Reaching toward all points of the compass in search of adventure

Iceland – Part 1

So when you look at Iceland on a flat map it doesn’t look that far north or anything. But when you look at Iceland on a globe, it’s more like “damn, that is like the Arctic Circle!” In fact, just two longitudinal degrees short of the Arctic Circle in the capital of Reykjavik. I had the chance to visit this northern island with more livestock inhabitants than people, and I obviously was not going to pass it up.

I flew into Keflavik Airport on the red-eye and waited around for my co-adventurer, Kara (AKA Bae, bestie, wifey, giiiirrrrrll), to fly in from Dublin. I was feeling super intimidated to make my way solo into Reykjavik so I thought to myself, “three hours at the airport isn’t that long.” And if you’ve ever been to Iceland, I already know I should have gone to the Blue Lagoon for an after flight soak; this was my one bit of wasted time in my eight days in country, and after three flights I was bone tired. However I totally should have gone because while I was ordering a little nosh from a coffee counter, someone stole my jacket! At no point on this adventure did I feel unsafe, but a word to the wise: airports are not always full of welcoming locals, sometimes they are full of shifty thieves from who knows where; watch your things. I’ve never started a trip in a deficit like that, so I had to reach deep for some optimism and hope whomever is wearing my jacket actually really needed it (though I doubt it, and I hope they get out of the universe what they put into it).

Moving on, Kara landed, we screamed like little girls and got a car into the city. We spent the evening walking around Reykjavik, going into shops and eating traditional fish soup at Islenski Barinn which I highly recommend for the soup and sweet potato fries.

This is the picture I took of Bae sending a pic of me to her mom so that I could send this one to my mom.

So, after getting an evening of bestie catch up time, Kara went to work all week and I was on my own in a wild land as far north as I’ll probably ever get in my life. What to do?

Day One: The Golden Circle Tour

The Golden Circle is like Iceland Tourism 101. If you’ve never been to Iceland and you’re based in Reykjavik and you don’t have a car, reserve a seat with one of the myriad of companies that does a tour picking you up from your hotel. I chose East West Concept Tours and was SO happy with the experience! It is a smaller company that only does tours of 16 people or less. I was on a tour of four people with Ivar as our driver and it was amazing. We got so much personal attention with our questions and even got to make a few extra secret stops because we were such a small group. Small group tours are also a great way to make new friends when you‘re travelling solo (hey, Jason!). Here’s my Golden Circle hitlist:

  • Collecting ice cold glacial waters direct from a spring at some secret spot Ivar stopped at. When people ask what the best thing to eat in Iceland is, I say the water!
  • Þingvellir National Park – the site of Iceland’s first parliament and the rift between the North American and European continental plates.

  • Efstidalur Farm – a dairy farm that has a restaurant and an AMAZING icecream shop. And you can even visit with the baby cows!!! Needless to say, I ate the ice cream.
  • Geysir Hot Spring Area – so this is where the geysir is that the word geysir came from. This is a very active geothermic area with bubbling pools all over and an erupting geysir to boot.
  • My first visit with Icelandic horses – a hardy breed of little horse, they were brought to the island by Norsemen in the 9th century. Now Iceland has laws so that no other horse breeds can come into the country, so when in Iceland, every horse you see is a pure bred Icelandic horse.
  • Gulfoss Waterfall – a very dramatic stepped waterfall dropping through a canyon cut by the Hvítá River.
  • Faxafoss Waterfall – a serene setting with a wide waterfall that you might even see salmon running in.
  • Friðheimar Tomato Farm – acres of greenhouses growing tomatoes just below the Arctic Circle where tomatoes should not grow; really a feat of engineering defying nature. After a long day of sightseeing it was lovely to sit down in their restaurant over a hot bowl of fresh tomato soup and a bloody mary made with green tomatoes. They have tons of fresh baked breads to go with your soup and they even had gluten free bread for me!

I finished off day one with an evening walk and dinner in Reykjavik with Kara. Highlight though? That had to be the INCREDIBLE sunset we got to watch at 11PM. Being so far north you get something like 20 hours of sun in the summertime in Iceland. Getting to watch the sun go down an hour before midnight was the perfect end to a great day in Iceland.

Stay tuned for Iceland Part II!

A Country within a Country – Vatican City

Forty four hectares; 1,000 people; an Egyptian obelisk dating back to 30BC; a basilica with a Constantinian frame dating back to 329; a chapel adorned with frescoes by Michelangelo; an independent city state since 1929 – the smallest in the world – under the jurisdiction of the Holy See, led by the Pope; the seat of the Catholic Church. Amazing that someplace so very small could become larger than life in it’s meaning with all of these attributes. Welcome to Vatican City.

