Author: JC

Flåm, Norway

This was an incredible leg of our journey. After the seven hour (spectacular) train ride from Oslo to Bergen (click here for that article), we picked up our car and drove from Bergen to a place called Flåm. This was a fjord that we cruised on a boat.

So on the map, above, I have highlighted Oslo, on the right side, then the yellow line was the train ride, and the blue line was the road trip to Flåm. As you can see, it was pretty mountainous terrain, which means pretty awesome pictures!

We made a few stops along the way to stretch our legs and enjoy the beauty that was all around us.

And you may recall from the Oslo article that we were accompanied by our friends, Marie (left), from New York, and BiBi, who hails from Bulgaria but joined us from the UK.

To reduce my footprint on my content server, I have created an online gallery for your enjoyment. Please click the link below to open the gallery:

Once you open the link, click on a picture to enlarge it, then just scroll right and left to see more.

Once we arrived in Flåm, we were utterly shocked to see a full sized cruise liner docked at this tiny little town.

The direction he is facing is a dead end. We would have loved to see how he got out, but he was gone by the time we returned from our cruise.

The giant ship made our little cruise boat look small by comparison. We took this boat on a one and a half hour cruise through the magnificent Norwegian mountains and back again.

Refer to the map, above. See Flåm on the upper left side of the map. We took the boat from there, down and around the mountains, then up the other side to Gudvangen. Then we came back by the same route.

As with the other areas, I took so many unbelievable photographs. Once again, I have created an online gallery so that you can see all of the pictures instead of just a few. Please click the link below to view the gallery:

Photo gallery of the Flåm cruise (click)

  • Once inside the gallery, click on a picture to enlarge it, then scroll left and right to see more.

So we had started the day with a long drive through the twisting, winding and beautiful mountain roads. We arrived at the small town of Flåm for a three hour cruise among the legendary Norwegian mountain range along the fjord. By the time we drove another thirty or so minutes to our cabin, it was getting a little late.

Are these not the cutest little cabins you ever saw?

And wow, I am glad I have the pictures to prove how incredibly picturesque our views were from the back balconies of our cabins!

What a nice way to end a major leg of our amazing Norwegian journey. The four of us (thanks for snapping the pic BiBi) sat and sipped wine while talking of our adventures and planning what lies ahead. Truly blessed.

Scenic Train from Oslo to Bergen

The Train

We took the train from Oslo (capital of Norway) to Bergen (click here for the Oslo article). It’s a seven hour trip, and it is advertised as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. So I’m like, whatever, and I proceed to get out my iPad and start working. But within minutes, my attention was pulled to the window. It was truly spectacular. The next thing I knew, my camera was wearing down my battery and I had more pictures than I could possibly deal with!

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As we ventured through the lowlands, we would see views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Then, after a few hours, you suddenly realize you are IN the snow-capped mountains and they are unbelievable.

Now I have to step back and tell you about blogging. It is always a struggle for me to decide which five or eight pictures to include in an article. This is because my content host only allows me so much global online space. But this train ride, and in fact nearly this whole trip, will NOT be inhibited to a handful of pictures.

So in the spirit of giving YOU, my readers, a more quality Norway experience, I figured out a way to host the pictures on Google and give you a link to them. In this way, I can share a lot more pictures with you. So please click on the link below and enjoy about twenty more fantastic pictures. But just keep in mind that every single one was snapped at 100mph zipping through the landscape on the train. A few of them may also have a little glare. But still worth it. Come see what I mean:

Once you are inside the gallery, simply click on the first picture to enlarge it, then scroll right and left through the gallery. If the image appears foggy or blurry, just wait a couple of seconds for the server to finish processing.

Bergen

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The train took us to Bergen, Norway. Bergen looks like a really cool city to explore in more detail. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay there very long.

We did walk around a bit, and we took the funicular up to the top of the mountain, and OMG, what a breathtaking view of the city!

We will have to come back here and give Bergen the proper exploration it deserves.

By the way, that pigeon charged me 100g of fresh bread to pose for the picture. Well worth it, I’d say!

So if we traveled seven hours by train to get here and were giving it such a quick stay, why did we come here, you might ask. We came to pick up our car for the GREAT NORWEGIAN ROAD TRIP! That’s. Right, we picked up a car here and continued the journey deep into the mountainous regions of Norway.

