• A song of ice and fire: Why New Zealanders will feel right at home in Iceland

    Iceland landscape - pingvellir park

    If Italy is New Zealand upside down – geometrically and geographically (plonked down on the opposite side of the globe) – then Iceland is our sister country in the north.

    The people

    Of all the places we’ve been, Iceland is the country where the people have been the closest to kindred spirits. Relaxed, down to earth, friendly. Better groomed, though. (I say this based on observations from a) the hitchhiker we picked up about five minutes after arriving b) the car rental staff c) our Couchsurfing hosts and d) Ben, the random guy who struck up a conversation with us in a bar after asking one of our group to swap shoes with him as part of a scavenger hunt challenge.)

    The first thing that hit me after browsing through a bunch of Reykjavik Couchsurfers’ profiles was that if they were anything to go by, T would fit right in. It’s hard to describe precisely why, but in terms of musical taste, film taste, sense of humour, hobbies and general vibe, it was pretty clear that they were his kind of people. (Add in the weather, and it’s definitely the kind of place he could live.)

    The only person to accept our hosting request was a middle-aged biker who lived a little way out of town with a new and fairly sparse profile, who I contacted as sort of a Plan B. That was a little disappointing initially. But once we got there and met him (along with his wife and kid), all that vanished. They were so welcoming, so youthful, and they were freaking hilarious. The wife gave me a guardian angel necklace with a pearl and lava stone that she made herself, and (as we figured out after the first night), the kid gave up his bedroom for us and dossed on a mattress in their computer/games room instead. Humbling.

    Their (brand new) apartment was amazing, too. As is common in Iceland, it was insanely cosy, with hot water used to warm the floors. The taps were super high tech – we couldn’t work out how to use the shower – though you do have to contend with the, er, lovely sulphur smell. Thanks to hotel-grade sheets, I slept like a baby in a cloud. And because they didn’t live in Reykjavik proper, it was easy for us to see the northern lights – we just detoured into a big park away from civilisation on the way home one night and spotted a faint green rainbow-shaped aurora.

    The landscape

    This is volcanic land, so in hindsight, I shouldn’t have expected to be totally wowed. People rave about how unearthly Iceland’s landscape is, but as it turns out, it’s not so different from home. It resembles the Desert Rd (my favourite New Zealand landscape), with its rocky terrain and muted hues.

    iceland landscape pingvellir park

    iceland landscape pingvellir parkOxararfoss waterfall - Pingvellir national park Iceland
    pingvellir national park iceland

    Driving the Golden Circle was well worth the time and money. After picking up a British couple and one North Carolinan in town – fellow Couchsurfers who were carless and keen to split costs – we made the pilgrimage in our rusty Toyota rental.

    We wandered around picturesque Pingvellir, watched Strokkur erupt at Geysir (in fact, at one point it went off four times in a row, surprising everyone there), and shivered our way in and out of Gullfoss, along with a stop to pet the horses across the road.

    Gulfoss waterfall - Iceland golden circle
    Gulfoss waterfall - Iceland golden circle with rainbow
    Ponies - Iceland horses in the Golden circle

    Deciding to skip the Blue Lagoon was not a decision I made lightly – but it’s one I’m more than happy with. We’re not big on hot pools (and have a few of those back home too), so spending 66 euros for entry into a place where we might spend an hour seemed like a heinous waste of cash. What we did do was drive by, which afforded us a free view of the milky blue waters running like a river between the geothermal plant and the lagoon. It looked exactly like all the photos of the pools. Quite frankly, that’s all I wanted! (I should have snapped a photo to prove I was there, but couldn’t really be bothered stopping the car and getting out in the cold.)

    In the end, we didn’t end up visiting any of the local hot pools, either. The thought of disrobing, given how many layers I had on, plus going through the ritual of scrubbing in an open shower area, was way less appealing than continuing to roam around in the toasty car.

