icy, hilly terrain.
  • Lake Mývatn: Boiling mud pits, twisted lava formations, extinct cinder cones cover the area surrounding this lake and serve as a reminder of the active volcanoes dotting the nation that can erupt at any time.
  • Húsavík: This northern Iceland town is known as the whale capital because of its frequent whale sightings and associated tours. The nice lady at the front desk of Fosshotel Húsavík informed us that the Northern Lights were active and that we could observe them from a dark lookout at the top of a hill, just a few minutes north of town. We spent an hour and a half up there in the car, but no luck seeing any aurora. Still, it was part of the experience of seeking the aurora, and we were glad to have done it.

Day 6

  • Akureyri: This is the second largest city in Iceland, also dubbed the capital of the
    Rub 23, Akureyri

    Rub 23, Akureyri

    North. We had sushi at the well-reviewed Rub 23 restaurant (it was good but not sublime), then spent some time photographing Akureyri Church, which sits on a hill overlooking the seaside city and its sloped streets.

  • Húsafell & Northern Lights – 2nd encounter: A long, scenic drive brought us to Hotel Húsafell, a picturesque destination two hours north of Reykjavík. The helpful staff added our names to the Northern Lights wakeup call list, and we headed to an elegant dinner at the hotel restaurant. As it turned out, we didn’t need the wakeup call because as we finished dinner, we were told that the Northern Lights were already out. We and the other dinner guests headed out to the center courtyard, where staff had already turned off the building lights to help us better see the elusive Northern Lights. There we were dazzled by a light show of green, purple, and white that felt unreal, something that seemed too spectacular to exist in nature. Atmospheric conditions were perfect, and we also managed to see several satellites orbiting overhead against a backdrop of millions of shimmering stars. Later that night we continued gazing out our hotel room window, which had the perfect view of the aurora.
Northern Lights above Husafell: against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains surrounding our hotel

Northern Lights above Husafell: against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains surrounding our hotel

Day 7

  • Lava Cave: Our final excursion was a trip to The Cave (Víðgelmir), which is a lava tube 30 minutes north of Husafell. We donned helmets and headlamps and descended deep into the earth to observe the remains of lava flow from a thousand years ago.

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    icy stalagmites inside a lava cave

  • We concluded our road trip with a final scenic drive back to Reykjavík. Rather than pay a toll to go through a long tunnel, we took the long way around and were treated to some wonderful curving roads nestled between the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. The Westfjords were spectacular. After checking in at Fosshotel Baron, where we had a harbor-view room, we walked a few minutes to revisit Laugavegur Street, had dinner at Nepalese Kitchen Restaurant, and enjoyed ice cream at Eldur and Is — both food establishments have earned top nods in online reviews.

Day 8

  • We took one last stroll along the harbor in Reykjavík and a drive by the Hallgrímskirkja Church inspired by the large rock formation at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Then we headed back to Keflavík International Airport to fly WOW Air back to the U.S.

    Hallgrímskirkja

    Hallgrímskirkja

Soundtrack

(music we played on our road trip around Iceland)
  • Enya: various albums
  • Sarah Brightman’s Dreamchaser
  • The Lord of the Rings: soundtracks of all 3 films
  • Paul Schwartz’s Aria 3: Metamorphosis

Extra Tidbits

  • Many hotel bathrooms have warm floor tiles, which is good in the cold weather.

    Photo Mar 27, 4 30 12 PM

    in an icy crevice off of a glacier

  • Roundabouts, one-lane bridges, and random sections of gravel are common on streets and highways.
  • The Icelandic language uses a lot of really long words that sometimes incorporate all vowels and seemingly as many consonants as possible.
  • Some street signs bear the last name of the owner of the home they point to.
  • Appelsín is an Icelandic soda favorite — it tastes like the typical orange soda and is refreshing after a salty meal.
  • Icelandic food is similar to American/New American — not spicy or particularly flavorful.
  • Tipping isn’t commonplace at restaurants.

