Iceland and the Final Days of Our Grand Adventure, Part 2

Welp. Here we are. The end of this particular story. It has only taken me a little over six months to finish writing about it. Telling the last of the story means the story is over and damn, it was such a good story.

There are many more stories to come, I have no doubt. As I type, I am in the midst of a fresh, new one (enough with the story metaphor, Jess, Geez) but this one was a real page turner, a wild adventure, from start to finish. I’m sure you can understand how it could be tough to part with. Without further ado, it’s time to put a bow on it.

In my last post, we visited Reykjavík and saw many waterfalls as we drove south. When we arrived at Onundarhorn, the name of the property we would be staying at for the next two nights, I was skeptical. The outside looked a little dumpy and I wondered if we were even at the right place. Our host, an eccentric Icelander named Snaebjorn, rents rooms in his home to travelers. He doesn’t particularly care for these travelers being in his home (more on that later), it seems, but the money is good.

As mentioned in my last post, lodging (and food and drink) in Iceland is quite expensive. Even in a standard hotel, it is very common to share a bathroom. We stayed in modest accommodations throughout our travels (overnight on a sweltering, communist era train with no toilet paper for chrissake!) but staying at Onundarhorn with Snaebjorn would be our first (non-train) lodging in which we would be sharing a small space (and one bathroom) with several other travelers.

When we arrived at Onundarhorn, we met a friendly Australian couple who were driving the Golden Circle (which is a famous, 11-day minimum, route that goes around all the island). They were in Iceland on a three week holiday that had been postponed since 2020 and were very excited to be there. They told us that the previous night the Northern Lights had been visible from where they were staying near Reykjavík. We were very surprised to hear this.

It hadn’t occurred to me that seeing the Northern Lights would be a possibility during our time in Iceland as I thought the earliest one could view them was October. I was wrong. The couple had an app to track the lights and special camera equipment to try and capture them in the night sky. They said that chances of seeing the lights that night were slim as clouds were supposed to roll in but perhaps the following night they might be visible from Onundarhorn. Heck yeah!

We asked them about the path to the black sand beach near Onundarhorn that we’d read about in the listing. They did not know about the path and Snaebjorn was out visiting with a neighbor, they informed us.

So, we ate another dinner of sandwiches and apples and decided to go look for the path as we still had a bit of time before sunset. About a quarter mile down the road from Onundarhorn is a posh, 4-star hotel and restaurant where we could have stayed for a mere $500 a night. We strolled past the hotel and the parking lot full of luxury SUV’s and found the path.

We walked down the grassy trail, toward the beach, passing no one and watched the sun sink lower and lower toward the horizon. It was beautiful.

We found a bridge leading to the beach but decided to wait until the following evening to explore it as it would be quite dark soon and was getting pretty cold.

When we reached the house, Snaebjorn had returned and was chatting up the Australian couple as basketball played on a TV in the background. A wiry fellow of 62 years, he was a combo of curmudgeon, braggart, and gossip. He dominated the conversation which volleyed between tales of him being a champion horse trainer, him being a physiological anomaly following a serious car wreck from which he recovered in record time while having a romantic relationship with his sexy nurse, and him telling disparaging stories of the travelers who stayed with him. It was a wild ride. At one point while talking smack about his neighbor’s alcoholic girlfriend, he said he rarely drank. I doubted this as he took frequent swigs from a tall insulated mug and regaled us with stories of his super healing powers and sexual prowess.

We were finally able to say good night, blaming an early waking time. Snaebjorn asked us if, should he see the northern lights (it seemed he stayed up all night and slept during the day), would we want him to wake us in the wee hours. We enthusiastically said yes and thanked him.

Unfortunately, Snaebjorn did not wake us in the wee hours as there were no lights to be seen. We woke up early to use the bathroom before the majority of other guests woke up and were ready to hit the road after breakfast. We knew from the listing, Snaebjorn would make us breakfast, waffles specifically. It could be that he seemed so curmudgeonly because he poured all of his love into his waffles. They were divine. We both had three waffles and several cups of coffee before heading out. We weren’t buying food out and being quite sick of sandwiches, we decided to load up on breakfast.

Full of waffles, we hit the road for our three-hour drive to see a glacier. Jokulsarlon Glacial Lake has small icebergs, calm waters, and a beach full of smooth stones. There are nice viewing points, bathrooms on site, a couple food stands, free parking (score!), boat tours and even kayak rentals. There was a full parking lot and some tour buses, which led us to walk down the beach to avoid the crowds. It was a short walk down and up some small rolling hills with a path until we reached the lake’s shore.

Across the street from the Lake is the Atlantic Ocean, and a beach they call the Diamond Beach, named as such due to the small to very small iceberg pieces (that shine in the sun) that float up to shore. We ate another meal of sandwiches, apples, and chips as we faced the beach. After that we were on our way back, a three hour journey westward on highway One. We saw a variety of landscapes; mostly either green or yellow grass, pales moss on massive amounts of rocks, hills, and mountains with a few small towns here and there.

Our last stop before heading back was the nearby Dyrhólaey Lighthouse, close to the town of Vik. There is a bit of a winding road to reach the popular lighthouse and it was very windy and cold from up there. We did get a great view of the black sand beach and cool rock formations.

We got back to the b&b for our last sandwich meal before heading down, over the bridge, to the black sand beach. We had it all to ourselves. We took our time, breathing in the fresh, cool air, and reflecting on how amazing our travels had been, how lucky we were to have been able to undertake such a grand adventure, and how we couldn’t believe it was coming to a close. We were even greeted by a seal, who gave us a warm “bon voyage” before she dove back into the cold Atlantic waters.

When we got back to Onundarhorn we packed our things. The sky was supposed to clear up around 10:30 which meant we had a chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Shortly thereafter, the Australian couple went outside to set up their camera equipment, ready to catch the Northern Lights. We went out, hoping to see something as they indicated they should be right overhead. We saw some glorious stars in the black night sky but no Northern Lights. We headed back inside and Snaebjorn told us that if the Northern Lights became clearer, we would likely see them outside of our room’s window. He renewed his offer to wake us in the night should he see them. We fell asleep with the window shade open.