First things first, people, when you visit The Vatican: cover up those shoulders and knees, ’cause RESPECT. Though I’m totally sure that if Jesus or the Pope were there they’d just invite you in as Godly hospitality turns no one away who wants to be there. This dress code is actually a basic rule for the majority of Catholic facilities in Italy, though this was the only place I saw it enforced, and even then, it was by a tour guide and they helped the person find some things to cover up with. I myself came dressed to meet Pope Francis, which I will tell you, I did not. However, I did see an abundance of really glorious things in the largest church in the world.

When you tour Vatican City you see the majority of the cultural and historical sites of a entire country, albeit very tiny, in just a few short hours. There are the Apostolic Palaces, St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums, and everything else the small population needs to make a country run – even its own post office!

I highly recommend paying the little bit of extra money for a guided tour that let’s you skip the line and go in with your tour guide at your designated time. Mom and I spoke to some people who were in line for three plus hours!! And you learn so much more by taking a guided tour; it is well worth it. Our tour first took us through the gorgeous Vatican Museums, which had so much more to see than just paintings of cherubs, nativities and crucifixions. There were incredibly intricate tapestries, frescoes, and even modern art by artists including Dali and Picasso.

This is a tapestry, y’all!!!

I had two favorite parts of the Museum Galleries. The first was the Gallery of Maps.  The walls of this great hall are frescoed with 40 maps of the different regions of Italy that were mapped out at the time of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) and were drawn by the geographer Ignazio Danti. The maps line the hall from the floor up to the ornate arched ceiling. It is walls of blue and green and gold, and displays the genius of the scientists and artists of the time.

My other favorite part was seeing Raphael’s Rooms. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) had his papal quarters painted by the Renaissance master Rapheal between the years of 1508 until his death in 1520. One of my most favorite paintings is frescoed here in one of these rooms. The School of Athens depicts ancient philosophers demonstrating their expertise and knowledge, to include Plato, Aristotle, and many more, even Raphael himself.

 Rapheal’s School of AthensThe Fire in the Borgo -School of Raphael

We moved on to St. Peter’s Basilica. Completed in 1612 after over 150 years of reconstruction, the church is the largest in the world and sits perched at the top of St. Pete’s Square, surrounded by a marble colonnade designed by the great Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Inside the Basilica is all marble and gold and glory, like the heavens opened up and did their own interior design. The baldacchino, also by Bernini, is said to sit above of the tomb of St. Peter himself and devotees make pilgrimages to the basilica all the time.  Along with this spiritual site, people travel from far and wide to also see Michelangelo‘s masterpiece Pieta sculpture, completed in 1499.

Michelangelo’s Pieta

Mom at the Holy water font

On from there, we visited the Sistine Chapel, whose ceiling and alter wall are covered in frescoes by Michelangelo depicting Biblical themes such as the Creation of Adam and the Last Judgement. Alas, the Vatican does not allow photos in the Chapel. You just have to be in the space and appreciate it for what it is – a great Renaissance masterpiece.

Of course after such an amazing and meaningful time, mom and I had to refresh ourselves with some gelato. A guide steered us to a shop called Gelateria Old Bridge that serves huge portions to nuns. I think they were kind enough to serve us nun sized portions as well.

Click through the gallery below for more pictures from our day at the Vatican!

Roman Oldies

So, here’s what’s crazy: oversleeping in Sorrento, sprinting to a the train that gets you to another train, having way too many bags to manage, ubering in Rome (not for the faint of heart or non Italian speakers), checking into a hotel that is really just one floor of an apartment building (it was super, btw, more later), riding the Rome subway and not getting lost… All of these things were crazy, and they all happened by lunchtime. The one that really got me though, was the fact that after you get out of the subway station you are literally across the street from the COLLOSEUM! Serisoulsy, you walk outside and it’s just right there! In your face. I wasn’t ready; on the contrary, I was shook.

So mom and I had booked a guided tour of the Colosseo, Foro Romano and the Palatine Hill for our first afternoon in Roma. The frantic morning of travel had left us little time to think about our expectations of these antiquities. Construction of the Colosseo began in 72CE under the Emperor Vespasian. The elliptical Flavian Amphitheater was built over the site of emperor Nero’s manmade lake east of the Palantine Hill, part of his Domus Aurea or Golden House. Nero was rather tyranical, he was extravagant and over taxed the popolo, had people murdered, and also (maybe) did nothing while Rome burned to the ground over six days in 64CE. So when Vespasian came into power, got rid off all the badness that was Nero, and built the Colosseo on top of his old pool to host and entertain tens of thousands of Romans. Blows your mind, right?