    climbing ice along a glacier

    climbing ice along a glacier

  • Some gas stations have attendants who pump your gas at no additional charge.
  • Everything else is expensive, from food to clothing to souvenirs — at a casual restaurant, we paid $60 for the two of us for lunch. Dinner at a nicer restaurant easily can cost you $150 for just 2 entrees and an appetizer (no drinks).
  • Discover card is accepted almost everywhere, which is great for earning rewards while you spend a fortune.
  • Stores close earlier than in the U.S., with some grocery stores closing as early as 7pm and restaurants halting lunch service at 1:30pm. There are few gas stations and bathroom facilities along long stretches of road, so prepare accordingly. Snacks are a good idea.
  • We ran into Chinese tourists from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong at every stop. There were a good number of American and European tourists too. Not so much from other places. (I’m Chinese-American.) There are few people on the roads, so we ran into the same people at various attractions, lookout points, and random stops — funny and nice to see familiar faces at the same time.
  • We also saw several sheep and a couple of elusive reindeer.
me on a glacier above an ice cave

me on a glacier above an ice cave

Iceland is a peaceful, low-crime nation, where most of the population lives in one city, its capital. Every direction you look, there is a view that evokes a childlike wonder and amazement. Around every corner is an adventure. It’s definitely a place we want to return to, and next time, we will find time for a ride on horseback and in a helicopter.

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Amsterdam

Amsterdam

In June, my husband and I took another epic world trip with my mom and a long-time lady friend whose younger son I grew up with. Different combinations of the four of us have traveled all over the globe together. We love to see, hear, eat, shop, experience, and learn in places far away. This time we decided to do it in The Netherlands, formerly known as Holland, then take a Holland America cruise up the coast of Norway on a “Viking saga.” Both countries, with chilly weather even in summer, proved to be beautiful and friendly, leaving us with fond memories of the kind people and the spectacular sights.

The Netherlands

found at the Flower Market

found at the Flower Market

We spent a few days in The Netherlands, both before and after our Norwegian cruise. We stayed in Amsterdam in a cute hotel along one of the many canals that define the city’s spider-web-like map. When you say you’re going to “Amsterdam,” you’re bound to hear a joke about smoking pot. But as I read before my trip and soon discovered for myself, there’s much more to Amsterdam than marijuana, though the drug and other controlled substances are quite prevalent wherever you go — you can buy hemp brownies, hashish, energy drinks, magic mushrooms, and all sorts of associated accessories and trinkets in shops on just about every street and open to anyone. We saw people smoking marijuana in a “coffee shop” but didn’t spot anyone out in public who was obviously stoned. Even the beautiful row of outdoor, covered flower stands set up like a farmers market but called Flower Market sold cannabis seeds for your home-growing pleasure!

leaning buildings along canal

leaning buildings along canal

But as I said, I fondly remember Amsterdam for being fun, alive, and so full of variety. Historic buildings hundreds of years old — some of them leaning because of the shifting marsh underneath — sit along lovely canals that are popular for short cruises and ducks. Sadly, some of the canals are littered with trash, including a number of plastic water bottles. But flowers (as Holland is famous for tulips) line those same canals. We saw the oldest house in Amsterdam and countless other unique buildings, every one with a different, interesting front door and intricate architectural details. There’s no shortage of cute cafes, enticing bakeries with an abundance of attractively displayed chocolate broodjes and Poffertjes (mini pancakes), and coffee shops with hot, fresh-mint tea. Dam Straat (“Dam Street”) is lined with several Argentinian steakhouses that are so similar, we had to peruse the menus on display in the windows before figuring out which one to dine at — Mas Y Mas Cocina Argentina.

Amsterdam Flower Market

Amsterdam Flower Market

For what we were told by our hotel front desk was authentic Dutch food, we went to Pantry Restaurant; order the Bitterballen and Boerenkoolstamppot. And for Indonesian cuisine, which Amsterdam is also famous for, Sama Sebo is a good choice, serving more than a dozen small dishes so we could sample a bit of everything in one meal. Oriental City Restaurant is great (and very busy) for dim sum or other Cantonese food, which we enjoyed on a Saturday for lunch. While most things are quite expensive in Amsterdam, thanks in part to the weaker U.S. dollar as compared to the Euro, we found some incredible deals and sales in department stores and other retailers.