    The weather

    I thought Auckland was fickle; Iceland is even more mercurial, if that’s possible. The skies can change in an instant, swinging from moody, storm-approaching-in-two-seconds grey to a promising blue punctuated with rays of sun. You can look up and see one thing, and five minutes later, look up again to see something entirely different – slate wiped clean.

    Our host told us a bunch of cautionary tales about hapless tourists caught out by sudden storms. Ripping storms that can break windows and peel paint off your car. He also rolled his eyes a bit as he talked about local Icelanders who rush to get a front row view when a volcano erupts and wind up dying in the process; after all, these aren’t particularly uncommon events, so what’s the point of acting like a dumb tourist?

    We were incredibly lucky with the weather, with just a few instances of drizzle throughout our stay. The coldest day was probably our first evening there, after which it warmed up. The real killer is the wind, which has a real bite to it and will cut you to the bone.

    The prices

    Living on a remote island doesn’t come cheap. Everything from beer to bread is eye-wateringly expensive. A loaf is over 300 kronor, and a piece of cake could be anywhere from 700 to 1000 kronor. Yep, that’s right – you’ll also have to deal with the kronor, the local currency. Handily, you can use cards almost everywhere – also like New Zealand, this isn’t a cash-heavy society.

    The nice thing about the kronor was that it was easy to compare prices, as a kronor is basically equal to one NZ cent. In Italy, for example, I’d marvel at the fact that you can get a pasta lunch for 10 euros – there’s no way you could get that for $10 at home. If you were to convert that 10 euros to NZD, however, at 60c to the dollar, it doesn’t wind up being all that affordable. (Overall, European prices on an absolute basis seemed reasonable, but take into account the exchange rate, and things change when you’re talking proportionally.)

    The transport

    Again, like New Zealand, this is car country. As he dropped us off at the airport, our car rental guy told us that car rentals are set to overtake fisheries in Iceland, economically speaking. Tourism is big business, and the best way to see Iceland is by car (or Jeep).

    Bus transfers to and from the airport for both of us alone would have been about 80 euros; renting a car for our entire time cost 117 euros. The Welcome Card offers unlimited bus travel as well as discounts at museums and attractions, but I imagine waiting for buses in the cold can’t be fun.




    Recommendations for Iceland

    Accommodation
    Obviously, it’s hard to beat Couchsurfing on this front 🙂 The couple who carpooled with us got a steal at the Welcome Apartments, though (and I can vouch from going inside that they are pretty swish). The Kex hostel seems to be popular with visitors, and Airbnb is always worth scoping out, too.

    Car rentals
    Affordable Car Rental has the lowest rates (but didn’t have availability for our dates – sadface). Sadcars is the other big name in cheap Iceland car rentals – that’s who we hired from – and they offer a discount if you prepay online. If you’re looking for more grunt, try Cheap Jeeps.

    Alternatively, you could look on Couchsurfing. The Reykjavik page always seems to be full of people looking to carpool. With petrol being so expensive, sharing the burden of costs is the way to go. There was one guy charging 10 euros plus gas or 15 for a day trip (with a full car, I bet he made back the entire cost of car and gas, basically going for free!) whom I almost signed us up with, before we decided to rent our own vehicle. Or you might get lucky and find someone like us, who just asked for a share of gas and called it even. There’s always someone looking for a ride, so even if you decide you want to be in control and rent your own vehicle like we did, odds are you can find someone to split costs with.

    Food
    The cheapest thing we ate in Iceland was hot dogs from the famous hot dog stand in town. (Verdict: pretty good; not mindblowing. The sausage itself was a letdown.) In a country where a burger can cost nearly $20, it’s hard to eat frugally.

    That said, it’d be a shame to skimp on food in Iceland. I highly recommend Seabaron (the whale was sublime, and I hear fantastic things about the lobster soup). The Hamburger Factory wasn’t bad – we liked the chips better than the actual burgers, especially dusted with the freakishly addictive seasoning from the spice shaker on the table. If you’re into fish and chips, Icelandic Fish and Chips is worth a stop too.