Around 2 am, Snaebjorn kept his promise and knocked on our door letting us know the lights were viewable. He made sure to let us know that they weren’t so good that night, no color (sometimes they appear purple and green) but we might be interested. As quickly as we could in our groggy state, we bundled up and went out to look up.

It was amazing. They are hard to describe but it looked like grey-white ghostly shapes dancing, quickly, all across the sky. Phil described it as like a symphony without music. That’s pretty accurate. Freezing cold, with aching necks, we shuffled back inside after about 20 minutes. I tried to capture the lights with photo and video, to no avail. Only days later, when playing around with the photo exposure was I able to make out some of the lights.

The next morning, we awoke groggy, loaded up on more waffles, and made the two-and-a-half hour drive from Onundarhorn to the airport, but we had one final stop to make first. We made an appointment at the Blue Lagoon, the famous geothermal spa within a lava field, that is a must visit while in Iceland. The water is milky blue and warm, and even quite hot in some places.

A very popular tourist destination, the full parking lot and tour buses made us think the place would be packed. While the locker room was indeed a little cozy, they have their system down and once out in the actual pools, there was plenty of space to spread out and chill.

We enjoyed a complimentary sparkling wine and mud masks. Everyone was given a free, white mask with the woman at the mask bar offering various other colored masks with miraculous skin benefits, for an additional fee. We took the glop of mud she plopped into our hands (folks are provided mirrors in which to self apply the masks), spread it around as best we could and found a ledge to rest upon.

After our two hours in the pool, we showered, dressed, and headed to the airport.

After 500 amazing days of living abroad, our grand adventure was coming to a close. As bittersweet as it was, we were ready for the next adventure; boarded the plane, and headed home to the good ol’ US of A. Until next time, Europe, we will miss you!

The End (for now)

Postscript travel commentary coming soon(ish).

Iceland and the Final Days of Our Grand Adventure: Part 1

After a four hour flight from Munich, we arrived in Iceland. Iceland was the icing on the cake of our travels (see what I did there?) When discussing when and where we would fly home from, we discovered that flight prices dramatically drop from August to September and that if we took Icelandic Air, we could choose to have a multi-day layover (we chose three days) at no additional cost. Icing, baby, Iceland.

During our travels, we met several people who had traveled to Iceland. Everyone loved it and expounded on both the beauty as well as how expensive the food and drink are. We hit up the duty-free shop before leaving the airport and bought some wine and prosecco (por supuesto) along with some chocolate.

When we picked up our rental car (the agent was from Spain, which I took as a good sign), the agent informed us that we needed to be careful when we opened the car doors as they could be ripped off by the wind. Holy moly! It was pretty windy as we set out toward Reykjavík, not door ripper windy, but windy. It was also much colder (Jess, it’s called Iceland) than we had grown accustomed to during our hot and sweaty summer travels on the mainland

Phil consulted the map and saw a light house a few minutes from the airport so we decided to make a stop and take the first of MANY photo opportunities. Iceland is beautiful (and windy).


We made another stop along the way at a grocery store called Bonus that has a wonky pig for a logo. I guess it’s actually a piggy bank which I only realized when searching for the logo online just now. A piggy bank makes sense but I will say I much preferred when I thought it was simply a wonky pig with an unknown origin story.

We grabbed sandwich ingredients, chips, and some fresh fruit as this would be our menu for our three days in Iceland because, as promised, restaurant food was quite expensive. After 500 days of living abroad, expensive was not in the budget.

After dropping our stuff at the hotel and enjoying the first of many sandwiches, we headed out to explore, stopping first at the souvenir shop near our hotel for some stocking caps as we only had light jackets. We intended to make our jackets suffice in the 40-50F temperatures. Living out of a suitcase for 6 months, traveling to places mostly in the 90’s+ all summer, we’d made some informed cuts to the wardrobe. It did not make sense to hang on to coats we would only need for three days. So, these supplemental beanies would have to do.

We walked along the water and then into town, finding ourselves on a rainbow road which led to the impressive Hallgrimskikja church that has a statue of Leif Eriksson out front.

Unfortunately, the church was closed for renovations. That was a real bummer but we got some pics in front of the cool front doors.

We walked around town a bit longer before retiring to the hotel and sharing a bit of wine and calling it an early night. We were determined to make the most of our short time on that beautiful island and planned to set out early (early for us, anyway) the next day.

We drove south in the morning, and just being on the road and driving was so beautiful. The contrast of black rock and soil and bright green mountains was lovely not to mentioned all of the waterfalls. We saw so many waterfalls! They’re like catholic churches in Spain or Italy; each beautiful, some a grander spectacle than others, and it seems like there’s another every time you turn the corner.

Our first up-close waterfall was the Oxararfoss Waterfall which has a lovely path from the parking lot, flanked by large basalt rock formations.

Our next stop was for lunch. We made sandwiches (duh) and ate at the Hrafnagja Observation Deck which has a lovely view of Lake Thingvellir.

There are many gravel roads leading off the few main highways in Iceland; some lead to waterfalls, others lead to hiking trails, many lead to people’s homes and farms. We took one of the latter when driving next to the lake. There were a few homes near the lake, but no one was stirring there, so we stopped, got out, and enjoyed the close-up views all by ourselves. It was unforgettable.

Something to note about Iceland is that there are a lot of fellow tourists, driving on the same route, stopping at the same places. We saw the same people a few times on our journey at different stops. Taking some of those unmarked roads is a great idea if you’re just a wee bit adventurous and have the time, if you’re looking to get away. Our next stop southward was the Kerid Crater, which is a turquoise lake located in a volcanic crater.

We continued south to large Seljandsfoss waterfall and it’s smaller neighbor waterfall, Gljufrabui. There was an almost packed paid parking lot (we’re not fans of paid parking) near the larger fall. Closer to the smaller fall, there was a short, dead end gravel road with a couple of cars parked along it’s sides. We opted to park there and enjoy the walk between the two falls.