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nightlife in Amsterdam

nightlife in Amsterdam

1. National Monument — In the middle of Dam Square, this structure is a hodgepodge of art that locals have found humorous and disappointing.

2. Dutch East Indies — The origin of the multinational corporation and the board of directors structure. You read about this trading company in history books in school, so to see where it all began is quite something.

3. Red Light District — Prostitution is legal but regulated. No photos allowed, but we saw pretty ladies standing in windows and doorways trying to entice customers, even early in the morning when we took a walking tour. We also saw a retirement-aged man get rejected by a prostitute. The prostitutes are choosy.

4. Anne Frank Huis (House) & Museum — An eery walk through the building and secret annex hidden behind a bookcase, where the Jewish family hid from Nazis during World War II and where a teenage girl wrote her later-famous diary which her father helped get published, The Diary of Anne Frank. The line to get in consistently wraps around the building and past the next street corner, so buy your tickets in advance online to reserve an entrance time, like we did, and you can walk straight in without waiting.

outside Van Gogh Museum

outside Van Gogh Museum

5. Van Gogh Museum & Rijks Museum — We made it to the joint gift shop and the “i amsterdam” sign outside, not the museums themselves. I can only take so many museums in one vacation, but plenty of other people enjoyed these famed attractions.

6. Vondelpark — The largest and most popular park in The Netherlands. It’s conveniently located in a busy part of town on the way from our hotel to many attractions.

7. History Museum — Among the interesting displays is a David and Goliath former (and rather ancient) amusement park attraction, in which a child could stand inside the Goliath statue and use puppet strings to make it move like a human and which is now operated by a remote control by the security guard.

8. Churches Old and New — Creatively (sarcasm), people gave these churches the names of Old Church, New Church, North Church, South Church, East Church, and West Church. The design and architecture of the historic churches are to be admired, even if you’re not religious.

9. Magna Plaza — Location of a former post office, now a shopping mall. Another building with gorgeously ornate architecture. As in most other public places (other than restaurants), prepare to pay (sometimes as much as the equivalent of $1.50) to use the restroom.

Rotterdam Centraal

Rotterdam Centraal

Amsterdam is, in at least the following ways, like the Hong Kong of Europe: It doesn’t sleep, is very crowded, and is easy to get around on various modes of transportation — by bus, bike, tram, train, car, or on foot. Many restaurants and bakeries stay open until 3 a.m. It’s not so strange when we could dine outdoors and enjoy the setting sun at 10 p.m. Coming from the U.S., it’s easy to navigate because English is widely spoken and people drive on the same side of the road as in the U.S. A couple of things that are not easy are trying to scale the steep, narrow indoor and outdoor staircases, and to cross the street. It can be very confusing because there are lanes shared by cars and trams, and separate bicycle lanes. But for a newcomer, it can be very confusing and dangerous because some bicycle lanes are in the street and others are on the sidewalk. So we noticed tourists (included those in our group) almost getting hit by fast-approaching bicyclists, some of whom don’t stop, even when pedestrians have the “walk” signal from the digital sign. Since we walked a lot — for hours on end — we had to look both ways with every step we took to cross a street or even a sidewalk. Also, cars could drive right onto sidewalks at intersections to continue down a nearby street — very deceiving if you think you’re safe on a sidewalk and something I haven’t seen in any other place which I’ve been. Bicycles are an extremely popular mode of transportation. In fact, the car traffic isn’t bad in a city so populous.

The Dutch people, for the most part, are very kind and helpful. When you start discussing with your family which train stop is the right one, they jump in to inform you when they notice you’re about to get off at the wrong one. And when you finally get off the train at the correct stop, they jump in to grab your luggage for you when they see you struggle to carry it onto the platform. Great ambassadors for their hometown.