    Ever thought about visiting Iceland? Or if you’ve been, what did you think?

  • Sorry London, I’ll take Paris any day

    Dirty. Smelly. Unfriendly. People painted an unflattering picture for Paris for us, and given its popularity as a tourist destination, I went in with low, low expectations. But as with Venice, I wound up falling in love with the place.

    Dirty? Ain’t got nothing on Naples. Smelly? Only down the occasional alleyway. Unfriendly? Not at all.

    Our week in Paris flew by in a blur of baguettes and cheese, flan (I lost count of how many pieces of flan T consumed), crepes, pastries, cakes, tarts, and yes, a couple of macarons (it’s official: they just aren’t my thing).

    Paris - night boat cruise down the river seine

    Paris - Arc de Triomphe Paris - river by nightSaint Jacques tower - Paris at night

    Paris Louvre glass pyramid at night Paris Louvre at night Paris by night - street corner cafe scene  Paris bridge at night

    A slightly drizzly night walk with some other Couchsurfers made us feel all Midnight in Paris.

    Paris night concert Paris night concertConfetti at night blur Montparnasse tower at night 40th birthday

    Along with one of our Airbnb hosts, I headed out to a free concert in Montparnasse one night

    Paris street performer soccer ball montmartre

    An out-of-this-world street performer with mad talent in Montmartre

    We managed to stay pretty close to budget, which I’m stoked about – and not pay for any sightseeing at all. That’s right, not even at the Louvre.

    How to visit the Louvre for free

    If you’re under 26 and heading to Paris, weekends can be a great time to go. Why? Because unlimited one-day metro passes (ticket jeunes) are half the regular price … AND you can get into the Louvre for free on Friday evening.

    EU citizens under 26 can visit the Louvre free of charge at any time, but should you hail from somewhere else, you have a small window of opportunity to do the same – after 6pm on Fridays. Just head on up to the entrance (you can bypass the ticket booth) and show your ID to the staff member.

    Museums are also free on the first Sunday of every month, and during Heritage Days. The queues are outrageous, though, so you may have to make a hard choice about what’s worth more to you: time or money? We missed the first Sunday but were there for Heritage Days, and can testify that the lines are rather daunting. Fortunately, we’re just as happy walking around soaking up the vibe in the city’s various charming districts as we are inside cultural attractions – actually, more so, in fact.

    How to skip the lines at the Louvre

    Don’t be lured by the shiny glass pyramids. Head downstairs to Le Carrousel du Louvre, and navigate through the mall until you see the small glass pyramid. You’ll need to get in line and go through the security check, then keep going down the passage until you get to the information and ticketing area.

     

  • How we spent three weeks in Italy for free (or close to it)

    italy for free through helpx

    Our one and only HelpX experience is done and dusted, and we’ve lived to tell the tale.

    Adjusting to life on the farmstead was way more difficult than I could have imagined, and not in the way I would have thought. It was a whole lot of land, with a big veggie garden, tons of fruit trees, chickens, dogs, and horses, run by a musician. The stereotype of flaky creatives exists for a reason.

    The hardest part? The lack of routine when it came to meals. Lunch could be at 1pm or 2pm, or as late as 4pm. Dinner was always late, sometimes 9pm, and sometimes closer to midnight. The long gaps were only worsened by the fact that while we ate amazingly well – in terms of quality and flavour – we didn’t eat much. Our hosts ate like birds, and I have no idea how they functioned, especially on hard labour days. T and I both have fast metabolisms and healthy appetites – and we were burning through food practically within minutes. On top of all that, we largely ate vegetarian (with few starches/carbs). Again, that was great, but not in terms of keeping us fuelled.

    kitchen

    The heart of the house

    In week one, we were helping get the place ready for a small concert to be held on the grounds at the end of the week. The hired handyman/groundskeeper came about every other day, and wound up beating us to a ton of the things on our to-do list, not to mention doing them a million times better. It was like we were just in his way most of the time. Getting used to doing physical labour took a few days. I was so exhausted, I started taking siestas in the middle of the day (though I later adjusted and no longer needed to nap).

