Sunday, September 25, 2011

Burg Hohenwerfen

Situated high on a 155 meter cliff in the Salzach valley, Burg Hohenwerfen is a fortress built between 1075 and 1078. Hohenwerfen has served as a military base as well as a residential and hunting retreat for Salburg's rulers. It even served as a prison for many centuries. Rulers such as Archbishop Adalbert III (1198), Graf Albert von Friesach (1253), the Styrian governor Siegmund (1525) and Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau (1611) were held captive here.

Today, the castle is home to the historical Salzburg Falconry Center. Impressive falconry flight displays included vultures, red kites, falcons and other birds of prey. Try to keep track as many of the birds fly around the castle and surrounding Tennengebirge mountains.

The weapons museum with 700 years of melee weapons and firearms is also quite interesting to visit while at the castle.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Europe's Biggest Party: Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest is is arguably Europe's biggest annual party, attracting nearly six million people.  Of course, the biggest draw of Oktoberfest are the fourteen free-to-enter beer tents. Want a seat? Get up and join the crowds as they make a dash for the tents bright and early. The massive Hofbräu Festzelt is considered the biggest beer tent at Oktoberfest with a capacity of nearly 10,000 and is the famous counterpart to the Hofbraeuhaus located in the city of Munich. The tent is packed with picnic tables and benches that fill up quickly and you can expect to see some craziness as "chug, chug, chug" is shouted all around. It is also the only tent at Oktoberfest where you can buy your mug of beer and have a drink without having to sit down.

The beer is traditionally served in one-liter krugs (steins) and beer wenches impressively carry ten at a time. When toasting, make eye contact with your drinking compatriots, raise and clink your glasses together, shouting Prost! (Cheers!), before taking a swig.

Local delicacies like hendl (a half spit-roasted chicken, wurstl (sausages), and Bavarian brezel (soft pretzels) are sold in the tents.

Everyone needs a souvenir of their trip to Oktoberfest. A favorite and easy-to-find souvenir is the Lebkuchen (gingerbread necklace). These gingerbread hearts are decorated with German phrases such as Ich Lieve Dich (I love you) and come strung with a ribbon for wearing home. Tim says I earned mine!

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

I Spy From the London Eye...

On a clear day, just like the day as I took a spin on the London Eye, you can see as far as 25 miles. The all glass capsules of the observation wheel afford you 360° views over London. It's location right in the heart of the city mean many famous landmarks are clearly visible, including Buckingham Palace, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Gherkin in London City and of course the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben right across the Thames.

Completed in 1999 as part of London's millennium celebrations, the giant observation wheel is the tallest in Europe at 135-meters (443 ft). It moves at a slow, but steady pace with one revolution taking just around 30 minutes. Be prepared to hop on and off because the wheel does not usually stop.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Royal Day Out at Buckingham Palace, London

Buckingham Palace serves as the London residence of The Queen. During August and September, when the Palace is not being used in its official capacity, the magnificent State Rooms are opened to visitors. The State Rooms are lavishly furnished with some of the greatest treasures from the Royal Collection - paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, Canaletto and Claude; sculpture by Canova and Chantrey; exquisite examples of Sèvres porcelain, and some of the finest English and French furniture in the world.

The 2011 opening of the State Rooms had two special exhibits. The Royal Fabergé, a collection of over 100 masterpieces by Peter Carl Fabergé, the greatest Russian jeweler and golsmith of the early 20th century. The Royal Fabergé exhibit explored how six successive generations of the British Royal Family, from Queen Victoria to The Queen have shaped the finest collection of Fabergé in the world.

I found the collection of jewel encrusted Imperial Easter Eggs the most impressive in the lot. The Mosaic Egg is without a doubt one of the most sophisticated and extraordinary of Fabergé’s Imperial Easter Eggs.

A special display of The Duchess of Cambridge's royal wedding dress, designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen. The dress is stunning and yet a bit ghostly as it is displayed in a low lit room on a headless mannequin. A short video plays of Sarah Burton explaining the construction of the dress.