We took a train from Amsterdam Centraal (central station) to Rotterdam Centraal — a scenic ride through the suburbs and smaller cities in between. We didn’t get to spend much time in the city of Rotterdam, except just a drive through the city. It’s where we boarded the ms Rotterdam with more than 1,000 other people ready for a Nordic adventure.

boulder field, Stavanger

boulder field, Stavanger, Norway

Norway

Like my fashion statement found at Saga Souvenirs in Flam?

Like my fashion statement found at Saga Souvenirs in Flam… and my Holland America tour sticker?

From childhood books to film portrayals, Norway has always seemed to me like a magical place with treacherous seas and extremely large (Vikings) and small (trolls) creatures. There are definitely elements of all of those, but the country turns out to be more peaceful and pretty these days. Just about everything is very expensive. A $30 (about 150 Krone) individual bowl of soup at a casual cafe is commonplace. A double shot glass souvenir you’d find for $4-6 in other countries costs $9-15 in Norway.

Having cruised with Holland America before, I sort of knew what to expect. Of course, 11 years later, the ships are more updated. The things that remain the same, which are why I’m loyal to this cruise line: The passengers tend to be older (retirees), tamer, and classier. The activities are fun, the food fine and elegant, the entertainment tasteful, and the accommodations clean and comfortable. We’re not into the party ships. On this particular summer cruise, because we were so far north, we found ourselves playing tennis on deck while the sun was still out at almost midnight and enjoying the sun rise just a few hours later from our deck-side stateroom with a sliding glass door and an incredible view of the changing landscape as we cruised along over seven days.

Lysefjord, Norway

Lysefjord, Norway

We stopped at four ports of call as we sailed along the coast of Norway through the often choppy and cold waters of the North Sea, accompanied by the excitement of howling winds that threatened to pull you overboard. The shore excursions we selected took us to six distinct cities and through beautiful fjords such as Sognefjord (the world’s 2nd longest fjord), Aurlandsfjord (a 17-km arm of Sognefjord), and Lysefjord (with steep, rocky walls more than 3,000 feet high).

Oslo

scenic Oslo

scenic Oslo

A charming blend of old and new, the capital of Norway boasts an ultra-modern Opera House built in 2008 to resemble a glacier on the fjord, Barcode buildings named because the series of adjacent buildings have windows in patterns similar to barcodes. We passed by the building where the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are selected, the hotel where the winners stay, and where the award is presented. Cafe Skansen in Oslo serves excellent Norwegian salmon and dill potatoes. For a look at hundreds of thought-provoking sculptures, mostly of parents with children and different representations of life’s struggles, stroll through the 80-acre Vigeland Sculpture Park, named after Norway’s famous sculptor who had a strained relationship with his children. Unlike parks I’m used to, Vigeland surprised me with no insects of the crawling or flying variety. I should have expected it, as Norway is so cold. Be sure to see the Viking Ships Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Open-Air (Folk) Museum.

Drobak

charming Drobak

charming Drobak

A quaint, lush town on a harbor, Drobak is home to the “Christmas House” — a 2-story store full of (expensive) Christmas ornaments and other secular Yuletide decorations themed around the Norwegian Santa Claus “Nisse” and other characters. You can get mail stamped with the official Christmas stamp.

Kristiansand
We took an almost 2-hour boat ride on M/S Maarten among the surrounding skerries and islets to see lighthouses as well as hills and valleys dotted with traditional, small Norwegian homes, including the summer residence of the prince. This port city also has a relatively new performing arts center on the edge of the water, juxtaposed with an older cathedral and other buildings in the city center. We passed by Fiskebrygga, a quaint fresh seafood market with restaurants along the wharf, and Kristiansand Cathedral, the third largest in Norway.

Lillesand

shops in Lillesand

shops in Lillesand

This idyllic vacation spot is known as the “jewel of Sorlandet” and the most beautiful town in Norway. Seagulls fly over the boat dock, as people visit the eateries, shops, and outdoor food stands in Lillesand. The shore is lined with 18th- and 19th-century white, timber houses.