    In week two, things were a little more settled. We went along on a supermarket trip and got some extra food items. T got increasingly frustrated by some of our host’s personality quirks/management style, and by a few of the long days we put in. I got frustrated by his attitude. Personally, I take cues from those around me, and I’m not comfortable relaxing while my host is busy doing stuff, even if I’ve already racked up my hours for the day. I believe in putting in what it takes to get stuff done rather than simply doing the bare minimum of hours – and of always going the extra mile, giving before you get, giving more than you get. (Obviously within reason; I see no reason to bust your butt for years for a corporate without ever seeing any rewards for it, for example.) I really do wonder if his outlook would have been different if we had been getting paid, and then paying for board, for example, rather than it being a straight exchange of work for board. Getting used to working again after such a long break was also probably a challenge.

    In week three, T came across a viper in the house while going into the toilet. We took a day trip to nearby Viterbo, where we stuffed ourselves silly with gelato, pasta, and burgers (him). It was a full house, with a couple renting the next door cottage, and a family of four crashing in the main house as well. (The young boys were undisciplined terrors, though they had their moments.)

    corn

    Corn we picked and strung up

    For our first and only HelpX experience, I don’t think we could have done better. There were trips to the nearby beach and lake, a free concert, a night out with our host’s son (SO many underage Italian kids partying up at the local yacht club/bar), and dinner parties. A lot of them. We had no idea what was going on conversation-wise a lot of the time, but it was good fun, with interesting and lively characters. Everyone was so friendly, and those who did speak English engaged us in conversation, wanting to know how we liked Europe, what New Zealand is like, and offering travel tips. Almost everyone was a musician (I never thought I’d meet an opera singer, let alone this many), and we were treated to plenty of performances. Plus, we looked forward to dinner party nights, as there was usually ample food for a change.

    etruscan tomb cave

    Old Etruscan tombs/caves on the farm

    In a nutshell: an unforgettable three weeks; a frugal three weeks (one day trip, a couple of extra supermarket stops, a couple of nights out and a small contribution to the house kitty); a unique way to farewell Italy.

  • Italy, aka ‘New Zealand upside down’

    “New Zealand! It’s Italy, upside down!” exclaimed the swarthy proprietor at B&B Mercurio in Bologna. Palpably delighted to have their first ever guests from New Zealand, he and his partner were all smiles as they asked us about the rest of our itinerary and assured us, with a meaningful look at T, that we were in safe hands (if size is any indication, then sure).

    Indeed, New Zealand is the opposite of Italy in so many ways, and not just as a physical mirror image. We can’t hold a candle to them in food, fashion, or history. Everything we encountered was a revelation.

    cannonballs city walls bologna

    Some cannonballs with your old city walls?

    Canals in Venice don't smell

    The canals in Venice didn’t smell at all, even at the sticky height of summer.

    rome colosseum at night

    What can I say about Rome that hasn’t already been said countless times before? Simply stupendous.

    skulls via fontanelle cemetery naples

    Skulls. Real ones, en masse. At the public Fontanelle catacomb cemetery. Possibly the best free sight in Naples.

    statue naples national archaeological museum

    Oh, and the statues at the archaeological museum. So many are replicas of Greek originals, but still enthralling.

    concrete blocks amalfi coast

    Creepy concrete blocks along the Amalfi coast.

    Amalfi town on Amalfi coast - pastel buildings

    Also recommend: wharf jumping alongside squealing Italian kids at Minori, and taking a breezy ferry ride one way and a bus ride the other – the experiences are total polar opposites, and seeing the drivers handle the insanely tight clifftop turns is mind-blowing. (The traffic was a non-issue, despite all our hostel receptionist’s insistence that it would be dire.)