So keep following The Travelin’ Man for a fabulous Norwegian experience!

Not an advertisement for Volvo, an actual photograph taken by The Travelin’ Man!

Oslo, Norway

On our last trip to Vilnius, Lithuania (click here for that trip), we finished out the Baltic countries. This trip to Norway was the last of the Scandinavian countries for us to visit. Oslo was a forty-five minute flight from Stockholm.

We met up with our friends Marie, from New York, and BiBi, from Bulgaria (currently living in the UK). You may remember Marie (pictured on right) from our visit to Portugal (click here for that article). That was a great trip!

We spent two days in Oslo, which was plenty of time to see the highlights and get a feel for the city. From the minute you step out of the airport, you will notice that Oslo is far different from most other European cities: it looks completely modern.

No medieval buildings, magnificent churches, or historic Old Townes. So my first reaction to this was a shrug of the shoulders and an audible “Hmph.”

Our hotel was situated right next to a food market called Mathallen Oslo. A great market with fresh meats and vegetables on display.

We found a nice Hungarian restaurant inside where I enjoyed a sandwich called “The Messy Pig”. It was a delicious pulled pork sandwich.

When we travel, we take public transportation as much as possible. We used the busses and trams during our visit. It was easy getting tickets and, using Google maps, easy to figure out where the bus stops were and which ones we needed.

We walked over to see the opera house. Very modern and beautifully architected.

We spent some time at a couple of pretty cool museums. The first was, what else but the Viking Museum!

They presented original viking ships that had been used as part of their conquests. After having been at sea for several years, the ships were pulled ashore and used as “burial ships”. The dead were placed in burial chambers built onboard the ships, then the entire thing was buried underground. The moist soil by the sea and clay helped in preserving the ships from around 400 A.D. There were also a number of artifacts that had been buried with them and those are all on display at the museum. It was a very good exhibit with lots of good information and was well presented.

From there it was a short walk over to the Fram Museum. The Fram is a ship that was specifically built by the Norwegians back in the late 1800s to allow deep and extended exploration missions of the Antarctic regions. The idea was to freeze Fram into an Arctic ice sheet and float with it over the North Pole.

Here is a really old photograph I found on Wikipedia of the ship in action (above). The ship is displayed in all of its glory inside the museum and I must say, it is fantastic. You even get to go inside the ship and see how the crew lived. But the best part was that on the top deck, the walls and ceiling come alive with a multimedia presentation of a storm, and then later as the ship is drifting amongst the frozen glaciers.

Absolutely fascinating to see. If you go, make sure you stay on the top deck long enough to get the sea storm. And if the bench is available, sit on the bench and will rock from side to side in unison with the waves.

We wrapped up our first day enjoying some drinks right on the river:

I will say that by the end of the first day in Oslo, the city had worked its magic on us. We were starting to fall in love with its modern yet laid back way of life. And there is still enough old stuff and history around the town if you really want to see it.

On our second day, we ventured out to the Frogner Park.

The entire park is an exhibit of the sculptures of the famous Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943). The featured photo at the top of this article is from there.

Over 200 sculptures of granite, bronze, and wrought iron. Gustav tried to capture the human experience, for better or for worse, the happy and the sad.

After that, we walked along the water and found a nice place to sit outside for a bite to eat. Then we took a three hour bicycle tour with “Viking Biking” tour guides.

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This showed us a lot more of the city than we would have ordinarily been able to cover. We got to see the Nobel building, as well as many of the major tourist attractions of the area.

By the time the bike tour was finished, we were definitely liking the city. The people are warm and friendly, the food is delicious, and the restaurants and pubs are cozy as ever. We totally enjoyed our stay here and would come back again.

With all of that behind us, we went to central station and took a train to Bergen, Norway. This was a seven hour ride through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. I will be documenting that as part of my Bergen article, so don’t miss it!

Vilnius, Lithuania

Why Vilnius?

Since we had previously visited Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia, we felt it was only right to finish off the Baltic countries. We are also interested in the history of the former Soviet states. This is an aspect of history that Americans do not normally encounter. I have attempted to simplify it in the Tortured Soul section below.

Unlike Tallinn and Riga, we did not take a cruise ship across the Baltic Sea, but chose instead to fly from our home port of Stockholm as part of our four-day Easter weekend.