One could choose to get in line and walk behind Seljandsfoss falls. We did not want to stand in line nor add wet to our cold, so we opted to take in its beauty from the front only.

Our next and final stop of the day was Skogafoss waterfall. Huge and atop a long staircase of 200 feet (60 meters), the fall was gorgeous and made us realize how long it had been since we’ve done a proper hike. The staircase was a doozy. Before ascending, we stopped in the hotel restaurant at the base of the falls for a much appreciated and very expensive beer (our only restaurant purchase during our time on the island).

We took our time, enjoying the view from atop the fall. Along with the hotel at the base, there were also many RV’s and tents set up in the parking lot. In addition to food being quite expensive, lodging is also. We didn’t stick around the base because we wanted to get to our own unique lodging situation for the night. More about that in the next post.

Stay tuned for my final European post from the black sand beaches of Iceland! 

Burghausen Castle

Jess, you’ve been back in the states for months now, why has it taken you so long to finish up your European adventure posts (you may be asking)? Well, it’s the darnedest thing. After having been able to live in another world with just myself and my favorite person, far away from the normal stressors of daily life, jumping back into polite society is taking some getting used to and has preoccupied my time. I also think maybe I have been delaying writing about our final European destinations because it will hammer home the fact that the adventure is indeed over, for now anyway. While not living out of a suitcase and being able to somewhat settle is nice, it is an adjustment.

So now, let me tell you a bit about Burghausen. Another magical town in the unexpectedly magical Germany. What a fairy tale. I mean, we visited a castle for goodness sake! And you know I’m a pretty princess at heart.

We left Munich and took the two hour train ride to Burghausen (which sits on the German-Austrian border). We walked from the train station through the newer part of town, stopping for lunch in a small restaurant inside of the civic center. The food was tasty and the waitress very nice. I tried the Flammkuchen which is a sort of German pizza/flat bread, so how could it be bad? Phil had some kind of pork sandwich covered in curry sauce with fries (again, how could it be bad?) that I failed to get the name of. Both were tasty and provided the necessary fuel for the day of walking we had ahead of us.

While at the civic center, we picked up a map and guide of the town and castle. I was very excited to visit the castle. During our time in Albania, we visited a few castle ruins but Burghausen feels like a “real”castle, a castle-y castle. It is intact and exudes that fairy tale quality the pretty princess in me really appreciated.

Burghausen isn’t a tall castle, though it seemed pretty tall to me. It is, however, the longest castle, quite literally. It is the longest castle in the world, in fact. There are seven courtyards to reach the actual main castle that sits on a cliff; on one side it overlooks the Old Town below and the other side is a lake. In the first courtyard, there is a clock tower. Phil and I are people who appreciate a good clock tower. Nearish to the clock tower is a biergarten. Phil and I are people who appreciate a good beer.

After enjoying the beautiful day from the biergarten, we carried on, through more of the castle walls.

From over the castle walls, we had impressive views of old town Burghausen which sits on the Salzach River, as well as views of the lake on the other side.

After walking through the courtyards, we entered the main castle walls. It was SO cool. A castle fit for a princess indeed.

There were a couple of museums housed in the old castle with reasonably priced admission. No castle trip would be complete without going into the actual castle, right? We paid the admission and walked through. They had some interesting old paintings and tapestries,

but the views from atop the castle were well worth the price of admission.

We stayed on that rooftop for a long time. Taking in the views from every angle, reflecting on our grand adventure; our amazing year and a half journey that had brought us to that point. I wanted to hold on tight to that moment so badly. Instead, I observed as it passed. I experienced it in the fleeting nature of moments. The thing is, you can’t hold on; the human experience isn’t tangible.

We took one last look around and headed back down the creaky wooden stairs. Our last stop was the little chapel.

We then made our way down the steep, winding steps at the back of the castle.

We walked along the lakeside path as the castle became smaller in the distance. We talked and walked and made our way back to the train station, after stopping for gelato and picking up a bottle of wine, of course.

We shared our bottle of wine in the hotel that night. Recalling stories from our adventure and preparing for the final stop on our journey. The next day we would leave mainland Europe.

Última Parada: Iceland!

Regensburg Part 2: Walhalla

On our last day in Regensburg we decided to take the hour bus ride to Walhalla. A replica of the ancient Greek Parthanon (we saw the original a few months earlier in Athens…and another replica in Nashville some years back). Set upon the banks of the Danube, Walhalla serves as a hall of fame for notable and distinguished Germans throughout history. Built in the 1800’s before the formation of the modern German state, “German” was initially understood as “Germanic”, and included ancient Germanic peoples (Gothic, Vandal, Lombardic, Anglo-Saxon) as well as medieval Dutch, Swedish and Russian figures.” (thanks wikipedia).

We got off the bus in the town of Donaustauf and would need to do a bit of climbing to reach Walhalla, perched high on a hill. As we walked, we saw the Sanctuary of St. Salvator, also situated rather high up, and decided take a look.

Unfortunately, the doors of the church were locked. We spied a path heading up the hill behind it and I suggested we take it. It was heading in the right direction and I figured if we could take a little uphill nature hike instead of climbing a million steps, it would be preferable. Phil consulted the map and agreed.

On our way up the hill, we passed a very familiar sign; la concha del peregrino or the scallop shell of the camino de Santiago. We saw the golden shell symbol throughout Spain, marking the way to Santiago de Compostela, the destination of the famous Pilgrimage ending at the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, the burial place of St. James. The original camino (road, path, or way) begins just across the French border from Spain in St. Jean Pied-du-Port, high in the Pyrenees mountains. We learned during our time in Spain that there were many routes one could take, beginning in Italy or the south of Spain. We didn’t know there was a route through Germany! What a cool surprise and a nice hello from our years long adopted homeland.

Our path popped us out just beside Walhalla, conveniently at the refreshment stand. We each quenched our thirst with a raddler before walking on to take in the lovely building high on the riverbank.