    Bracciano castle

    The castle – beautifully preserved, and just like the kind you learn to draw as a child – in medieval Bracciano.

    viterbo city walls

    Inside the walled town centre of Viterbo.

    Purple bicycle outside a shop in Viterbo, Italy

    Where we saw this delightful scene, starring a frou-frou purple bike.

    Our very first days in Italy were mundane, but not in a bad way. Lazy days, starting with panzerotti from the local bakery in Bologna. A botched attempt at doing laundry, successful only because one Italian matron was kind enough to flag down a young woman walking her dog outside the shop, who spoke English and could translate for us.

    People going out of their way to help us in Italy, in fact, were one of the best things about the country – like the two old gentlemen in Naples, who helped us get on the right bus to Via Fontanelle, and then to navigate our way to the cemetery itself, respectively. The elderly man and woman who helped us find our hostel amongst the back alleys in Salerno. And of course, those bubbly owners at B&B Mercurio. I cannot rave about them enough (damn you Booking.com for not inviting me to leave a review this time!). A five-star boutique B&B, with a luxurious and gleaming bathroom, lollies on a stack of clean towels – even a sparking white flatscreen smart TV, for goodness sake – at two-star prices.

    I’m just about ready to move on to the next adventure, but giving up fresh Italian mozzarella is going to be a bitch.

  • Coming face to face with history in awe-inspiring Athens

    Here’s the thing about ancient ruins. They’re almost always more, well, RUINED than you might think. There’ll be cranes and all sorts of reinforcement/construction work going on, which kind of mars your picture-taking opportunities. It will be far from a postcard-perfect scene.

     

    parthenon in acropolis athens 2013

    IMG_9769 IMG_9779

    As sights go, though, the Acropolis is totally worth the admission price (12 euros as of 2013). The views from the top alone are priceless – a magnificent vista of glittering roofs all around, an empire indeed.

    view from acropolis in athens

    We also hiked up the nearby Hill of the Muses, which is a great spot to stop and picnic and take in the panoramic surrounds, ringed by the misty coast in the distance, blocks of apartments pointing the way in razor-straight lines.

    IMG_9788

    I was quite taken with this lonely collapsed column at the Temple of Olympian Zeus…

    collapsed column temple of olympian zeus templt of olympian zeus athens

    Nearby is the Arch of Hadrian, where I managed to slip in what must be the only mud puddle in the entire arid city in my effort to capture this photo

    arch of hadrian athens

    Plaka is full of little surprises, like this random church down a quiet street…

     

    greek church in plaka

    And some puzzling/disturbing graffiti.

    IMG_9809graffiti in athens

    People may tell you Athens is a hole. A dump that’s only worth a day at most. True, it’s dry and charmless for the most part. I can’t help but wonder what the weight of history places on the city’s inhabitants. It’s a lot to live up to, being the birthplace of modern democracy and all. The huge rock in the middle of Athens is a daily reminder of that. And look at it now. Can a city burdened with such a great legacy come back with a second act? Hopefully. But in the meantime, that marble mountain keeps people coming. Long may it continue.

  • Greece on a budget: Ways to save when visiting Santorini

    Touristy? Yes. Gorgeous? Insanely.

    santorini sunset

    Explosive sunsets and blindingly white stone buildings; beaches that run the gamut from golden to black and even a rusty volcanic red; ocean that smudges perfectly into the sky in one sweeping swathe of blue; the charming town of Fira, rutted with cobblestones, and Oia, where in contrast the polished stones underfoot pose a different kind of threat to your footing.

    White walls, blue roofs - must be Santorini! Santorini's brilliant whitewashed architecture Santorini's brilliant whitewashed architecture santorini sunset

    Even amidst the churn of the ferry at Athinios port, the ocean still glittered a crystal cerulean.

    santorini athinios ferry port

    All things considered, it’s not difficult to see why Santorini was named the most beautiful island in the world by the BBC in 2011.