Tortured Soul

Throughout this section, I will sprinkle in pictures of the city that we experienced during our stay. Most of them will not be in context of my narrative.

Vilnius has a deep and rich history that goes back to the 14th century. But even in more modern times, it has been the victim of several tug-of-wars by some very powerful countries. And this has left lasting damage on both the city and its citizens.

The city was occupied by the Germans during WWI. They were eventually driven out by Soviet forces. Vilnius became part of Lithuania. But as part of the Soviet-Polish war, the city quickly became occupied by Polish forces, only to fall yet again back to the Soviets. But as part of its retreat from the battle of Warsaw, the Red Army ceded the city back to Lithuania.

By the end of WWI, both Poland and Lithuania laid claim to Vilnius. But in a sneaky operation known as the Żeligowski’s Mutiny, Poland ultimately gained formal ownership of the city.

In 1939, Vilnius was again seized by the Soviet Union (who subsequently invaded Poland). The USSR and the Lithuanian governments entered into a treaty, unbeknownst to the Lithuanian citizens, that would allow the presence of Soviet military bases in various parts of the country. Thus, the Red Army withdrew from the city proper to its suburbs and Vilnius was given over to Lithuania. Lithuanian government saw this as a grant of independence and a victory for Lithuania.

The Soviets later demanded that more and more troops be permitted to enter the country. Lithuanian government pushed back, under the perception that they were independent.

This did not bode well with the Soviets. They set out to make sure Vilnius would feel their wrath this time around. They installed their own government and began deporting some of the city’s inhabitants to work camps in the harshest areas of the Soviet Union. Most were thought to have perished; none were ever seen again. The people targeted were primarily those with higher education or critical job positions. These were, for example, doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, and engineers. All told, between 20,000 and 30,000 citizens were deported. Basically trying to cut out the entire intellectual sector of their population. Next, they devastated the city’s industries and even relocated a highly successful radio factory to Belarus.

Vilnius KGB Detention Center

Much like the KGB headquarters in Riga, this one is located in the heart of the city. The horror of being taken to this place, from which you will never return. To be held and tortured, and in many cases executed, just feet from where your fellow citizens and your family are walking and working.

Anyone suspected of spying, which included discussions of any kind against the Soviet Union, were arrested by the KGB and tortured and in may cases executed at the KGB main facility right in their own downtown Vilnius.

Today, the building is a museum, and we did spend some time there. I highly recommend it. Like Paneriai it is highly emotional.

So as you can see, the Soviets had totally crippled and completely demoralized this city. This entire process is formally known as ‘sovietization’. How to beat down an entire city, or country until its citizens hang their heads low and swear allegiance to the Union.

At the beginning of WWII, Germany bombed the city repeatedly, destroying Soviet aircraft and killing thousands of soldiers and citizens. Following this, the German ground troops encountered little Soviet resistance and were assisted by the Lithuanians. Since the Lithuanians viewed the Soviets as their oppressors, they saw the Germans as their liberators and hoped they would grant them independence. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The Nazi occupation compounded the cruelty and unspeakable suffering of Vilnius and Lithuania.

The Paneriai Memorial

About 100,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis, many of them in Paneriai, about 10 km (6.2 mi) west of the old town center. The murders took place between July 1941 and August 1944.

The victims were brought down into the pits wearing hoods, then lined up and shot. Their bodies fell atop the other corpses that had been shot before them. When the pit was full, they were all buried and a new pit was started. There were six pits in total at Paneriai. We did visit the Paneriai Memorial. It is well presented, albeit emotional.

Towards the end of the war, the Nazis realized they were losing. They became paranoid that their heinous crimes would be discovered. They selected additional Jews from the ghettos to form work groups. These groups were made to dig up the corpses and relocate them to a different pit where they were burned. In many cases, people of the work groups recognized the bodies of their own family and friends.

Following WWII, the Soviets reestablished their dominance over Vilnius, essentially picking up where they left off. This time, their occupation lasted from 1944 to 1990.

As you explore the city today, you notice lots of open squares. These were not part of the original design of the city. They are areas that had been bombed as part of WWII. Since the Soviets moved back in immediately following the war, it was their decision not to replace any of the damaged infrastructure or buildings. They serve as a constant, bitter reminder of the abuse this city has suffered.