We took in the building from all angles and popped inside to see the busts of the notable Germans featured there before taking the many stairs down toward the river.

We took a different route back toward the bus stop, through a lovely park, Englischer Garten, where we saw the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower). It seemed an odd place to see a Chinese Tower which was originally built in 1800, and rebuilt later, in 1952. Now it was fenced off to the public which was a real bummer because I was dying to take the little steps to the top floor and peek inside.

We had some time to enjoy the little town before the bus arrived so we grabbed a couple of coffees and pastries from a local bakery. The bakery had no seating so we found a bench to sit and enjoy the sun while we waited. After finishing our treats, we noticed we were sitting directly across from yet another bakery and well, decided to go for round two, ¿por qué no? (why not?).

Our last evening in Regensburg, the sun was shining and we took in the beautiful stained glass of St. Peter’s Cathedral. When I think of Germany, catholic churches and cathedrals don’t come to mind. In fact, I didn’t know that so many Germans were catholic. They are and they have gorgeous churches. The stained glass at St. Peter’s Cathedral rivaled that which we had seen in León back in Spain.

As we wound down our time in Regensburg, the knowledge that we were also winding down the time on our grand adventure. It felt bittersweet to be certain but we weren’t going to let that stop us from experiencing these last few moments and places to their fullest.

Stay tuned for more on our last days in Germany and our final European destination, Iceland!

Adventures in Germany: Regensburg

After a jam packed day in Munich, we were off to Regensburg. Oh, the fabled Regensburg. Just a few months prior, we had never heard of Regensburg. While traveling through Italy with my mother-in-law, Marie, back in May, she struck up a conversation with a German fellow during a cable car ride in Rapallo. She asked the man what was the place to visit in Germany. His answer was Regensburg. Not being a particularly talkative guy, I believe his reasoning was something along the lines of “It’s a nice town with good beer.” I’m pretty sure the same could be said about many a German town but we made note of the recommendation. The next morning, as we came down to breakfast in our hotel, Marie was chatting up another fellow, a young German man in town filming a movie. He too recommended Regensburg.

At that point in our travels, we knew we would be visiting our friends near Frankfurt before heading back to the states but hadn’t planned on any additional German destinations. It’s funny how once a seed is planted it often finds a way to grow. And so, three months after first hearing the name Regensburg, we found ourselves there.

Old town Regensburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to it’s unique status as “the only authentically preserved large medieval city in Germany.” Phil and I jokingly throw around the word “magical” when describing cities to one another. This is because often the word is used to describe travel destinations that to our minds don’t quite fit. Cool, unique, beautiful, mesmerizing, one of a kind; these could be used to describe a number of places we have been lucky enough to visit but magical? When I hear magical, I think of something out of a fairy tale and well, Regensburg is in fact, magical.

After a relatively short, but absolutely packed, train ride (we were lucky to find seats), we found ourselves in Regensburg. It was lightly raining but luckily our hotel was only a short walk down a wide, pedestrian-only street. The hotel was cute and the woman at the desk gave us a welcome glass of prosecco so we were off to a good start.

We dropped our bags and left the hotel to wander about and to find hearty German food and beer, the colorful sometimes narrow streets of old town welcoming us.

We found the Brauerei Kneitinger brauhaus (or brew house), dating back to 1530. It was the perfect spot. The servers sported old-fashioned garb called dirndl (think St. Pauli girl) that one would expect from an old, German beer hall.

We shared a delicious meal of braised ox cheek with dumplings, red cabbage, and the most amazing spatzel. Spatzle is a type of egg noddle often served with gravy, butter, or cheese. Our friend Katie turned us on to cheese spatzle when we visited her and her family in Rodenbach a couple of months earlier. What’s not to like about grown up mac-n-cheese? This particular cheese spatzle we had at Brauerei Kneitinger was topped with bacon and caramelized onions. It was amazing. We had a couple of dunkles (dark beers) to accompany our meal.

After lunch, we walked on and eventually found ourselves across the Danube from old town Regensburg. We sat on a stone wall, enjoying the weather, the view, and each other’s company for an hour or more, content as could be.

The following day, we started at St. John’s church, a lovely little Baroque church.

Followed by an early lunch at a cute little spot beside the Danube called Wurst & Beer. We each ordered a beer sampler and a wurst sampler. It was all very tasty and the gal running the place was very warm and pleasant. I highly recommend starting the day with a belly full of sausage and beer if given the option.

After lunch, we happily wandered for a couple of hours; across bridges, through city and parks, and along the Danube. We came to another biergarten (they aren’t hard to find), the Spital brewery. We ordered two big beers and decided that given our lunch was early and rather small, we should split a little something. We ordered a plate of sausage and sauerkraut to share.

Afterward, we continued on with our pork and beer fueled saunter. Several times during our exploration that afternoon, we encountered [primarily] young adults in traditional garb; dirndl and lederhosen (see stock image below).

We wondered what the occasion was. Being late August, we knew Oktoberfest was still a couple of weeks away, September 17th to be exact (It’s true, Oktoberfest is in September), so we knew they weren’t dressed for the fest. As we continued on, we began seeing more people and even more folks (of all ages) in the traditional dress. We knew something was happening nearby, so on we went to investigate.

In the distance, we spied a Ferris Wheel and soon we were amidst a full blown carnival! There were carnival rides, food, biergartens (duh), game booths, and all kinds of vendors selling their wares. We wandered a bit and enjoyed another beer at the biergarten. I gazed longingly at some delicious looking fried fish and giant pretzels our fellow biergarteners were enjoying. Alas, I was too full of sausage to have a third lunch.

After our beers, we made a beeline for the Ferris wheel. We are firm believers in riding Ferris Wheel’s when presented with the opportunity.

After taking in the views atop the Ferris Wheel, we bought a bag of caramel corn and ate it sitting next to the Danube (second lunch was starting to wear off). We walked back toward the hotel, taking our time, enjoying the city. We stopped for a rest at yet another biergarten (they truly are everywhere). Though not feeling especially hungry, the currywurst caught Phil’s eye. When keeping a steady supply of German beer in your system, it is also important to keep a steady supply of German food in your system so we split the currywurst (hello, third lunch).