Also on display are the diamond acorn earrings gifted to Duchess Kate by her parents, the Cartier Halo tiara loaned to her by The Queen, and a silk flower replica of her bridal bouquet.

The traditional fruitcake is also on display in the State Dining Room.

The tour of the State Rooms leaves through the Buckingham Palace Gardens. Stop at the cafe to snack on a miniature chocolate biscuit cake, a favorite of Prince William and also served at the Royal Wedding. A stroll through the Palace Gardens leads you by The Queen's private pond.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland

In September the green glow known as the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, begins its dance across the lava fields of  Keflavík. It is caused by the electrically charged particles emitted by the sun and interacting with the Earth's magnetic field. The colliding particles cause the thin air to glow in the beautiful colors of the aurora. The lights are expected to burn even more brightly in 2011 than usual, as they approach a peak in the 11-year solar-flare cycle.

Since Iceland is in the middle of the auroral zone where this phenomenon is most frequently seen, Tim was lucky enough to have several clear, crisp nights to observe one of the most spectacular shows on this earth. One particular night the aurora was so active, the lights kept Tim awake as they danced right outside his window.

The Northern Lights can prove to be quite elusive; conditions for viewing need to be just right. September through March are the best months to view the aurora. Contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be cold to see the aurora, just dark and clear...and clear skies usually mean it’s cold, hence the association between auroras and chilly nights. The peak viewing hours are between 11pm and 2am. So bundle up and head outside the city for the best viewing!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Walking Tour of Reykjavik, Iceland

There is really no better way to discover Reykjavik than on foot. A mix of traditional and modern reveal the eclectic charms of the city.

A brand new addition to Reykjavik's harbor is the Harpa Reykjavik Conference and Concert Center,which just opened in May. The building was designed by the artist Olafur Eliasson and Henning Larsen Architects and glitters in the sun.

From the Harpa, begin an easy walking tour of the city. Walk along Laekjargata street to the Government House, which is the office of the Prime Minister of Iceland. Turn left at the Government House and walk uphill along Laugavegur Street, the longest shopping street in Reykjavik.

You will find many shops along  Laugavegur Street selling the lopapeysa, or Icelandic wool sweater, which is a favorite of visitors to bring back home with them. You will see many Icelanders wearing the traditionally patterned lopapeysa. The yarn used, lopi, is made from the wool of Icelandic sheep. Lopi is remarkable in that it is not spun, so it contains more air than spun yarn and is very insulting, keeping Icelanders warm.

Running from the corner of Laugavegur Street is Skólavörðustígur Street, which is said to be the most beautiful street in Reykjavik. Walk along Skólavörðustígur up to the Hallgrímskirkja church, Iceland's tallest building and most striking church. The church is named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman  Hallgrímur Pétursson and the three bells in the bell tower represent Hallgrímur, his wife, and their daughter who died young.The bell tower is accessible via an elevator and awards views over the city and harbor.

The statue in front of the church is of Leif Eríkson, an Icelandic/Norwegian explorer and the first European thought to have landed in North America. The monument was a gift from the United States for the 1930 Alþingi Millennial Festival, which marked the 1000th anniversary of Iceland's parliament.

From the Hallgrímskirkja turn on to Frakkastígur Street and head back toward the water. At Sæbraut, the stunning Sólfarið (or Sun Voyager) sculpture comes into view. Made in 1971 by Jón Gunnar Árnason, it is a massive steel creation made to resemble a Viking ship floating on water.

Continue along the water back in the direction of the Harpa. Stop by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which translates to the "best hot dog stand in town". The hot dog has been called the Icelandic national food and these are special. Made of lamb and topped with a mix of fresh and fried onions, remoulade and brown mustard, they’re unlike any hot dogs in the world. It's no wonder even Bill Clinton and James Hetfield of Metallica have even eaten here.

After refueling on a few hot dogs, continue on to Lækjartorg (Brook Square) to admire the brightly colored buildings lining the square. 