The war and Soviet dominance prior to the war had gouged a deep scar upon Vilnius the likes of which would take decades to recover. Some aspects of Vilnius will never recover. WWII was a terrible time for all, but Vilnius continued to suffer long after the peace treaties had been signed and the tanks had gone home.

Even through 1987, the terrorization by the Soviets continued. Sovietization and the dominance and horrors of actions carried out by the KGB in the name of communism continued throughout all of the Baltic countries.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, all three Baltic states were finally able to achieve independence. This, in essence, is when Vilnius began its long journey back to the free world. Their infrastructure had been utterly destroyed. Living conditions were barely above third world. They had no experience in the commercial, industrial, or even the banking world. Anyone who possessed key knowledge in these crucial areas had been deported and killed. It was like throwing a baby bird out into a hurricane.

Indeed, one could write another entire volume on Vilnius’ recovery from freedom to stability. But it is human nature to survive, and the people of Vilnius never gave up. It wasn’t until 2015 that they got their first directly elected mayor.

Today, Vilnius is a major tourist destination for the region. It is part of the European Union, and with the help of the banks of Scandinavia, it continues to rebuild its infrastructure and its business community on the global scene. Although they have made great strides, the rebuilding of a civilization is a long and arduous road upon which their journey continues even today.

Like many European cities, it is chock full of cozy cafes, pubs, and restaurants. The food was absolutely exquisite.

Succulent venison, and several dishes unique to the area. Like delicious fried bread with cheese:

While we were there, we also visited the Trakai island castle. Beautifully restored castle from the 14th century. Very well presented and I strongly recommend you go here if you are in the area.

Most of the stone walls are original. Red brick was used in the original castle. They kept as much of that as they could.

I know it felt like a bit of a history lesson this time, but I just couldn’t explain how this city felt without the historical perspective. It is evident everywhere you go. You can see it in the infrastructure, and you can see it on the faces of the citizens and hear it in their voices. It is a city that has endured incredible hardships. And although it has a tortured soul, it also has a strong and determined heart that continues to speak to the world: “I will survive.”

Bruges, Belgium

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We took the train from Ghent to Bruges (Ghent article here). It was a little over a half hour ride. The train going out on Saturday morning was exceedingly crowded, e.g. standing room only, literally. Coming back around 4pm same day, much more relaxed and plenty of seating.

This town had a different feel. It had the same medieval architecture, and it is absolutely beautiful, but it was more more crowded. It felt more commercialized than Ghent. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It had more bars, restaurants, and shops. This felt like most of the other popular European places we have visited.

We spent the day walking around and taking in the sights. Sort of a self guided tour, if you will:

A stunningly beautiful park. Their Spring was much further along than ours was in Stockholm:

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The Church of Our Lady (13th century)

 

The Markt (Market Square) & Belfry Tower (Tower and most of market 13th century or older):

 

While in the square, we enjoyed some Belgium fries and some chocolate covered Belgium waffles on a stick!

 

Some live street music, which was pretty good, I must say. Check out that outrageous guitar thing! Imagine if Jimi Hendrix had played one of those! But seriously, it only has three strings and they’re so thick that she had to wear special pads on her fingers to press them. So sounds to me like some sort of bass instrument.

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We visited Begijnhuisje (easy for you to say). This is a convent and it’s still active today but we didn’t see any nuns while we were there:

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While we were in Bruges, we also had a boat ride around the canals:

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And later, we stumbled into a parade:

 

Summary

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If you’re debating whether you should go to Ghent vs. Bruges, my advice is to do as we did and go to both of them. Otherwise, choose which venue suits your travel style better. The time warp back in time to the laidback medieval Ghent, or the fast paced big city feel and shopping of Bruges.

We had a great time on our first adventure of the year, and I hope you enjoyed tagging along with us! Next stop will be Vilnius, Lithuania this Easter. This is the only Baltic country we have yet to visit.

 

Ghent, Belgium

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Hello there! What? Hey it’s me, The Travelin’ Man! Don’t you remember? Wow, yes, it has been a while hasn’t it? I feel like I lost the Travelin’ in Travelin’ Man. Guess that makes me The Man!

We’ve been huddled under the blankets watching the snow come down and pretty much just enjoying the beautiful Swedish winter in Stockholm. But not to worry, we are officially back on the road again, or in the air again. We’re headed to Belgium, where we’ll catch the high speed train to Ghent. So dust off that hat, grab your walking shoes, and journey with us for our first trip of the year!