After all of our walking, food, and beer, we decided a little rest was in order. Back to the hotel we went for a little nap before heading back out to see a bit of Regensburg at night. During our walkabout, we had seen several posters featuring artist Andre Maier. We were not familiar with him but liked the posters very much.

After turning down a narrow street, we happened upon his studio/gallery. What’s more, he was inside working! It was super cool.

After stopping a beat to watch the artist work, we walked on, across the Danube to take in the lights of old town at night. What a lovely ending to a magical day in Regensburg.

Stay tuned for part two of Regensburg and our day trip to Walhalla!

Return to Germany: Munich

During our time in Spain and throughout our subsequent travels, people usually thought I was German. I’m pale, I’m tall, I’m a big-boned gal who likes to drink beer, so, I get it. Upon our return to Germany (after we visited friends near Frankfurt in August), Phil kept jokingly telling me we were finally in the land of my people. For the record (who’s keeping a record Jess?), my ancestry is primarily English, Scottish, and a little Norwegian. Almost everywhere we traveled; Spain, Albania, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, people thought Phil was a native which he attributed to his Italian ancestry (oddly though, he was never mistaken for an Italian in Italy) and the fact that the Romans long ago inhabited many the lands we traveled.

All that notwithstanding, we arrived in the land of my people after a layover in Vienna. We were relieved when we saw our suitcase and backpacks roll out onto the luggage carousel in Munich. All summer we had heard horror stories of lost luggage in European airports. Up until our flight to Munich, we had managed to score direct flights to our destinations, which greatly reduces the risk of lost luggage. The losing part usually happens when your belongings have to go from one plane to another.

You can imagine our dismay when, at the airport in Sofia, Bulgaria, the woman at the desk informed us that we must check all of our items. Phil and I each had a carry-on sized backpack and shared one larger, rolling suitcase. When flying, we put all of our most important stuff in our backpacks so if for some reason our suitcase went missing, we would still have the necessities.

When told we had to check everything, the woman at the desk could see our displeasure and confusion (we had never had an issue with our backpacks before), and said multiple times, “It is free. It is free.” I replied “I don’t care if it’s free, I don’t want to lose my luggage.” Phil, reminding me it was silly and futile to argue with the woman (who was being watched very closely by a supervisor), quickly searched through our large suitcase and pulled out the smaller day-pack we’d purchased in Turkey; we quickly loaded our laptops, medication, ya know, the necessities, into the backpack.

Luckily, we made it with all bags present and accounted for. We took a train from the airport to Central Station then took another a short ride to a stop right outside of our hotel. Our accommodations were modest but the gentleman working the desk was friendly and they had an honor system beer fridge packed with cold, big, beers in brown or green bottles. One simply took whatever they wanted from the fridge and recorded it with the pencil and paper provided to be charged upon check out. In all of our travels I have only seen this one other time, when we traveled to Costa Rica in 2014 but I feel surely it must be a more common offering than it seems. Let me know in the comments if you have seen the honor system beer fridge.

After relaxing in our room with a beer, we headed out for dinner at a nearby brauhaus (brew house or beer hall). We enjoyed some hearty German fare and a couple of dunkles (dark beers). We called it an early night as our next day was to be jam packed.

We had one full day in Munich before heading to Regansburg so we wanted to make the most of it. We had a couple of things on our list of must sees and left the rest up to fate. Some of my favorite stops of the day included:

Frauenkirche Church: a restored Gothic Church, with very tall ceilings and beautiful, intricate, and colorful stained glass windows.

New Town Hall: a huge, cool, Gothic building. We wandered up staircases and down long hallways, until we reached the top floor, looking down upon the square below.

Theatine Church: Built in the 1660s, the interior was unlike any we have seen. It is intricately sculpted, bright white with reliefs, altars, and columns. Truly a one of a kind.

Munich Residence Palace: The huge palace served as the seat of government and residence of the Bavarian dukes, electors and kings from 1508 to 1918 and includes the residence, theater, and treasury. It is a must see when in Munich.

The treasury was really something:

After spending several hours at the Residence Palace, we had just enough time to head back to the hotel and freshen up before we were off again. We grabbed a quick bite at the  Hofbräuhaus and then onto see one of my favorite bands, Bright Eyes!

We had an unforgettable day in Munich (Phil writes more about it here). The next morning we were off to magical Regensburg. Stay tuned for more!

Bulgaria’s Love of Coffee Vending Machines. Who knew?

When we first arrived in Bulgaria, I began to notice coffee vending machines. I didn’t think too much of it initially as we have seen similar machines occasionally during our travels, typically in a train or bus station. As we traveled around, however, I began to see more and more coffee vending machines; sometimes right out front of businesses but other times, randomly on a seemingly rundown street corner with nothing else around it. What’s more, most of these machines sold good coffee, often Lavazza, an Italian coffee maker. Typically in the U.S., when you see this type of coffee machine, it’s in someplace like an old courthouse or community college with generic and terrible coffee.

I like Lavazza coffee but was curious as to the quality that was housed in the vending machines. Prior to leaving Veliko Tarnovo, I decided to try a cup at the train station. It did not disappoint. Throughout our travels, we saw more coffee vending machines in Ploviv and Sofia.

I assure you, this post isn’t an ad for Lavazza coffee. I found the coffee machines generously scattered around the country to be kind of quirky and unique. I hope you do too.

Stay tuned for posts about our travels in Germany!

Bulgaria Part 3: Sofia

Our train from Plovdiv to Sofia was delayed by an hour for reasons I am still unsure of. Phil and I sat on the hot train and waited and waited. We didn’t know what the hold up was. The steady stream of announcements, in Bulgarian, on the train station’s loud speaker were, of course, useless to us. We knew we were on the correct train, however, so we stayed put. There was a fellow, one of our cabin mates, who had his bag on the train and was sitting outside smoking and drinking a beer with his friend. His “bag” was actually a cooler bag filled with tall boy beers. As we waited, he entered the train twice to retrieve additional beers for himself and his friend.