Stavanger
Talk about scenery with a wow factor. We took a drive to Dirdal Valley. Boulders, some as big as houses, cover much of the landscape, and streams run along the valleys of steep embankments. We visited the largest field of boulders, Gloppendalsuren. We had pancakes with sour cream and jam in a mountain tunnel/cave Gloppehallen and saw Byrkjedalstunet, a historical building that was a cheese factory in the 1920s and is now a candle maker’s shop and restaurant. And we ended the afternoon with a stroll through Old Stavanger, passing rows and rows of charming white houses.

Flam

waterfall singer, Flam

waterfall singer, Flam

Flam is marked by extremes — lush mountains with melting snowcaps and bubbling brooks over rocks. We took a lifeboat (tender) from our cruise ship to shore because of the narrow fjord, then boarded Flamsbana, or the Flam Railway. Looking out the window, every moment was picture perfect, as we winded through the mountains and gazed at the many waterfalls. A surreal sight — a woman dressed as a Norse goddess sang from atop the rocky slopes next to the biggest waterfall of them all — Kjosfossen. We stopped for hot tea and waffles with sour cream and jam (sense a theme here?) at the Vatnahalsen Hotel, which offered more picturesque views.

We’ve already put down our deposit for a future Holland America cruise. Stay tuned to see where we go next…

NOTE ABOUT AIRLINES: Three of us flew United Airlines round-trip and direct, this trip. As I experienced several years ago when flying United Airlines overseas, the service is sorely lacking and flat-out rude from some flight attendants. The airfares were cheaper, which is the main reason (and only good reason) we flew a U.S.-based airline. United could really learn a thing or two from its foreign competitors, especially the Asian airlines which consistently win service awards for flight attendants who are so friendly, polite, and respectful to all passengers. It’s a totally different experience. It’s no wonder that many U.S.-based flight attendants are often described by the public as grouchy and a few other adjectives which I’ll reserve here. I will say, however, that one very nice United flight attendant tried to smooth things over after her colleague repeatedly displayed utter unprofessionalism and rudeness. She deserves praise or a raise, and I’ve written the airline.

riding the Flam Railway

riding the Flam Railway

Czech Republic

Trdelni'k, Prague, Czech Republic

Trdelni'k, Prague, Czech Republic

Julie Tam in Prague, Czech Republic

Julie Tam in Prague, Czech Republic

From Vienna, Austria, we took our tour bus to the final country on our 6-country tour of Europe — Czech Republic.

Prague
Tourism is the number-one industry in Czech Republic, according to our local tour guide. Office buildings and banking also are a big part of the economy. As one of those tourists contributing to the nation’s economy, we started our day at Prague Castle, the largest castle in Europe and Czech Republic’s most iconic landmark. Standing just inside the wall around the hill, we found an artist named Michael creating oil paintings for sale. We bought one to take to a friend back home — showing Prague Castle and the nearby Charles Bridge over the Vltava River. From that vantage point, we could see an Eiffel Tower look-a-like on a nearby hill. In the same area was St. Vitus Cathedral — a grand structure with dramatic, pointed spires — and the Astronomical Clock. Skyscrapers aren’t allowed in the Old Town, so most of what you see is historic buildings unscathed by war — unlike the other countries on our trip (Germany, Croatia, etc.). We walked toward Charles Bridge via Golden Lane, a romantic, winding, sloped walkway with shops and artisan museum displays in small spaces along the way. A unique and charming experience!