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For our first adventure of the year, we decided on a weekend getaway. Brussels is a quick two hour hop on a direct flight from Stockholm, then a one hour dash to Ghent on the high speed train.

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Certainly not a world renowned glamorous spot chocked-full-o-people. And perhaps that is its biggest draw. The more I travel, the more I yearn for secret gems tucked away from the stampedes of tourists. And Ghent is definitely one of them.

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The thing that really struck me about this place was that upon arrival, I immediately had this strange feeling of having stepped back in time. Yes, I get it, tons of old medievaly European cities; but this was different. It didn’t feel like a place that was restored or even preserved. Instead of being pulled through time and put on display, it felt like it had pulled me back in time.

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I fully expected to see nobles clip-clopping down the cobblestones in their fancy carriages; and men with their puffy trousers and jackets with voluminous sleeves and crisp linen shirts strolling along the sidewalk with their better halves decked out in long silk gowns garnished with lace. But I digress.

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Most of the taverns and shops do not break the immersion once inside. Cozy, warm interiors with low ceilings. Strong timber supports and beamed ceilings, often with dark red brick walls. There was one glaring exception.

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While we were there, we stayed in the Marriott (above) right in the center of town. And even it looked like an Inn from the days of yore. That is, until you stepped inside.

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Whoa! You immediately crossed back over the magic time warp and back into the present.

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I will speculate about the timeless mystery of this place. While it was occupied by the Germans in both world wars, they did not destroy or vandalize the city during their occupation or on their exit. Which is unusual, but fortunate. Furthermore, it was never bombed during WWII. Thus, there is not the feeling of a town partially original and partiality restored. It is fully authentic and untouched other than normal maintenance and upkeep.

As you can see from the pictures thus far, we enjoyed galavanting around this cozy medieval town. The canals were so beautiful that we just had to get down in them and do a canal boat ride. Why didn’t we think of that before all that walking around?

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We also stumbled across a 12th century castle. It was in spectacular condition inside and out. This shot was taken from the boat:

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The castle also features wedding services and a fully intact torture chamber. There is a joke just sitting there, just waiting to be had. Travelin’ Man knows better!

The day we arrived, we only spent a little time in Ghent. The following day we ventured to Bruges (click here for that journal). So it was actually the third day that we spent entirely in Ghent.

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If you’re debating whether you should go to Ghent vs. Bruges, my advice is to do as we did and go to both of them. Otherwise, choose which venue suits your travel style better. The time warp back in time to the laidback medieval Ghent, or the fast paced big city feel and shopping of Bruges.

We had a great time on our first adventure of the year, and I hope you enjoyed tagging along with us! Next stop will be Bruges, Belgium, so stay tuned!

 

Budapest, Hungary

Magnificent and beautiful Budapest sprawles across both sides of the Danube river. A city that overcame its dark, tortured past to become a modern showcase of European art and architecture.

It’s really two cities in one. With the completion of the amazing Chain Bridge in the late 19th century, it unified two cities, Buda and Pest, to become a major trading, cultural, and political hub called Budapest, the capital of Hungary. During that time, it was also co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although the monarchy was dissolved after WWI, Budapest has remained the capital of Hungary.

The amazing Chain Bridge, above.

Even today, each side of the river maintains its origins of the Buda side and the Pest side. The original Chain Bridge was destroyed by the Nazi’s and rebuilt around 1950.

Budapest is a great walking town. We stayed on the Buda side of the river, which is the west side, right at the base of the Chain Bridge in the Hotel Clark. So we were basically right in the heart of it all and had easy access to all major points of the city.

Jana and I arrived from Stockholm, while our friends, Brandie and her daughter, Ariana, hopped the pond from Atlanta, GA. You may remember Brandie from our now famous adventures in Ireland and Stockholm.

Here we all are, like a bunch of cave mice, squinting and blinking in the sun. From left to right, Ariana, Brandie, The Travelin’ Man, and Jana. This was taken at Heroes’ Square.

Heroes’ Square features statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars and other important Hungarian national leaders, as well as the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

St. Stephen’s Church, above, is a Roman Catholic basilica built in 1905. It is named after the first king of Hungary. What is really special about this place is that it is located at the top of a hill (known as Castle Hill) by the river.