So for the rest of the day, Mom and I got to explore these amazingly ancient places that’d we’d only read about in history books. We strolled ancient Roman roads; stood where gladiators stood; saw the site where Julius Caesar was stabbed; walked around ancient temples dedicated to gods and godesses and love; explored the ruins of an emperor’s palace. What a great day. It was also a very hot day. Also, Colin Kaepernick was touring the Forum that day too! #AmericanHero #ibethewasthereforme #daaaaammmnnnn #bodygaurddidhisjob.

Here are just a few of the interesting facts I learned about the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill that day.

  • The Colosseum was built in under a decade on the site of an actual lake. It could also hold upwards of 80,000 people!
  • These ancient structures were damaged mostly by earthquakes and the plundering of marble in the Dark Ages.
  • There are a ton of connections between the Colosseum and the Catholic church.
  • There were a countless number of fights between gladiators and exotic animals, such as bears and elephants.
  • Gladiators weren’t super cut guys – they were kinda chubby because the padding was helpful in case they got stabbed. Precious vital organs and all. Makes sense.
  • The fights between the gladiators were more staged than anything – no one wants to invest years of training and money into a fighter and then just have him die in the ring. It was more like pro-wrestling!
  • The Forum was the center of the city for ancient Rome, political and economic.
  • The ashes of Julius Caesar are interred in the Forum!
  • Most of the important political leaders in Rome built their homes on Palatine Hill, including Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire.
  • Everything is made of marble…more marble than you can ever imaging in one place.
  • It’s where Kaep likes to hang out and get historical.

By the end of our first day in Roma we were completely exhausted and our minds were saturated with so much information. We hadn’t learned that much in like two days! All of it was so much more than we anticipated and it was so completely amazing.

We made our way back across the River Tiber to our hotel on the Vatican side of town. We stayed in great accommodations called Colonna Luxury Suites, run by my favorite man in Rome, Franco – so helpful, so kind, and the rooms were really clean and quiet and perfect, and right up the street from a subway stop and VATICAN CITY. And there was even breakfast included, and great gelato right out the door. For dinner, we went full Roma and had so much pasta and anchovies and wine. I highly recommend the spaghetti carbonara at Trattoria Ai Villini, a very homey local feeling place where Michela Mancinelli will make you feel like family. It was a fantastic start to a Roman Holiday.

Click through the gallery below for more photos from our first day in Rome!


Andiamo in Italia!

Wow, what a whirlwind the last four days have been! I can’t believe that it has ONLY been four days!! Italy is amazing. I am in love. It’s a good thing I left Calvin at home or else I might never come back. This is an incredible country and I’ve only seen a little bit of it.

I’ll do individual posts for the things my mom and I have been up to in a few days (it’s after 2am and I really want to get some shut eye), but here’s a quick overview:

We had the most challenging travel day ever – a trans-Atlantic flight, a tube train, a regional train, a commuter train, finished off with about a mile of walking all of our luggage along cobblestone streets – to get to Sorrento. Totally worth it the time, sweat and bruises. We have been staying Sorrento since Thursday and we couldn’t have asked for a better landing pad. It was so easy to jump on a train, boat or bus to every other stop on our list for the area.This seaport town is super lively with beautiful views, friendly locals, walkable streets, tons of restaurants, and more gelato shops than there are Starbucks in NYC. So. Much. Gelato.

Arrival day gave us the afternoon and evening to wander around Sorrento and settle in. Some much needed downtime. And gelato.

Day two we took the ferry to Capri, a posh little island off the coast. Lots of limoncello was consumed. We also walked along a path built by the ancient Greeks!! The views were incredible, and so was the gelato.

Day three brought us to Naples. What can I say about Napoli? This ancient city gave me life!! I promise to write a nice long post about it and everything we were blessed enough to see. BIG shout to to my uncle, Steve Henry, for making the most amazing day happen! We visited churches, Roman baths, funerary chapels, saw The Veiled Christ (ohmygosh!!), ate the best pizza, spent the afternoon walking the ruins of Pompeii, and did it all while learning so very much from our own docent/critic/story teller, Diana Gianquitto. The day was perfect. And also, we had gelato after dinner.

After such a crazy day three, we took day four to relax. We hopped on the bus over the mountains to the town of Positano on the Amalfi coast. It’s an upscale beach town with narrow winding pedestrian streets, tons of shops, tons of boats, houses and buildings built into the cliff sides, and really good gelato.

Also, tonight, there was a football match between Napoli and Juventus. Napoli won and the whole town of Sorrento has been going nuts in celebration! And by that I mean riding around on their scooters and honking their horns. It is wholesome and joyous and total perfection.

This is our last night in the town of Sorrento and I’m actually really sad to leave. We couldn’t have asked for a better first leg of our mother-daughter journey. But we’ve got to pack up and be on our way, because tomorrow WE ROME.