Michael the oil painter, Prague, Czech Republic

Michael the oil painter, Prague, Czech Republic

We walked across Charles Bridge, which was crowded with vendors selling everything from art to jewelry to food, perused mostly by tourists. We took a lunch cruise on the Vltava River, from which we saw the beautiful sights along the river — architecturally stunning buildings, people enjoying strolls along the banks. We spent the afternoon in the center of town, where we saw more tourists than in any other country on our tour so far. Continuing our European tradition, we enjoyed pastries and drinks at an outdoor table at Cafe Au Gormand. From there, we could people-watch and snap a photo of the prevalent graffiti on the facades of such historic buildings. In the squares around us, we found sausage stands, one of which sold us the best sausage I’ve ever had — juicy, tender, spicy, and full of flavor from the wiener to the sauce. Across the way, we saw a vendor making large treats that looked and, as we soon experienced, tasted a little like cinnamon rolls but with a cylindrical shape and hollow in the middle — called Trdelni’k! We wrapped up the afternoon shopping the stores down each street around us, being amused by the 7-person bicycles taking people around on the brick roads, and passing through the Jewish Quarter.

We had eaten too much all day long to finish our whole dinner in the 13th-century wine cellar of U Cisaru Restaurant.

spring water, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

spring water, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

Karlovy Vary

Saqib at end of Golden Lane, Prague, Czech Republic

Saqib at end of Golden Lane, Prague, Czech Republic

The next morning began with a drive to Karlovy Vary, which literally means “Charles Spring” because the city was discovered by King Charles IV. The mineral spring water there was found to have healing and age-preserving properties, and has drawn millions of tourists, including Beethoven and Mozart, each year to this spa resort town. We got to sample the water for free. An indoor fountain was the location of a geyser shooting high up into the air. Nearby were several indoor and outdoor water stations with salty spring water at different temperatures from warm to hot.

Shops sold porcelain mugs with a spout for drinking the water, plenty of artwork depicting scenes of Czech Republic, bells, and teapots. Before departing for Germany, we had lunch and an afternoon snack of warm Oblaten — thin, wafer-like, and in chocolate and cinnamon — from Teplé Oplatky, a stand in a busy part of the center of the city.

Our tour bus took us back to Frankfurt for our final night in Europe before departing for the United States. Our tour group had a great time singing after dinner and expressing our appreciation for the tour leader, bus driver, and fellow group members, who had helped make this tour the most pleasant I’ve ever taken.

graffiti, Prague, Czech Republic

graffiti, Prague, Czech Republic

Hungary

Julie Tam & Saqib Siddik, Danube River cruise, Budapest, Hungary

Julie Tam & Saqib Siddik, Danube River cruise, Budapest, Hungary

We departed Croatia and successfully went through the border control to enter the fifth of six countries we visited on our European tour this summer — Hungary. I never knew the food would be so good…

Danube River, Budapest, Hungary

Danube River, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest

Citadella Restaurant, Budapest, Hungary

Citadella Restaurant, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest used to be divided into two cities — Buda and Pest — one on each bank of the famous Danube River. On our first night, we dined at a former prison along the Danube, Citadella Restaurant. The Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra played while Hungarian dancers entertained us over a meal with obvious Asian influences from the country’s ancestry — curry-inspired sauces and spicy Goulash soup. The meal was divine: the chicken ever so tender and the flavors just right. After dinner, we looked out over the beautiful nighttime skyline and snapped the above photo at sunset.

We stayed at the Danubius Hotel on Margaret Island in the Danube River. The next morning, a local guide took us on a bus and walking tour of the city, where we saw the fancy entrance to the Zoo & Botanical Garden, Heroes’ Square, opera house, Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the river, Parliament building, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We drove across the Chain Bridge several times. It’s the most famous bridge in Budapest with a pair of tongue-less lions at the end, as you drive through a lovely roundabout adorned with flowers and a grand arch.

We spent the afternoon on a Danube River cruise, which took us past such landmarks as the royal palace, Margaret Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge, a monastery, and Gellert Hotel.

Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary

Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary

Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary

Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary

Croatia

The fourth of six countries I toured earlier this summer was Croatia. As with the other five countries, I gave myself a crash course about them using encyclopedias and the U.S. State Department website.

