One Week in Provence

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You may have remembered that I mentioned earlier in the spring that my sister and brother-in-law would be living in Geneva for the summer while she finished up her master’s degree. I’m happy, so pleased really, to report that her master’s is completely finished, which comes as a tremendous relief, I know. But, it’s also such a shame because it means she and her husband are no longer in Switzerland and I’m left moping about wondering what in the world we are going to do on the weekends now that they’re no longer here. Honestly, it’s not that bad, but saying goodbye to them a couple of weeks ago sure wasn’t pretty.

To cap off our summer together, and to truly celebrate both Courtney and Jared graduating from their master’s programs, we decided to go to Provence for a week with our parents.  The theme for the week was “relaxation” and we made sure to find an Airbnb with a big pool and lots of areas in which to lounge and nap. We liked that the location was quiet and removed from a big city center. But it was still easy to plan day trips to nearby hill towns and even the sea.

Overall it was a really, really lovely week. We read books, swam in the pool (my dad is the biggest water baby!), played Uno, cooked dinner, went out to eat, shared breakfast in the mornings on the patio, explored and relaxed. We talked about the babies and wondered aloud what it will be like when they arrive, everyone excited for two new family members with which to share all this fun and love. Thinking about that week makes me a bit weepy (not a challenge at all these days) because I love and miss my family so much. Spending such quality time with them was priceless.

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For every nice picture of Courtney and me there are always three that don’t make a whole lot of sense. Adam calls them “outtakes” but we call them “magic.”

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After a long drive from Geneva we decided we wanted our first full day to be spent at the house enjoying the amenities. We slept in and had a long breakfast on the terrace before parking it poolside for the rest of the day. We did venture out that evening for dinner at La Table d’Yves, a fancy restaurant on a vineyard that sits right next to Fayence’s famous aerodrome. You can sip a glass of wine on their beautiful covered patio and watch the gliders land. The food was delicious even if the staff were a bit stuffy.

The next day we drove about 45 minutes to Saint-Raphaël, a beachside town in between Cannes and Saint-Tropez. It was too hot to explore the old town so we spent most of our time at the family-friendly beach. There is a good stretch of public beach—and nearby Frejus has a lot of open sand as well—but we opted for an organized beach with loungers and umbrellas. The staff was very accommodating and we had one of the best beach lunches I can remember. The water was perfect for frequent dips and it proved to be a relaxing day at the beach, ending with a ferris wheel ride!

A quick note: cars proved essential for this trip. We rented them in Geneva and drove the whole way instead of taking a train there and picking up the car in Cannes or Nice. Public transportation among the small towns is unpredictable and infrequent and you’ll be limited to bigger tourist hubs if you opt for this option. I’d recommend renting a car instead and tailoring your countryside trip to include exactly what you want to see and allow for last-minute changes and additions. Just make sure you have navigation or google maps handy on your phone!

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Um, matching hats?? Yes, please!

The next day we went to Fayence, which was a ten-minute drive from our place, for their weekly market–a recommendation from our Airbnb host. We got there early not only to beat the heat but also the crowds and we all left with lots of local treasures and gifts. It’s a really sweet town and I’d recommend stopping there for a visit if you’re in the area.

We had our best meal at Le 8 and I urge you to stop there as much for the fun and gracious company of the hosts as the French food. The menu is limited to five or six dishes but they are all fantastic and the location is charming, to boot.

That afternoon we were all pooped from walking around so we relaxed–where else?–by the pool before grilling that night for dinner. In case you’re wondering, I read Among the Ten Thousand Things while we were there and really enjoyed it. A good, if slightly bleak, summer read.

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We spent a full day in Cannes and had fun trolling the old town and sipping very swanky cocktails (or, er, alcohol-free beer) at a ritzy hotel when the heat became too much. We wanted to go out on a boat this day but it was too breezy and they canceled all the trips. I’d recommend exploring Le Suquet for beautiful views of the sea and harbor and admiring the high-end shops, at least from the street. Before heading back we took a walk to check out the yachts and each picked out our favorite–maybe for Christmas this year!