As we waited (and sweat) I looked up on google translate how to ask the woman in our train cabin what time the train would leave. She responded in English and indicated we would be leaving in another half hour. Eventually, the beer drinking fellow snuffed out his last cigarette and boarded so we knew it must be time to go. As we traveled the two hours to Sofia, the guy drank an additional four tall boy beers. His cooler bag was like a Mary Poppins carpet bag..just when I thought surely, it couldn’t possibly hold any more beer, he would pull out another one. It was kind of amazing. Also kind of amazing is how the fellow was able to down 7-8 large beers in three hours time and walk straight.

After an uneventful train ride, we exited the train in Sofia it was raining; then getting turned around in the less than impressive underground train station (trash, broken escalator, and huge dead pigeon) we eventually were able to find a taxi to take us to our rental.

We dropped our bags at the apartment and headed out for some grocery store supplies and doner kebab for dinner. It was still raining so we navigated the streets, trying not to get too wet, under our small umbrella as best we could. We had grown accustomed to walking under the giant umbrella we had in Gijón (that stayed in Gijón with our friend, Diana). Contrary to what My Fair Lady may have taught you, the rain in Spain stays mainly in the mountains, not the plains, but I digress.

The next morning, we hit the yellow brick road to see the city and see the National Art Gallery.

Saint Sofia Monument

The National Art Gallery is housed in a former palace built in 1880. It’s high, ornate ceilings, chandeliers, and grand staircases certainly give it a royal feel.

We enjoyed viewing the art collection including a temporary exhibit by The Master, Vladimir Dimitrov, a Bulgarian artist we first learned about in Veliko Tarnovo.

After we left the museum, we walked around Sofia, taking in the city, stopping to take photos of the Ivan Vazov National Theater, the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker (a Russian Orthodox Church built in 1914), among others.

After our walk, we decided we needed a snack and I just so happened to have saved Cakey Bakey on our google maps list of spots to check out. I’m glad I did. As the reviews suggested, the cake and coffee were very good and it was a cute little spot to take a break.

The next morning, we had a wine tasting! I saw this particular activity listed as an experience on a popular travel app several weeks prior and booked right away. It had great reviews, was reasonably priced, plus, wine! Several of the eastern European countries we traveled to are known (by wine aficionados anyway) to have good wine. In fact, two Siberian women I met in Turkey told me that if I had the chance to taste Georgian wine, I would not be disappointed as it is the most delicious wine. We didn’t travel to Georgia and did not have a chance to sample Georgian wine but their advice got me thinking about eastern European wine and why it isn’t more well known by the masses.

I was excited to learn more about Bulgarian wine and to sample a few. Our tasting was held at a local wine shop named Coupage Wine and Cheese, by a fellow named Alex. Alex was very passionate about Bulgarian wine and although his shop was on the same street as several other wine shops, his is the only that sells exclusively Bulgarian wine, cheese and cured meats.

As we waited for Alex to prepare our wine and cheese samplings, we perused a book he offered us about wines of the world. While Spain, France, and Italy had multiple pages about wine and grape varieties and regions, Bulgaria had only one page, which is not a surprise as those other countries are quite known for their wines. Though Bulgaria has a wine making tradition that goes back thousands of years beginning with the Thracians in the 5th century BC (later conquered by the Romans), so why aren’t Bulgarian wines more well known?

Alex explained that the craft of traditional wine and cheese making in Bulgaria was all but lost under Communism. This was because the state seized wineries and vineyards and set up large operations that churned out mass quantities of low quality wine for the masses. There were no privately owned wineries under Communism as they all became state owned.

After Communism fell, all state seized land was given back to the original owners (or more often their heirs). The new owners of the vineyards often did not know the former family business; grape cultivation and wine making, thus it took many years for traditional Bulgarian wine to make a comeback. Lucky for us, it did. We had a lovely time talking with Alex and sampling wines. We even bought a bottle to take with us to enjoy at a later time.

After sampling the wine we were quite hungry. Alex gave us a few restaurant recommendations and we ended up at a place called Table. It was cute and trendy feeling and lucky for us, they were serving Brunch! Brunch is not a thing in Spain, or in most of Europe from what I can tell, so we were pleased with the opportunity to enjoy some fancy cocktails and brunch food. We both ordered the Eggs Benedict. It is very unusual for us to order the same thing as we usually like to order a couple of things and share them but we were not disappointed as we each chowed down on a full plate of the delicious eggs.

Another must-do when visiting Sofia, or Bulgaria in general, is a visit to the Rila Monastery. It is stunning and beautiful, and Phil writes in detail about it here. We spent a lovely day there and I am so glad we went.

Our final day in Sofia (and Bulgaria) was spent walking around the town, past the Byzantine ruins, and through Knyazheska Garden Park.

We enjoyed our time in Sofia and throughout Bulgaria over our three weeks in the country. People were friendly, the food was good, the transportation was reasonable and I highly recommend it as a European travel destination. Next up for Phil and I; Germany and our final days in mainland Europe. Stay tuned!

Bulgaria Part 2: Plovdiv

We left Veliko Tarnovo via train and headed to Plovdiv, our next Bulgarian destination. We had a private coach for the duration of our five hour ride. It was by far the most luxurious we had been in. We paid the extra $6 to ride in first class and it was well worth it.

We exited the train station in Plovdiv and I was happy to see our hotel was right next door because the less distance we have to haul our bags, the better. My relief was short lived, however, as we entered the hotel and the woman working met us at the door and said, “It isn’t working”. We were confused and of course asked, “What isn’t working?”, thinking their computer system was down or something. “The hotel, it’s not working.” “You mean you’re closed?” Phil asked. The woman responded yes and Phil told her we had a reservation and had already paid for the room. She said her colleague should have contacted him and then repeated, “The hotel isn’t working”. She did not apologize for our inconvenience or offer to let us sit in the hotel as we tried to make other arrangements. She just ushered us out the door with another, “The hotel isn’t working.”

