Friday, August 31, 2012

Ireland/Iceland Trip, day 8: Visiting Kjartan at Kólus factory, Sightseeing in Reykjavik

Our dear friend Solveig, who was born and raised in Iceland, helped us with so many suggestions for our trip.  We were thrilled to hear that her father, Kjartan, was available during our visit and was interested in showing us around the Kólus candy factory that their family has owned and operated for decades.

Lauren discovered a love for the saltier Icelandic licorice, and she also rediscovered a love of factories in general.  Kjartan told us all about the candy-making process, and he regaled us at length with facts about Icelandic history and culture.  It was a joy to start our first full day in Iceland in the company of a local, and we are very grateful to Kjartan and Solveig for making this happen.  [Oh, and thanks once again for the staggering amount of candy we got to take home.  We're still munching our way through it now!]

We drove from the factory to the base of The Pearl, where we could take in a great view of the city...

Then it was on to lunch at Cafe Paris, followed by some shopping and museum-hopping in Reykjavik...

...and then it was time to make the mandatory stop at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur ("The Best Hot Dogs in Town").  One of our guidebooks estimated that the vast majority of Icelandic citizens have had a hot dog from this little stand at one point or another.  They've got a picture of Bill Clinton chomping on a dog hanging behind the cash register.  And they claim to have the best hot dogs in the world.

I'm from Chicago.  I take such claims seriously.  I was going to find out for myself, and rain wasn't going to stop me.
Conclusion?  They were darn good hot dogs, in a very different style from (say) the classic Chicago-style hotdog or a Hot Doug's creation.  Best in the world?  Could be, depending on how your tastes run.  I will say that just thinking about the sweet mustard and crunchy-onion topping is making my mouth water a bit as I write this.

While we were standing and eating our hot dogs, some Icelanders on a work scavenger hunt approached us, and asked me to read an Icelandic sentence aloud on camera, then shout "woohoo!"  I happily played the hapless tourist and obliged.  Two words, roughly 20 syllables total, and I still remember that the first syllable was "Þer," but after that I quickly fell into the glossolaliac gibberish they were hoping for.  All in good fun, of course.  To the foreign ear, the Icelandic language has a beautiful sound, but it's notoriously hard to pick up.  Our guidebook recommended that we not even try: "Icelanders learn English from an early age and most speak it well, albeit with a charming and quirky accent.  You are only likely to find a language barrier if you were to speak in Icelandic since Icelanders are not used to foreigners trying to speak their language and usually just reply in English." :)

After that, more shopping(!), some sightseeing at the Hallgrímskirkja church, which Lauren said was the most beautiful church she'd ever seen, but which I found to be a bit blocky and imposing:

Cool statue of Leif Ericsson out front, given by the US:

We stumbled into an impromptu concert from local band Tilbury in the well-loved local 12 Tonar music shop.  Lauren is now their biggest fan (seriously):

...and then we finished the day with a romantic, fancy dinner at Perlan (The Pearl), which is a rotating restaurant on a nearby hill offering great views of the city.

So ended our big "city" day in Iceland, with a tour around the countryside to follow on the morrow...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ireland/Iceland Trip, day 7: Dublin to Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon

Early flight out of Dublin, with the usual wait-then-run connection experience at Heathrow, and then we were in Iceland!

We were using a very "local" rental car company who first wasn't present at the airport, and who finally gave us a scratched-up car with a heavily-deflated tire and a quarter tank of gas ("just bring it back with a quarter tank, and you're all set!")  Oh, and the car-return procedure was "Leave it parked in short-term airport parking, with the parking ticket and the keys in the glove compartment, and the doors unlocked.  Don't worry; we'll find the car."  So a little excitement there, but [spoiler alert!] the car didn't fail us during our trip, and our savings basically covered our Blue Lagoon visit (see below), and so now we definitely feel like thrifty geniuses. :)

Our first impression of Iceland was a somewhat bleak but oddly familiar landscape...

Lauren quickly realized that it was very reminiscent of Hawaii, which makes sense as both places are volcanic islands in the middle of an ocean.  The flora and temperature are certainly different, but we took a few pictures during our stay that could just as easily be Haleakala.