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Our last full day was spent close to home. Courtney, Jared, and Dad explored a nearby hill town for lunch, while Adam, Mom, and I stayed back to read and swim. Of course, once everyone got back it was time for a little burst mode action by the pool. I need to find a way to get all the images into gifs because scrolling through them is one of my new favorite pastimes. I love the energy!

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That night we drove back to Fayence for dinner at Restaurant Le France, how typical! We had an excellent dinner here and celebrated our parent’s 35th wedding anniversary exactly one month early. It was fun to hear them talk about their wedding day and some of their favorite moments throughout their marriage. We also talked a lot about our childhood and it is so funny to hear what everyone remembers–it’s often so different from what is crystalized in your own memory. I would highly recommend this place for dinner, and snag a table outside if you can.

That was Bastille day, July 14th, and we purposely stayed close to home that day and night to avoid crowds and traffic. We woke up early the next morning to hit the road and were devastated by the news that 84 people had been killed in Nice the night before. It was heartbreaking and incredibly sobering after an idyllic week spent together. The world is a very scary and confusing place right now and it’s hard to imagine a time when we won’t be bracing for the next tragedy. It was a chilling reminder to hold your loved ones close and not take for granted all that we’ve been given.

Smoking Pork Belly

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Months ago I asked Adam to write a blog post about smoking meats, which has become a great hobby of his and one that I am eager to encourage and share. Finally he wrote it…and then I waited another month and a half to post it! Where is my head, I ask?

Anyway, here is the post, with loads of pictures, tips, and wit. I know summer is almost on the way out (please stay forever!), but in most parts of the world you still have time to use the smoker and treat your friends and family to a delicious pork belly meal. A big thanks to Adam for putting all this together–enjoy!

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While living in Charleston I noticed an interesting trend in my restaurant menu selection: no matter the restaurant, preparation, or price if the dish in question included pork belly, then that was what I was eating that night. I wouldn’t even finish reading the menu. It was like some sort of trained response or code phrase for brainwashed subjects in cheesy sci-fi flicks. Must. Have. Pork. Belly.

As you can imagine the options in Switzerland for smoked BBQ is pretty much non-existent. Not to be denied, last summer I picked up a “mini-smoker” for playing around with smoking pork butt, ribs and the like. But I could never get out of my head the pork belly that ensnared me in its wonderfully flavorful and fantastically fatty ways.

If you google “smoked pork belly” you get a bunch of recipes for Asian inspired cuisine that look amazing, but were not exactly what I was looking for. Shecooksshecleans’ wonderful post on her rendition of an LA Times recipe came up pretty quickly and you can assume that upon seeing “Maple Bourbon Smoked Pork Belly” I knew my search was over.

Ingredients and a few notes on each:

  • 2 pounds pork belly, rind or skin removed – we smoked a two-pounder and it provided for 3 meals for the two of us, or “meat-week” as I refer to it now. Make sure the cut has that nice thick fat cap on top and that it has not been trimmed off
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt – kosher is key not because it is kosher, but because kosher salt is typically the right granular size for brining meat (also it usually comes without other preservatives found in typical table salt)
  • 1 tablespoon toasted and crushed mustard seed
  • ½ Tablespoon Black pepper
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup – choose your favorite brand (just stay away from butter-enhanced monstrosities)
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon – again, pick your favorite brand, but please stick to bourbon! Most bourbon’s have a flavor profile that will pair nicely with the sweetness of the maple syrup. For our smoke we used Four Roses which has a subtle sweet flavor. Plus, it’s not so expensive that I felt bad about putting a couple of shots in a marinade.
  • Small hardwood chunks/chips, preferably a fruit wood – I prefer chunks as they burn slower than chips and produce the type of smoke you want, but for this smoke we used cherry chips because that was what I had on hand. Apple, pear, or even peach hardwood would work just fine. Just avoid mesquite as it can be a bit strong and potentially “oversmoke” your beautiful succulent pork.
  • A smoker or grill that allows an indirect heat set up.