Austurvöllur is Reykjavik's oldest square. The square was originally part of the hay fields of the city's first settler, Ingólfur Arnarson. In the center of the square is the statue of Jón Sigurdsson, the Icelandic nationalist who led the country to independence from Denmark. The present parliament building, Alþingishús, which moved from Þingvellir in 1881 can be seen. Across the street and adjacent to the Alþingishús is Reykjavik’s oldest church the Domkirkjan. It was here at the Domkirkjan that Iceland's national anthem was first sung in 1874.

Venture up Túngata to find the Catholic church Landakotskirkja, which was also designed by the same architect that designed the Hallgrímskirkja. It is a Neo-gothic church with a distinctly flat top as opposed to the standard spire.

Finish the walking tour at Tjörnin Pond to feed the ducks, swans and geese.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Situated in the middle of a lava field and created by geothermal seawater, the Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's most visited attractions. Driving the road to the Blue Lagoon, you see the overflow of the milky aqua water. The path to the entrance has been carved into the lava rock and the winding shape builds the anticipation for what is to come!

The Blue Lagoon is a pool of geothermal seawater (2/3 saltwater and 1/3 freshwater). The source of the water is as deep as 2000 meters (6000 feet) and is fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal power plant Svartsengi. The waters are rich in minerals like silica, sulphur and blue-green algae and bathing in the Blue Lagoon is reputed for its positive effects on the skin.

Silica mud is located in wooden boxes in the lagoon. In true Icelandic fashion, apply the mud to your face and body, leaving it to dry. This pure white geothermal mud deep cleanses and exfoliates. A man-made waterfall in the lagoon provides an energizing massage for shoulders and neck. There is also a cozy sauna by the lagoon with a nice view of the Blue Lagoon through the floor-to-ceiling glass.

We visited late in the evening and it was easy to find a spot to be alone in the lagoon as we had the lagoon nearly to ourselves. It is quite romantic to watch the sun set over the lava fields while soaking in the warm waters together.

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Whale Watching in Reykjavik

Whaling has a long history in the coastal waters around Iceland. After centuries of over exploitation, whaling was halted as recently as 1989. Whale watching in Iceland is still a relatively new tourist attraction with trips beginning in 1995.

I headed out of the Reykjavik Old Habour on the  NÚMI, a traditional Icelandic oak fishing boat that has been modified for whale watching and sea angling. Since there is no glass enclosing you on the boat, blankets are provided to bundle up in. I was lucky to have a calm, sunny day.

There are few places in the world where you can find as many species of whales so close to shore as in Iceland. These include blue, fin, humpback, minke, and even orcas. On my own whale watching trip, I was lucky to see minke whales and a pod of white-beaked dolphins.

Minke whales are the smallest baleen whales and also the most abundant. White-beaked dolphins are attracted to boats and often bow ride. Most whale watching boats have a 100% success rate of seeing both minke whales and white-beak dolphins.

On the way back, the NÚMI's engineer, who is an excellent cook, prepared fish soup to warm up with while we sailed back. There are stunning views of the mountains and harbor.

Iceland's Highest Waterfall: Glymur Waterfall

Cascading 196 meters down the deep gorge of the Botnsdalur valley is Iceland's highest waterfall, Glymur. The river Botnsá leaves the lake Hvalvatn and after a short distance the water falls down alongside the volcano Hvalfell into a canyon with green moss.

Unlike many other waterfalls in Iceland, it is not possible to drive to Glymur. So to see the beautiful waterfall, lace up your hiking boots. The view from the base of the waterfall is beautiful but hiking up to Glymur's ledge provides a breathtaking view down the valley and out the Hvalfjörður fjord.The hike to the waterfall is not one for the faint of heart.

We began our hike as the sun was rising over the shorter and easier west side trail up to the ledge of the  waterfall. The west side trail begins on a dirt road and steeply climbs up over rock and through a forest of undergrowth. This trail does not offer the best views of the waterfall, so once on top, wade across the Botnsá river to descend down the east side trail. The water isn't all that cold!
The way down on the east  side of the canyon is rather steep and you are mostly hiking along the edges of steep drop offs. Halfway down the trail, ropes are available to hold on to as you make your way down over the loose talus. There are many vantage points to stop and admire Glymur from along the way down.