You can go inside the church and ride a couple of elevators then climb some stairs and get to the top, where you will see some of the most fantastic views of the city (above).

Another interesting, but creepy aspect of this place is “the hand”. That’s right, the picture above is of the mummified hand of Saint Stephen himself! Officially called the Holy Right Hand. You can see him doing the fist bump there.  A long story how it came to be separated from the king, but basically, they were moving his body at one point and noticed the right hand was somehow mummified. Of course, 980 years ago, this would imply holy and/or magical properties beyond belief, so they removed the hand. It has been a religious artifact ever since.

This city is just chock-full of magnificent architecture and beautifully landscaped parks.

The very stately Vajdahunyad Castle, above. Located in the city park of Budapest, and completed in 1896. The shiny area in front is where they are putting the final touches on an enormous ice skating rink. See below, a different angle of the castle.

While we were out adventuring, we stopped at this excellent restaurant (below) called Anonymus Étterem. We had a great lunch, got refreshed and continued our adventure.

Just walk around here and you will realize why the whole world marks this as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

While we were there, we visited the open marketplace – fresh fruits, delicious vegetables and meats of all varieties. There were even a couple of high grade restaurants here.

And you absolutely cannot go to Budapest without visiting the world renowned thermal baths. Naturally heated and accessed for hundreds of years for both enjoyment and health benefits:

As you can see from my picture, above, the weather was absolutely gorgeous when we were there. Mind you, it was pretty cold, around 40 degrees F, but the water was so warm the it didn’t matter. However, once you step out of the pool, you are instantly aware of how cold it is, so be sure to bring or rent a robe!

And now for the pièce de résistance: the dinner cruise on the Danube. The lights of the city, especially from the water, have an undeniable magical quality…..enjoy:

This picture, above, is the breathtaking Buda palace. It was left intact by the Nazis, but it was vandalized and the inside was gutted. Years of dedicated work and patience has restored it to its full beauty.

This picture, above, and the featured picture at the very top of this article is the magnificent Hungary Parliment building. Astonishing detail and beauty. You could spend years studying all of the intricate carvings on and in this building alone.

While I didn’t review any restaurants in this article, I will say something about the food overall. Being a landlocked country, they are not a fish eating population. Lots of dishes based on beef and venison. Delicious steaks, stews and goulashes are their specialty. Which suited The Travelin’ Man just fine! And the Hungarian wines are in our top three favorite wine regions.

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And that was pretty much Budapest for our first visit. We will definitely be coming back here. After this, we hopped onto our riverboat for an extended cruise through Europe. I will post a link here when that article is completed. These are the good ole days!

Iceland

The Northern Lights*

We went out into the rugged, wild terrain of Iceland in what is called super jeeps. On our way to the viewing area, we stopped at a beautiful waterfall (the featured image at the top of this article).

From there, we went onto the back roads that eventually turned into dirt roads. And then finally, we reached the beginning of the trails. Just looking at the rocky, precipitous “trail”, you would have said it was impassable. But pass we did! After about an hour, we arrived in a remote area that was free from light pollution. The sky was so clear it felt as though you could see forever.

Then the northern lights came. No, seriously, that is them, above. I had only seen the northern lights in pictures, and what I saw now was a lot more subtle. More like a high, light cloud that stretches across the view. But I get it, they don’t always shine bright. We all stood around drinking hot chocolate spiked with vodka. Might not sound all that good, but believe me, in 20 degree F weather with a stiff wind while standing out in the open looking up at the sky, that stuff was like the nectar of the gods!

As the cold set in, our faces and toes began freezing. We retreated into the Jeeps to get out of the biting wind and wait it out. Our host told us we would wait up to three hours if that’s what it took. Or should I say th-th-th-three-ee hours! More vodka please!

And then it happened. The dance hall in the sky opened for business and the bright green and white lights flared across the sky. We jumped out of the jeeps and stared in awe as the sky transformed into a light show of the heavens.

We stuck around for about an hour more. The lights would fade and dim, then fire up the sky again with shifting hues and dancing lights. You get none of this movement in still pictures. It must be seen in person to be truly appreciated.

I have to say, it was one of the most astounding things I have seen in all my travels. I tried to take a few photographs, but I was determined to not let that distract from my experience. Besides, we had a professional photographer capturing the whole thing (those are his pics, above). I snapped a few and then put the camera away and recorded it with the camera in my mind.