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PREP

1.Plan ahead. This recipe calls for a 3-day brine/marinade. Check the weather for the weekend and pick up your pork belly fresh from the butcher mid-week. Does it really need 3 days? I dunno, but I don’t think it is possible to over-marinade the meat (it mainly just coats the surface). However, a 2-3 day brine does give the salt (which will penetrate the meat) time to work its flavor enhancing magic on this thick cut. When you are at the meat counter just make sure it has not been cured (this is also known as bacon). Lastly, if it is of the pre-packaged variety avoid those that include “enhanced” or “injected” which will mean it already has salt added to it and probably a bunch of other chemicals you don’t want.

2. Wash and pat dry the meat with paper towels. It’s always a good idea to wash the meat to clean off any stray bits from the butcher. Cut a crosshatch pattern into the top fat cap. By cutting cross hatches you are increasing the surface area of the flesh and giving the marinade more places to latch on to the meat with its tasty goodness. One thing the LA Times article recommends is cutting the pork belly in half, but strangely, they recommend this after it has been marinated. Next time around, I plan to cut it in half before marinating, to yet again increase the surface area for that mouth-watering crust to develop.

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IMG_92003. Toast and crush the mustard seed. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl and spread about half directly on the meat. Give it good rubbin’ with your hands to work it into the crevices on the fat. Once it’s rubbed in, slide the pork belly into a large re-sealable plastic bag.

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IMG_92094. Combine the remaining dry ingredients and wet ingredients in a bowl and stir. Pour the marinade into the bag and massage gently. Try to get as much air out as possible, seal the bag, and place into bowl or shallow baking dish and refrigerate. Turn it once daily over the next few days.

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SMOKE

1. Again, plan ahead. Start to finish it will take about 5 hours from lighting the coals to pulling it off smoker.

2. Light your fuel. Can’t go wrong with a coal-starter which produces white-hot coals in a hurry and is convenient for transferring onto a pile of unlit fuel.

3.  in the picture below you can see my set-up which consists of foil wrapped bowl filled with water (which will also serve as a drip pan). The way I understand it, a water pan can help add moisture to the smoke thereby making it cling easier to the meat and imparting more of its delicate but delicious flavor. In addition, it forms a barrier acts as a diffuser to the heat below creating that nice indirect cooking environment for low temps and slow smoking. I place a thermometer above the grate itself to keep tabs on the cooking temperature. It is key that it is not too close to the wall of the smoker but also not too close to the meat. The meat is obviously cold when you start cooking and while it cooks it will “sweat” which creates an artificial cool zone around the meat therefore throwing off your temperature reading. The old adage is true, low and slow. 225 °F is your goal, but if it creeps up to 250 °F for a bit, it won’t do much harm.

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4.  Once you have the smoker at your desired temp, place the meat fat side up, and throw on some wood chips. I use roughly a few handfuls at a time. After about 45 minutes to an hour, go ahead and throw another handful on there. Repeat once more in an hour if you feel like it.

5.  Find some shade, put away your phone, tablet, or phablet, crack open a cold one and watch the smoke waft by. Life is good.

6. About once an hour I take a peek and give it a good spritz with apple juice from a spray bottle to help keep it moist. Don’t over-do it when you spray it down. You don’t want to wash off that beautiful crust that is forming.

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7.  After about 3 hours check the internal temperature in the very middle. LA Times says you are safe to eat the pork when it reaches 150 degrees, but I agree with shecookshecleans in that letting it sit longer until 170 or 180 degrees is probably a better bet. As mentioned it may take 4-5 hours to get to the 175 range, but the timing will depend on many variables like the weather, your smoker, etc. If you don’t have a good digital meat thermometer, go out and get one today. There is literally no excuse to play the guessing game on any cooked meat and especially one that you just spent 5 hours on!

8. Let the meat rest or hold for a good 15-20 minutes to cool back down before you cut into it. It’s hard to resist, but the meat is finishing what is called carryover cooking while the internal temperature evens out within the belly itself. Then slice, dice, cube, shred, you name it, there is no wrong way to eat this.