Once back at the bottom of the canyon, you will need to cross the  Botnsá river again over a log foot bridge reinforced and held in place by a steel cable. From there, descend back up out of the canyon through what appears to be a cave but is actually a natural stone arch. 

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Adventures in Icelandic Cuisine

The Icelandic climate and the harsh land didn't give farmers the option to grow a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Fishing, sheep and potatoes were the main food for Icelanders for generations and fish and lamb dishes remain the most common main courses even today.

Icelandic fare remains simple but offers some unique delicacies, which most people will never forget.

Tapas Barinn
We particularly enjoyed  Tapas Barinn in Reykjavik. It's a restaurant with Spanish flare offering an extensive menu of over 70 tapas ranging from traditional Spanish tapas to the best of Icelandic cuisine.  If you’re up for a taste adventure and want to try a bit of Iceland’s local and traditional fare, opt for the Icelandic Gourmet menu.

You'll start with a traditional shot of Iceland's infamous spirit, Brennívín, also called the "Black Death". Legend has it that Brennívín achieved its ominous nickname during the Icelandic prohibition. During prohibition, from 1915 to 1922, the Icelandic government placed a skull and crossbones logo on all liquor bottles. Soon, drinkers grew accustomed to requesting "Black Death" at the counter of their local liquor store. Pinch your nose and toss it back!

We started with smoked puffin with blueberry Brennívín sauce. Puffin can be found on the cliffs of western Iceland and the Westmann Islands….and on many menus around the country. The portion size is perfect for sampling this delicacy, which is a bit gamey but complimented perfectly by the blueberry sauce.

The Icelandic sea-trout with peppers-salsa, lobster tails baked in garlic, and pan-fried monkfish with lobster sauce were all equally as tasty!

Whaling has a long history in the coastal waters around Iceland and the continued practice is as controversial in Iceland as it is anywhere. Yet you'll find minke whale on just about any menu. What you can expect is a tender red meat that looks much like a sirloin steak with a slightly salty taste. At Tapas Barinn, it's served with a cranberry sauce.

Icelandic lamb is a wonderfully flavorful, exceptionally lean meat from animals raised with no antibiotics, ever, and no added hormones. Pesticides and herbicides are seldom used in Iceland where the climate naturally protects the land. Tapas Barinn prepares it simply: grilled with spices.

You'll finish off the meal with chocolate cake with berry compoté and whipped cream.

At just around $50 for enough food to share for two people, Tapas Barinn was not only our favorite meal in Iceland, it was a great value too!

Icelandic Hot Dogs
Downtown near the harbor and open since 1937,  Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, translates to the "best hot dog stand in town". Most Icelanders have eaten here and it has even been visited by Bill Clinton. Made of lamb and topped with a mix of fresh and fried onions, remoulade and brown mustard, they’re unlike any hot dogs in the world. At just 250 ISK (around $2 each), be sure to get two!

While skyr is technically a very soft cheese, it looks, tastes, and feels like a yogurt. It’s virtually fat free, all natural, and high in protein and is eaten alone (like yogurt) or flavored with berries, used in dips, and mixed in desserts. You'll see skyr on the dessert menu of most restaurants and you can buy it in the local supermarkets for a quick and filling breakfast. My favorite was the blueberry skyr!

The Golden Circle, Iceland

The Golden Circle is the name given to a 190 mile (300 kilometer) circular route from Reykjavik and back which encompasses many of Iceland’s most famous landmarks.

We began at Þingvellir National Park, the seat of the Alþing. At Þingvellir – literally "Parliament Plains" – the Alþing general assembly was established around 930 and continued to convene there until 1798. Þingvellir was conveniently located for access from all regions of the country by old overland routes. During the Alþing session each summer, the members stayed in "booths" or temporary shelters. Overgrown foundations of such shelters from the later centuries are visible on the parliament site. All major events in the history of Iceland have taken place at Þingvellir.