Plitvice National Park, Croatia
Plitvice National Park, Croatia

Plitvice

Plitvice National Park, Croatia
Plitvice National Park, Croatia

We left Slovenia by tour bus and entered Croatia through a border control checkpoint. A Customs & Immigration official came on board to check everyone’s passports because Croatia isn’t part of the European Union. After getting the green light to go through, we spotted evidence of the Croatian War of Independence (1991-95) throughout Plitvice. Bullet holes remained in the concrete facades of buildings, including homes. We stayed at Hotel Jezero in Plitvice National Park — listed as one of the world’s most beautiful places. Our tour guide told us that after the war, the government had to remove landmines from the park, which is heavily trafficked by tourists from around the world.

We spent four hours the next morning walking through only a small portion of the enormous park that’s about 115 square miles and home to 16 lakes and many waterfalls. The tallest waterfall in Croatia is the Veliki Slap. The water was blue in some areas, green in others, but always so clear that you could see the bottom of the lakes, even in deeper parts. We took a couple of boat rides and marveled at all the plant and animal life, from pleasant ducks to well-fed fish to colorful butterflies.

We had only one day in the inland part of Croatia, so I’ll need to go back to see the coastal areas which are beautiful in their own right and represent the Mediterranean shipping heritage and modern industry.

Plitvice National Park, Croatia
Plitvice National Park, Croatia

The third of six countries on our European summer tour…

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Slovenia

view of homes, mountains outside our Hotel Ribno, Bled, Slovenia

view of homes, mountains outside our Hotel Ribno, Bled, Slovenia

Bled
We departed Austria and approached the border control to Slovenia, which was through an 8-kilometer-long tunnel on the other side of a majestic mountain range — a grand entrance into a picturesque country that was part of the former Yugoslavia. Our tour bus winded through the peaceful countryside, pristine lakes, and breathtaking mountainous scenery.

We stayed overnight at Hotel Ribno in Bled, situated in a scenic, wooded area and complete with tennis courts and a restaurant with balcony seating. After dinner there, we took a walk down the paved roads and gravel paths through a nearby neighborhood. The homes were simpler than the ones in Germany but had the similar dark wood trim and rectangular flower pots hanging from every window sill. In the air was the intoxicating aroma of what smelled like lavender and tea leaves. The sun set on the rolling hills and our magical evening.

view of Ljubljana from Ljubljanski Grad, Slovenia

view of Ljubljana from Ljubljanski Grad, Slovenia

Ljubljana
The capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, is a sea of orange rooftops and mostly uniform architecture. We took a cable car (known there as a funicular) up to the top of a hill where the castle Ljubljanski Grad sits, providing an overhead view of the city skyline. Down below are several elegant bridges, including the Dragon Bridge and Triple Bridge (three bridges side by side). In the area is a mix of historic buildings and statues as well as modern retail establishments, like H&M.

Postojna
I’ve been to plenty of caves, including the longest and largest ones in the U.S. and other countries. I thought the Postojnska Jama Cave in Postojna was the most impressive one. We took a long train ride deep into the cave and then took a walking tour. The cave has beautiful lighting that enhances the stalactite and stalagmite formations. Human fish (fish with human-like skin) reside in the cave. At the end of the tour is the cave’s “concert hall,” which is a large, open space with good acoustics for singing.

Julie at Triple Bridge, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Julie at Triple Bridge, Ljubljana, Slovenia

We continue our journey through the six countries in Europe I toured them this summer. Country #2…

Austria

shops in St. Wolfgang, Austria

shops in St. Wolfgang, Austria

Mirabell Gardens with fortress in distance, Salzburg, Austria

Mirabell Gardens with fortress in distance, Salzburg, Austria

Dürrnberg
After crossing the border from Germany, we arrived in the city of salt mines, Dürrnberg, where we toured a mine no longer in operation because it had become not economically worthwhile. Inside, we took a train ride to go deep into the mine, a boat ride to go even deeper, and a walking tour to see all the aspects of production. The highlight was sliding down two long, wooden slides the miners once used to get further underground.