Our first stop in Iceland, and I believe the first and highest-priority bit of planning Lauren did for the entire trip, was at the Blue Lagoon, which is a geothermal spa near the airport.  The weather was 55 degrees and drizzly, but the mineral-heavy water was like a natural hot tub, with plenty of silicate mud lying around for you to rub on your face and skin.  Lauren got us the works here: a private changing room and lounge, dinner at the fancy LAVA restaurant by the pools...  Oh, and an in-water massage, in my case delivered by the friendliest, burliest, and most attractive dude I've ever met, Joi (erm, thanks again, hon?).

At the Blue Lagoon, we also had the luck to run into some of Lauren's classmates from Kellogg, who were leading a KWEST trip to Iceland (similar to the Baltics trip that Lauren and I joined a year ago).  Small world!

Overall, the Blue Lagoon was a great spot to relax and unwind after lots of aggressive sightseeing in Ireland and a flight that day.  As we headed in to Reykjavik and checked in to our hotel, we were well-rested and ready to explore a new country.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ireland/Iceland Trip, day 6: Cork, Blarney, and return to Dublin

We spent the first half of the day in Cork, shopping for Irish music and having breakfast at the lovely Farmgate Cafe perched above the English Market in downtown Cork.

Another notable stop in Cork was at the Crawford Art Gallery (no pictures).

On the way home, we enjoyed a long visit at Blarney Castle despite some serious rain.

And yes, we both kissed the Blarney Stone.

Hopefully the promised gift of eloquence will materialize shortly; Lauren's first words after kissing the stone were "Oh yeah, definitely worth thirty bucks!"  So I don't think the effect is immediate.

After Blarney, we drove back to Dublin, managed logistics around the rental car and the airport hotel, and turned in early to prepare for our morning flight to Reykjavik

Ireland was everything we'd been hoping and more, and we were excited to see what was in store for us in Iceland.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ireland/Iceland Trip, day 5: Southern Irish coast (Baltimore to Kinsale)

In late July, Lauren and I went for a short sailboat ride to celebrate our 2-year anniversary.  By chance, our skipper was a young Irish student who hailed from Baltimore, a small town near the southwestern tip of Ireland.  He was our hostage for two hours of unrelenting questions about Ireland, his hometown, etc. [It was a small boat].  He painted a picture of a small, quaint fishing and sailing village, and he sang the praises of Bushe's Bar, formerly his grandfather's, now his uncle's, and in his admittedly biased opinion, the best pub in Ireland. :)

After our chance encounter just a few weeks ago, we were excited to see that Baltimore was a reasonable drive from where we were staying in Cork.  We decided to spend the day traveling along the southern coastline of Ireland, starting from Baltimore and working our way back to Kinsale, just south of home-base in Cork.

We started with a quick breakfast at the Coffee Station, just at the base of the hill below our hotel in Cork.  To walk there, we skirted the edge of the picturesque University College Cork, and over a beautiful bridge.

Girded for the day, we headed for Baltimore, and reached it just a bit before lunchtime.  The village was lovely...

...the pub as described (though I'm not qualified to opine on "best pub in Ireland")...

...but the highlight was definitely our unplanned hike up to Baltimore Beacon, built hundreds of years ago.  Hooray for wrong turns!

From Baltimore, we drove to the Drombeg stone circle, which is supposed to be the finest example of a prehistoric stone circle in southern Ireland.  Much philosophizing about the nature of time and history naturally ensued.

Our next stop was the Timoleague Friary in Timoleague.  Like Glendalough, this is a Catholic holy site  that burned down and ceased its day-to-day functioning hundreds of years ago, but has since become a striking site for graves and memorials.  The thing that struck me most was the quiet of these places.  There's plenty of time to stand alone with the wind and with your thoughts.

We then took a short stroll along the water in the coastal town of Courtmacsherry

...before ending the day in Kinsale for a truly excellent dinner at the Man Friday restaurant.

We had hoped to stop in at a pub in Cork before returning to our hotel, but the rain finally arrived in force toward the end of dinner, so instead we toasted our big day with a pint at the hotel bar and turned in for the night.