Glacier Hiking

Ok, so a little tough to top seeing the great northern lights. But climbing on top of a giant glacier? Well that’s pretty awesome, too! In case you need a geology refresher, a glacier is basically a gigantic block of ice that forms in exceptionally cold places where it snows a lot, like high in the mountains or near the poles. Massive accumulations of snow that never melts, upon which more and more and more snow falls, until the snow beneath becomes compressed by the weight, forming ice, then more snow, and so on. Think of it as when you scoop up some snow in your hand to make a snowball. You push and press the snow and it becomes more solid. So it’s like that, times a billion.

The glaciers of Iceland, and in fact the world, are slowly melting. Our guide, above explains the sign that depicts the ‘meltage’ history. Yes, you are reading that correctly, 110 meters just last year. That’s 360 feet! And as you can see, it is melting at a higher rate with each passing year.

And because of this melting, the glaciers move and shift and change faster than ever. Streams of water flow on the top, carving a small path in the ice. As it cuts deeper, it gets colder, and the water freezes again. Huge cracks, two and three feet wide form all along the glacier. It’s really kind of sad when you think about it, it’s like a mountain is slowly dying. But, it makes for fantastic beauty and adventure for us humans as we crawl all along it like a bunch of ants.

All told, we hiked about six miles. Mind you, that’s not like six miles in your neighborhood or park – it was on dangerous, slippery ice.

We had climbing axes and wore crampons on our boots. Without these, the terrain would have been impassable.

Note the dark colored ‘dirt’ in the pictures. This particular glacier is formed right on top of a volcano. The dark colored dirt is actually volcanic ash that is being exposed as the ice melts.

Here you can see Jana is actually standing inside one of the larger cracks in the ice. There were others that we had to jump across.

Very strong winds whip the water and the volcanic ash around into an angry swirl that eventually forms ice caves:

Fortunately for us, the wind had more important places to be the day we were there. Here are some pictures from the top of the glacier:

And here is one from the top looking back the way we came:

The river you see is primarily the blood of the glacier, the melted ice. Look to the left and see some really crazy folks getting ready to climb down into that huge cavern. What’s worse is they also have to climb back up!

So that was pretty much it for our Iceland trip. We were here before about five years ago and it was just as much fun as this time. Iceland is a very special place that has to be visited to be understood.


*: The northern lights are notoriously difficult to photograph. Thus, the pictures of the actual northern lights in this article were taken by the professional photographer that was provided by our host. You can visit their Facebook page by searching for superjeeps.is.

The Western Shores

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After conquering the castles of south central Ireland, we continued working our way southwest. We arrived in Killarney just in time to get the last call on dinner at this fabulous hotel/B&B:

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It’s called the Loch Lein Country House. Very elegant and cozy place to stay. They have their own restaurant, and the food was exquisite. We stayed two nights and ate dinners and breakfast there.

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And the view fromthe back (see above) was OMG. Unfortunately, the setting sun in the picture was the last we would see of it for the next couple of days. We had, up until this point, been blessed with unusually fantastic weather for this time of year. But of course we didn’t let that stop us from getting out there and enjoying ourselves!

 

After breakfast the following day, we headed out to a small peninsula on the western coast known as the Ring of Kerry. The circle all the way to the west is where we caught the ferry to Valentia Island. Despite the wet weather, we were able to capture some of the magnificent beauty of the area:

 

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The locals told us there are two different types of weather here this time of year: light rain, and heavy rain. We sure got a taste of it today, but even in the rain, the countryside here is just breathtaking.

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After working our way around the south side of the peninsula, we headed north and then back to our cozy country house for a hot meal, some good wine, and great company.

The next morning we packed up and headed north. Our plan was to loop around another coastal peninsula called Dingle.

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The rain was still sputtering a bit, but not as bad as yesterday.

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And some of you should recognize this pic (above), it’s where one of the scenes from The Last Jedi was shot. It was a hell of a climb up there. I can only imagine those film crews with all that equipment!

We stopped by a place called The Cliffs of Moher. Spectacular views here, and we were lucky the rain had stopped for the time being.

 

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That evening, we rolled into a town called Bunratty. Funny name, but check out the place we stayed at:

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And that was pretty much it folks! That was the final leg of our wonderful Irish Road Trip. Thanks for following along with us. And thank you to our friend, Brandie, for coming with us. And also for being the brave one behind the wheel all this time! Look forward to seeing you again on the Budapest river cruise. OOPS, I said too much! Bye y’all!