Hot, tired, kind of pissed off, and still somewhat confused, we leaned against a small half wall in the parking lot and (after disputing the charge for the hotel with the site we booked it through), we found another hotel closer to the old town that would meet our needs. We opted to skip the 20 minute walk and took a short taxi ride instead.

Our room wasn’t ready so we dropped our bags off and decided to walk around a bit. The neighborhood where we were staying was called Kapana and is the arts district. A lot of cool little shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants make up the neighborhood.

After grabbing a quick bite, we decided to walk to a nearby park and clock tower to check out some views of the city. We could see our hotel from the tower and after looking around a bit, found a path that brought us down off the hill, right beside it.

Our hotel was very large though it appeared as if only one section was being used for guests. Other areas were in various states of renovation. It seemed as if the hotel was once a very happening spot that had fallen into disrepair, was then purchased, and the new owners are attempting to restore it to it’s former glory.

The roof had a huge two story bar area that is not currently in use, except by us to take in the sunset. A giant rooftop bar with a view is a hot commodity in most cities and I hope they get it back up and running because with a little TLC, it would be a great spot.

The next morning we walked through the Tsar Simeon Garden which contains lovely fountains and flowers.

Plovdiv was originally named Phillipopolis (cool name) and has ancient roman ruins of the old city, dating back to the 1st-4th century AD.

Next we visited Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis. A museum now sits atop the ancient ruins of the historical spot that dates back to the second century. It originally served as a pagan temple and a few hundred years after, a Christian Basilica, and later, a cemetery.

The Basilica museum in the foreground

The museum houses some of the best mosaics we have ever seen. Besides being beautifully preserved and detailed, one can also observe the layers in the mosaic flooring, the original pagan designs peaking out from underneath the newer basilica floor. It was really cool, though difficult to capture in a photo.

The mosaic floors of the basilica were huge and largely still intact. A raised, glass floor has been built over the mosaics for all to enjoy without damaging them and we were given paper booties to wear during our time in the museum.

The woman working the front desk of the museum was very nice and chatted with us a bit on our way in and out. She informed us of a combined ticket package available for 15 lev (roughly $7.50) that would allow us to visit five historic locations in Plovdiv (from a list of ten). We really wanted to visit some of the restored homes in old town and many were on the list. Additionally, she recommended we visit the restored pharmacy in the old town as well. The 15 lev was well spent.

The first home we visited was The House of Veren Stambolyan. Built in the second half of the 19th century, the two story home has a courtyard and archways leading inside and is a beautiful blue and white.

We were asked not to take photos in the house and I am (more often than not) a rule follower, so I don’t have many photos of the interior. Lucky for you, my husband is not a rule follower, so I do have a few.

Bulgarian artist, Dimitar Kirov lived and painted in the house in the 1960’s along with his wife and muse, Ro. I actually did snap a couple of photos of his paintings. If you look at the photo of me in the house above, you can see the artist’s photo between the staircases.

As we walked around old town after touring the house, we spied some outdoor mosaics by Dimitar Kirov as well.

We went on to visit The House of Nedkovich, which was built in the 1860s, and has some of the original furniture owned by the original owner of the home, a merchant named Nikola Nedkovich.

The next day we continued our Old Town tour, beginning with the House of Hindlian built in 1834-35; Stepan Hindlian was a famous merchant originally from Armenia. This may have been my favorite historic home we visited. As with all of the homes, the ceilings were works of art. They even had a rose water fountain in the upstairs living room! Bulgaria is famous for their rose water. Every tourist shop has rose water and there are some higher end shops that exclusively sell rose water lotion, oil, and perfume.

We also visited the Hippocrates Pharmacy Museum

and the Klianti House

While in old town, we also stopped in the City Art Gallery which housed an impressive and large collection and was arranged chronologically with older paintings on the first floor and contemporary art on the third floor. I snapped photos of some of my favorites, including Bulgarian artist, The Master (who I mentioned in part 1).

Another great museum in Plovdiv is the The Regional Archaeological Museum. I was actually a little reluctant to go. After having seen a lot of ancient pottery, ruins, and artifacts this summer, I was almost archaeology-ed out. Kind of like seeing a lot of Catholic churches, sometimes you need a little break. I am, however, very glad we decided to go to the museum. They had a unique exhibit of The Panagyuristhe Gold Treasure, a luxurious table set consisting of nine gold vessels of different shapes. Made at the beginning of the 3rd century BC of 23-karat gold; they were found by three brothers (The Deikovi Brothers) in 1949. The pieces were really unusual and so detailed.

In addition to the gold exhibit, the museum also houses a large mosaic from the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis that we visited a few days prior. The mosaic, featuring Neptune, the God of water and the seas, was stunning and so well preserved.

While in Plovdiv, a great spot to take in the sunset (aside from our kick-ass hotel roof), is at the The Alyosha Monument, high atop one of Plovdiv’s hills. The Alyosha is monument is dedicated to the Soviet Army for liberating Bulgaria from the Germans in 1944. It is huge and can be seen from different places throughout the city.

We really enjoyed our time in Plovdiv and I recommend it to anyone visiting Bulgaria! Stay tuned for more from our final stop in Bulgaria, its capital, Sofia.

Bulgaria, Part 1: Veliko Tarnovo

Phil and I said goodbye to Bucharest and boarded the seven-hour train to Veliko Tarnovo, our first stop in Bulgaria. We shared a four-person coach with two German travelers (not traveling together) who were both heading to Istanbul. Compared to their eighteen-hour train ride, seven seemed like a breeze.

Over the trip, while we didn’t exchange names, we did share travel stories and recommendations. One of the Germans was a young man traveling to Turkey to meet up with his Russian girlfriend. The war in Ukraine limits Russians’ ability to travel widely and she is unable to travel to Germany currently.