    Best of all, this is Greece, so it’s not terribly expensive to start with. You can camp right by the beach for a song, stay in a hostel, or find one of the many reasonably priced villas and apartments, all of which should offer a free transfer from the ferry port or airport.



    Booking.com

    We stayed at Katefiani Villas, which I can highly recommend. Bright, clean and just a couple of minutes from the beach, it’s right around the corner from a fantastic bakery and a stone’s throw from the supermarket, restaurants and bus stop.

    katefiani villas santorini

    Here’s a few more tips to stretch your travel budget a little further.

    Bakeries are your friend
    Most places don’t do breakfast, as you’ll probably notice. Don’t worry – there are plenty of bakeries, some of them open 24/7! We lived on slices of pie from our local bakery, mainly the chicken pie, breaking it up with the beef and cheese or moussaka pie for variety. Plus there are lots of cheap kebab places around, some better than others.

    Supermarkets are your friend
    Santorini is an island, so things are a little more expensive here. Nonetheless, you should stock up on the basics at your local supermarket. If it’s a little too far, you can call and they will pick you up! Seriously (at least, that’s what the posters advertise).

    The bus is your friend
    If you’re on a budget, don’t rent a vehicle. All those scooters, quads and cars roaming around? They’re convenient, but nowhere near as cheap as the local bus. If you must rent wheels, shop around. We found a sweet deal at Dimitri’s in Perissa, on the main road just a short walk back from the beach.

  • How do you like to celebrate your birthday?

    horse carriage prague

    How did I wind up in Prague on my birthday?

    Well, since I couldn’t find a host in Berlin for the weekend, I figured that instead of lingering in the city, we might as well head over the border to Prague, which so many people rave about. As it turns out, our Berlin weekday host would have been happy to have us longer – but we didn’t know that until we got there and met him. Nonetheless, it was nice to sleep in a real bed for a few days, and to see a very different part of Europe.

    Along the main drag, Wencelaus Square pulsed with street musicians playing folk tunes, bright, clean food stalls serving up wholesome (if overpriced) fare, and cops on every block. But a couple blocks away, Prague’s parks showed off the city’s shadier side. Junkies slouched on benches, shooting up in the open just metres away from families with kids.
    Prague food stalls-  Wencelaus Square
    The architecture, of course, is astonishing. The Old and New Town have survived the centuries and remain surprisingly well-preserved.

    Prague pink pastel striped building - Old TownPrague architecture

    The famous ‘dancing’ buildings – fortuitously, a tram happened to toddle along at just the right moment

    Prague dancing buildings with red tram

     

    The even more famous clock tower. So intricate, so ornate.

    Astronomy Clock at Prague town square

    We didn’t pay to enter the castle, but wandering around the grounds kept us occupied for awhile.

    Prague castle grounds

    Slightly out of the way: the Lennon wall.

    Lennon Wall in Prague with buskersLennon Wall in Prague - girl with balloons

    My favourite place of all? The Charles Bridge. There’s plenty of reasons to dawdle as you make your way across, from the countless talented caricature artists to the master puppeteer – whose puppet actually plays an instrument – to the live bands, especially when a rowdy group of European guys in tight breeches are hooting it up and dancing like madmen. (Stag do, I bet. There were SO many of those going on that weekend.)puppeteer charles bridge prague

    A little part of me still wishes we’d taken up the offer of free accommodation in Prague. For some bizarre reason, the rate for the first night was 5 euros each (!!!) but 25 euros for the second. I didn’t really want to move to a different place for the second night, though, and figured it evened out to a decent rate overall. When we got there, though? They were running short on double rooms and offered us free bunks in a dorm instead. After a lot of back and forth, T convinced me to go with the private room, and while I would have chosen differently if I was alone, it was nice to have a little luxury on my birthday.

    How do you like to celebrate your birthday? Do you have any limits, or will you splurge as you feel like it?