Castles of Ireland

The morning after the Waterford factory visit, we set out in a south/south-westerly direction as we headed towards Killarney. I know, what is up with the “kill” city names? There are actually quite a few of them. They have Killusty, Killaloe, Killoscully, even a Kilbrittain! I kept looking for a Killbill, but I never saw one.

Anyway, on our way to Killarney, we stopped by a few castles. Ireland has seen its fair share of war and hard times. Especially during medieval times and extending well into the 18th century, castles were a fundamental underpinning of Irish survival and culture. You could literally spend a lifetime studying the castles of just Ireland.

While an exact count is unknown, there are an estimated 30,000 castles and castle ruins in Ireland.

During our vacation in Ireland, we saw quite a few castles. I will spare you the 100’s of photos I took of them and share with you a few photos from three of the castles we went to as we worked our way southwest toward Killarney.

As The Travelin’ Man, I have probably reviewed at least a dozen or so castles with you, so I hope you aren’t burned out on them! Nonetheless, I’ll keep it brief and try to highlight the most noteworthy aspects.

The Rock of Cashel

The Rock of Cashel is the name of this castle. They had to be creative with the name. I mean, they couldn’t name it Castle of Cashel… or Castle Cashel. Think of all the embarrassing tongue twisters the nobles would have had, especially after a goblet or two of wine!

It’s all just as well since it really isn’t a ‘castle’ anymore. In a highly political maneuver, the King of Munster donated the fortress to the church in 1101. Most of the buildings that remain were built after that. The round tower, shown above, is probably part of the original castle, but the temple was from about forty years after the land was donated to the church (finished in 1137).

Check out the picture at the top of this article. That is the Rock of Cashel, from the peasant’s viewpoint. Absolutely breathtaking and one of the most visited attractions in Ireland.

That statue behind me is the famous Scully’s Cross, built in 1867. But where’s the cross, you ask…. an extremely powerful bolt of lightning struck it in 1976, knocking the cross completely off. Can you just imagine if you could have captured a picture of that! Wow!

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The remnants are still where they fell on the ground at the base of the statue. You can also see the statue rising above the wall in the picture at the top of this article (it’s on the left).

Cahir Castle

Classic European 13th century battle castle. Strategically placed right on the river. Embroiled in battle, warfare, politics, and scandals well into the 17th century.

Location, location, location! Roomy castle with bird’s eye view of the beautiful Suir river.

It was built on an earlier native fortification known as ‘cathair’, which translates to stone fort, which is where the name ‘cahir’ comes from.

It was used as the location for a battle scene in the 1981 move Excalibur (the entire movie was filmed on location in Ireland).

Blarney Castle

More of a keep, really, than a castle. Although it did see it’s fair share of wars and sieges throughout the years. Poor ole Blarney has been torn down, blown up, burned up and rebuilt so many times over the last 800 or so years that it’s hard to say when it actually became a fortress. But most of the remaining buildings date back to the 15th century.

Ah, the Blarney Stone. What is the magic of this stone that draws millions of people thousands of miles just to risk their necks to kiss it? Before answering that, do you know what blarney means? The word blarney refers to pleasant flattery or charm, especially as related to persuasion.

You can see in the picture, above, I have circled the location of the stone from the outside. You have to climb the tower, lay down flat and lean out over the battlement while someone holds you by the ankles.

Now the Irish are great storytellers, and great whiskey makers. So depending on who you ask and what time of day you ask, you will get an assortment of colorful, imaginative stories that explain the stone. But I can’t leave you with that, can I? My favorite story involves the builder of the keep. Here it is quoted from Wikipedia:

An early story involves the goddess Clíodhna. Cormac Laidir McCarthy, the builder of Blarney Castle, being involved in a lawsuit in the 15th century, appealed to Clíodhna for her assistance. She told McCarthy to kiss the first stone he found in the morning on his way to court, and he did so, with the result that he pleaded his case with great eloquence and won. Thus the Blarney Stone is said to impart “the ability to deceive without offending”. MacCarthy then incorporated it into the parapet of the castle.

So yes, of course we climbed the tower and kissed the stone. Who wouldn’t want the power of blarney in their personal toolbox?