Salzburg
Nearby, Salzburg (which means “salt castle”) was probably my favorite city on our European tour — so much beauty and historical significance. It’s a photographer’s dream — historic squares with architecturally beautiful buildings on all sides and small corridors that lead to adjacent squares. It’s an arrangement not found in modern cities with more open concepts. In one such medieval square with a cathedral and other structures, we saw quite a juxtaposition — modern art in the form of a giant golden globe and an unidentified man standing on top, as well as a chess board with human-sized pieces. Horse-drawn carriages were present there and in most of the other cities on this tour.  Salzburg is so lovely, it was used to film many scenes of the film The Sound of Music, some of which we toured, including Mirabell Palace and Gardens (where Maria and the Von Trapp children sang “Do Re Mi”), a concert hall where the Vienna Philharmonics play (and where the “Edelweiss” song was sung in the movie), and a large fountain (where Maria danced and sang “I Have Confidence”).

Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg, Austria

Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg, Austria

We also walked through the graveyard that was reconstructed in Hollywood for the scene where the Von Trapp family hid from the Nazi Germans near the end of the film. Not far away is the house where famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born (Gerburtshaus) and another house near the Salt River where he later lived. Haus für Mozart is the concert hall built about 400 years ago for performances of Mozart’s operas; the building used to house horse stables for the prince-archbishop. In the nearby promenade, we found most shops closed on that Sunday because many Roman Catholics observe the Sabbath. Along that path are original buildings and signs, including one building that displayed two  sets of numbers: 1286 (the year it was built) and 2009 (the year it was renovated). Towering over all this is the castle where controversial Archbishop St. Wolfgang lived. The gastronomical highlight of this city was Fürst, a historic coffee shop and bakery that makes handmade Mozart chocolates wrapped in silver foil. (The gold foil-wrapped ones are mass produced.) After a morning stop for cake and Mozart chocolate balls, we headed to Zum Eulenspiegel, a 680-year-old restaurant on the second floor of a business. We had beef stroganoff and spinach dumplings for lunch.

St. Gilgen to St. Wolfgang
After taking a boat ride along Lake Wolfgang from St. Gilgen to St. Wolfgang, we took a stroll through the winding streets and shops of the latter lovely small town. The views of the lake were serene and picturesque.

Lake Wolfgang, St. Wolfgang, Austria

Lake Wolfgang, St. Wolfgang, Austria

Julie at Mozart Concert, Golden Hall, Vienna, Austria

Julie Tam at Mozart Concert, Golden Hall, Vienna, Austria

Vienna
After traveling to three other countries, we returned to Austria and enjoyed dinner in Vienna and a Mozart concert at Golden Hall, aptly named because of its golden interior finishings. Unlike most theaters in the U.S., the house lights were kept on the entire time and there was no stage curtain. Orchestra members dressed like Mozart and opera singers just walked on and off stage in full view of the audience. The elegant concert hall touts having the best acoustics in Vienna, where opera and classical music are still popular, unlike in many parts of the world. The next day, we visited the Schönbrunn Palace (summer palace) and flower garden, plus the winter palace. Statues honoring the country’s most famous former residents, including composers Mozart and Johann Strauss. I found myself in heaven at Café Mozart, open since 1794. The pictures of dozens of cakes on a display poster outside drew me in, only to find a long list of soda drinks that I’d never heard of (for me) and coffee drinks (for my husband and mom). We had a small lunch with non-alcoholic drinks and two pastries (Mozart Tort and Trüffel Tort), and it cost us $90! (That’s U.S. dollars, not Euros.) But it was absolutely worth it because the food was exquisite, from the salad to the Viennese potato soup. The fried chicken was thinly breaded and low in fat, unlike the fatty, greasy, thick-battered fried chicken found in America. The steak sandwich was delicate and nicely presented. If I were to eat as much in the U.S. as I ate in Europe, I would surely gain weight, but to my pleasant surprise, I gained not a single pound from this 12-day trip. We finished off our day by wandering down the Pedestrian Walk. In contrast to the historic aspects of Vienna, you can see modern buildings across the Danube River.

Vienna Philharmonics concert hall where "Edelweiss" song was sung in "The Sound of Music", Austria

Vienna Philharmonics concert hall where "Edelweiss" song was sung in "The Sound of Music", Austria

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