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In Season: Zucchini

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Chances are you’ve been cooking with zucchini all summer long, but it’s at its absolute peak right this minute so I’ve rounded up some inspiration in case you’ve found yourself in a recipe rut. Zucchinis can be found in the markets year-round, but they are at their most delicious from June through late-August. It’s one of those fantastic ingredients that can go sweet or savory and you’re just as likely to find it on the grill as you are in a cake. Below are some recipes I’ve tried myself, as well as others I’d love to give a whirl within the next month.

How do you like to cook zucchini? Honestly, it’s one of the most versatile types of produce, in my opinion. I’m always adding it into pasta dishes or cutting it up really thin for salads. This week I’ve been dipping it into this french onion dip, which is so delicious.

(Image by Ryan Liebe for Bon Appetit)

Hiking Felsenweg Bürgenstock

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IMG_9421On Sunday Adam, Phil, and I hiked around Bürgenstock mountain, which sits on the very edge of Lake Lucerne. In fact, the mountain itself is split almost down the middle between cantons Lucerne and Nidwalden. It’s a popular destination not only for its unparalleled views over the lake and surrounding mountains to the south, but also for the Hammetschwand Lift, the tallest outdoor elevator in Europe. En route to the lift is the Felsenweg, or cliff path. It was constructed between 1900 and 1905 and goes around the entire mountain. The circuit takes about 2 hours and walking that, as well as taking the lift up to the highest point in Lucerne, was our initial plan. Alas, the best laid plans…so on and so forth.

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IMG_9400We took the train from Bern to Lucerne and transferred to a boat to take us to the dock at Kehristen-Bürgenstock. From there, one can normally take a funicular up to the famed Bürgenstock resort. This is closed, however, while they complete renovations, and it isn’t scheduled to re-open until 2017. We had assumed that there would be a bus in the funicular’s stead that would take us up to the resort where the Felsenweg begins. After disembarking the boat and watch it make its steady course toward the neighboring Pilatus, we realized that no such bus existed and we would be arriving in Bürgenstock by foot. (For those interested, you can catch a PostAuto bus from Stansstad and Ennetbürgen, both of which are accessible by train or boat from Lucerne).

Once we had finally reached the Hammetschwand Lift and finished the majority of our tough hiking, we saw a map of our wanderweg, or route: we couldn’t help but laugh at how much the switchbacks resembled a seismometer with some pretty intense activity. That’s to say that it was a tough climb; we gained over 2,000 feet in just over an hour. We got alone fine because we’re all pretty athletic, but this hike requires a little experience I would say. There are also a lot of very steep drop-offs along the switchbacks that are not for the faint of heart. If you remember, I have that faint heart. Nevertheless, upwards and onwards!

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IMG_9414^^neighboring Pilatus

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IMG_9420Standing along the Felsenweg we marveled at how high we were. The face of Bürgenstock is rather steep and drops almost directly down into the water. The boats look like toys! Adam attempted to time a falling rock but we lost it amidst the trees. I’m guessing it took quite a while to reach soil.

While the Bürgenstock resort is under construction and not currently open, there is a restaurant at the beginning of the Felsenweg that one might want to stop at for refreshments and beautiful valley views. We opted to keep walking toward the Hammetschwand Lift, a 25-minute walk.

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IMG_9429The lift is just shy of 153 meters and it takes about ten seconds to get to the top. It’s a panorama elevator, meaning it’s almost all glass and you feel rather exposed on your way up and down. It’s a fun thrill and a great way to get to the very top of the mountain (the alternative being to hike it in its entirety).

We ditched the sandwiches we had made earlier that morning in favor of traditional alpine fare: veal sausages with onion sauce and french fries. We sat at the top for a while before taking the elevator back down, walking the Felsenweg to the bus stop and finally taking the bus back to Stansstad. From there we caught trains and headed back to Lucerne, Phil heading on toward Zurich and Adam and I to Bern. I, for one, had jelly for legs and was totally exhausted by the day. But I was tired in a good way. You know, like how you felt as a kid when you played outside all day long as if the fun would never end? It’s the best feeling to close out a summer day.