Þingvellir is the only place on earth which tectonic plates can be seen above ground. The large abyss-like cracks in the earth that appear to literally split this area in half are actually the results of the separation of the the Eurasia and North American tectonic plates.

There is a tradition here in Þingvellir to throw money into Peningagjá (peningar = money in Icelandic) and make a wish. The water is crystal clear making it a beautiful sight watching your coin sink to the bottom. The myriad of coins in the water make it appear to sparkle under the Icelandic sun.

Stroll around the loop from the visitor center, across the river, and on to the Pingvallakirkja Church. Pingvallakirkja is one of the first churches built in Iceland and it was consecrated by the Norwegian bishop Bjarnhardur. The wood and the bell that the people used to build the church came from Norway in 1015. When the original church collapsed in 1118, the people used the private church of Pingvallabaer Farm. The church that you see today was built in 1859 and has three bells: one of 1118, one of 1698 and one of 1944 when the Republic of Iceland was born.

Geysir is named for The Great Geysir, or Stori-Geysir, which has been dormant since 1916 when it suddenly ceased to spout. It came to life only once again in 1935, and as quickly went back to sleep. Now the attraction at Geysir is Strokkur (The Churn), another geyser 100 meters south of the Great Geysir, which erupts at regular intervals every 6 minutes or so and its white column of boiling water can reach as high as 20-30 meters.

It is mesmerizing to watch as the water churns, the bubble finally appearing and just as quickly breaking as the geyser explosively erupts into the air.

The whole area is a geothermal park sitting on top of a vast boiling cauldron. Belching sulfurous mud pots of unusual colors, hissing steam vents, hot and cold springs, warm streams, and primitive plants can all be found here.

As you first approach the falls, the crevice is obscured from view, so that it appears that the mighty Hvítá river simply vanishes into the earth. As you continue along the misty path Gullfoss, meaning "Golden Falls", suddenly comes into view. With a 105-foot double-cascade, Gullfoss is by far Europe’s most powerful waterfall. On a sunlit day such as the day we visited, the mist clouds surrounding the hammering falls are filled with dozens of rainbows, providing an unparalleled spectacle of color and motion.

Kerið is another stop along the Golden Circle. Kerið is a crater lake created from a cone volcano which erupted and emptied its magma reserve. Once the magma was depleted, the weight of the cone collapsed into the empty magma chamber. The caldera, like the other volcanic rock in the area, is composed of a red (rather than black) volcanic rock. The mossy green vegetation along the steep walls and the opaque and strikingly vivid aquamarine water of the lake below make for a breathtaking view as you teeter on the edge.

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Our Day with Viking Ponies

The Vikings arrived in Iceland more than a thousand years ago, bringing their small Nordic horses with them. Today, because of isolation, the breed is as pure as the day the Vikings brought them. Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and once exported, the horses are never allowed to return.

Often referred to as Viking ponies because of their small size, they are horses. They are gentle, friendly and willing animals. They come in all colors from white to black, palomino to silver, and everything in between. The Icelandic horse is also renowned for its five gaits, the most popular being the tölt. The tölt is a four beat running-walk with flowing movement, which is easy and comfortable to ride.

We had the opportunity to ride, English style, at the Þúfa farm in Kjós. Our ride started from the Þúfa farm and we rode towards a very small river called, Skorá. We followed the banks of the river, crossing it a few times.

It is customary on Icelandic rides to allow the horses a short break to eat some grass and drink water from the river. The hillside where we stopped was covered in Krækiber, Icelandic black berries. While our horses got their fill of the grass, we picked some of the wild berries, which are somewhere between somewhat sweet and bitter.

My horse was only six years old, the youngest of our bunch, and she liked to run. I definitely got to experience the famous tölt. Tim's horse, who was 20 years old, was a bit slower and took his time along the trail. We had a wonderful ride at the Þúfa farm, with beautiful scenery!