The other traveler, a woman in her mid-thirties, has been working for a European politician in Brussels for the last couple of years and was extremely burnt out from her demanding job. She was taking her month’s vacation time to travel around Eastern Europe before returning to her job and giving her resignation notice. She indicated she had plenty of savings from her job and intended to take a year off of work to recharge. I hear you, sister. She had also traveled throughout the US for a three month period a few years ago, filming a [as of yet unfinished] documentary about “real” Americans. In an era when Americans are seemingly more divided than ever, she found that, regardless of political affiliation, people are just people and are often willing to help others, individually, even if they differ in political ideology.

I really enjoyed both of our long-term train riding experiences. We lucked out to have interesting coach-mates who spoke English and were keen to discuss travel and life experiences with us. I highly recommend taking a long-distance train when traveling if you’re not in too much of a hurry to get to your destination. Share a coach and who knows, you might luck out too and have some informative conversations and even if you don’t, and have less than ideal coach-mates, at the very least it will make for an interesting story.

We arrived at Veliko Tarnovo on time. The train station was quite small and I believe we may have been the only travelers to exit the train at the destination. We walked out front to see the only visible taxi pulling away. It was a thirty minute walk to our rental and we didn’t want to have to carry our heavy bags for the that long, so we opted to hang out in front of the taxi area, and hoped another would be along shortly.

After a while, we began to doubt that another would, in fact, be along so I went inside in the hopes of the ticket agent calling us a taxi. The ticket agent spoke no English and although I thought I communicated what I wanted pretty well, she handed me a phone number, presumably for a taxi company. I thanked her and went outside. We tried the number, without success, and started to think we might have to walk, when we saw a taxi pull in.

He stopped in front of two women who had been sitting on the curb near the station entrance. We thought they had called him and he was there to pick them up. After an exchange between the women and driver, it appeared as though they decided not to take the taxi or the driver kicked them out of the car, either way we flagged him down and got in. Score! On the way out of the parking lot, the driver stopped the car and had a loud verbal exchange with one of the women and then drove on. It was slightly unsettling but we didn’t have to schlep our bags all the way to the rental in the hot hot so we were grateful.

We arrived at our spacious rental and were happy to see that there was a full grocery store just downstairs from it. We like to be able to cook while traveling though, often due to the type and location of the accommodation, it is difficult or impossible. We unpacked, purchased supplies at the store, and relaxed for the evening after our long travel day.

Around midnight, just was we were drifting off to sleep, we were startled by very loud pops. The sound took me back to our St. Louis days when we would play “gun shots of fireworks?” to determine the source of loud pops. We almost immediately saw the bright light reflecting off of the sliding glass door and went to go check it out. We were delighted to have front row seats to a spectacular fireworks display, and these were no half-assed fireworks, we’re talking professional grade. We couldn’t exactly determine where they were coming from due to it being dark and the town being quite hilly but we assumed it must be a wedding or other special celebration to warrant such a grand show.

The next morning we had a walking tour with a local guide, Iva, who brought along her daughter, Tiana, to show us around the city and tell us a bit about the history. She also made some recommendations for places to eat and things to do.

We met Iva and Tiana in front of the Monument of Mother Bulgaria near the center of town. We walked on, over the Stambolov Bridge, high above the Yantra River and took in some great views of the old town. We also saw the large and impressive monument to the Assen Dynasty in the near distance. The Assen dynasty rose as the leaders of Bulgaria after a rebellion against the Byzantine Empire in 1185 and ruled Bulgaria until 1280. We stopped at the monument and snapped a few photos. It was nice to have someone else who could take photos of Phil and I together. We have a LOT of selfies from our travels and while I love each one of them, it’s nice to have a few us-ies as well.

We entered the old town via Gurko Street, named for  Yoseph Vladimir Gurko, a Russian general who was instrumental in helping the Russians free the Bulgarians from Ottoman Turkish rule, Iva informed us. The street is famous for its historical white homes you can see in the picture below.

We stopped at a cafe on Gurko street as it was a very hot day and a break from walking and a cold beverage sounded delightful. Phil and I ordered sparkling water and Iva a coffee. I was amazed that a hot coffee sounded good to her on the 90 degree morning. I love coffee but I guess not as much as Iva does. Tiana ordered a snack and as we talked with them we learned that young Tiana (I would guess she was around eight or nine years old) already knew three languages; Norwegian (she was born in Norway as her father is Norwegian and the family lived there until 2020), Bulgarian, and English and she is learning Spanish currently!

After our pit stop, we walked to The Nativity of the Virgin Mary Cathedral which was quite impressive from the outside. There is a place near the Cathedral that, every weekend, has two sound and light shows. They light up the Trapezitsa Fortress, which was a huge walled fortress across the Yantra river, and provide headphones that play music along with the lights. She said it was kind of like a laser light show. She told us the show often sells out but even if we could not get tickets, we could enjoy the light show for free from an area nearby. She showed us where she thought the best spot would be.

Next we walked through the heart of old town, which is lined with little shops some of which are simply tourist shops selling typical souvenirs; t-shirts, shot glasses, postcards, and snow globes but others were real artisan workshops selling woodwork, lace, and other fine products. We said goodbye to Iva and Tiana at the end of the street.

We enjoyed a slow walk back to the rental where we relaxed for a bit. Later we enjoyed dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant right across the street from our apartment. After dinner, we headed back to old town to catch the light show. We could not get a ticket but found a nice spot, atop a large stone wall, to see the show. It was hard to capture via photo the grandiosity of the light show but it was truly something to see. They turn off the lights in that area of town to help the lights from across the river at the fortress really pop.

The next day we visited the Boris Denev State Art Gallery. Boris Denev was an important Bulgarian painter from Veliko Tarnovo, and the museum was a two floor exhibit to Bulgarian painters. This is where we first learned about and saw works by Vladimir Dimitrov, known as The Master. He is perhaps the most famous Bulgarian painter and this would not be the last time we saw his paintings. He is right in my sweet spot of modern art (1882-1960) and I really enjoyed his paintings.

The next morning we were off (via a relatively short train ride) to our next Bulgarian city, Plovdiv. Stay tuned!