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IMG_9439We never get to tired of all the options for exploring here in Switzerland. Adam and I just played “what are your three favorite things about living in Switzerland” and one of mine was the easy access to the mountains and hiking trails. Since most shops are closed and laundry and cleaning are highly discouraged, if not actively forbidden in your lease, family and leisure time takes priority on Sundays and I’ve really come to love that. I like that we go outside and enjoy ourselves and we don’t feel guilty about it because there isn’t anything else we should or could be doing. I hope it’s a tradition that we make a permanent part of our lives.

 

 

 

Hiking to Oeschinensee

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IMG_9359This past Sunday Adam and I went on a hike to Oeschinensee. It is often referred to as the most beautiful lake in Switzerland and we had to see for ourselves. All in the name of research…

The conclusion is, yes, it’s pretty darn beautiful. We took the direct train from Bern to Kandersteg, which is about one hour, and hiked our way up to the lake (there are signs everywhere guiding you). You can also take a gondola up–the station is a fifteen minute walk from the train station. But, at one and a half hours and an easy rating, the hike felt like the best option for the day. There are a couple steep parts, but nothing anyone with a sturdy pair of shoes can’t handle.

We got to the top and sat right by the lake to have Alpine ham and turkey sandwiches, watermelon, and paprika chips. We dipped our toes in the cool (cold!) water and rested our tired bodies. It was easily 10-15 degrees cooler up here than in Bern and we were so grateful for a break in the heat.

As you can see from the photos above, it was packed. There were lots of families and cookouts, people sunbathing or rowing on the lake. It’s an obvious choice for these balmy summer days.

We walked around the side of the lake for a bit, but didn’t take any of the many trails that will take you even further up into the mountains. If you’re feeling adventurous there are a lot of options for exploring.

After beers at the restaurant we decided to take the gondola back down. It’s a short ride and only costs a few Francs so it’s a good deal if you’re planning on bringing a lot of gear for a picnic or activities. We headed back to Bern on a very crowded train and relaxed for the rest of the evening. It was the perfect summer hike and I can already imagine taking friends and family there if/when they visit. See! Come visit. This is the fun we’ll get up to : )

 

Tuesday Book Club: Mid-Year Update

 

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How is your summer reading? Any books you’ve been flying through or can’t wait to start reading? Reading in the winter is always fun because you can get cozy under a blanket with a hot cup of tea, but reading in the summer is a blast because you can take your books outside and fall asleep under the giant tree in your front yard (this may have happened to me on Sunday…)

I thought it would be nice to share my progress so far this year since we’ve officially hit the halfway point today (what the?!). You might remember that I’m trying to read 40 new books this year and I am pretty close to staying on target. I’ve marked books I would highly recommend with an asterisk (*) and you can read more about my thoughts on each book by following the link:

  1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie*
  2. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  3. I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
  4. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
  5. She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb
  6. Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
  7. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed *
  8. We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
  9. The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
  10. The Innocents by Francesca Segal
  11. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
  12. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
  13. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  14. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
  15. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande *
  16. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra *
  17. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz *

Reread: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

I just finished Oscar Wao last night and I loved it! I think I read the last one hundred pages yesterday alone. It’s rhythmic dialect and cadence were sharp and funny and the frightening and at-times terrifying history of the Dominican Republic made for a unique setting. My friend Claire recommended the book and I am ever grateful for her suggestion. It won the Pulitzer Prize several years ago so you might have heard of it before. It’s a heartbreaking story about a tragic boy, a family curse, and our universal desire to fit in.

What about you? What are some of your favorite books from 2015? I’d love to hear some of your suggestions. Right before bed I started Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. It should be a interesting flashback to our recent trip to Iceland. Otherwise, here are books that are currently sitting on my shelves at home, waiting to be read:

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
  • The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  • Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (the sequel to Wolf Hall)

I certainly don’t have the problem of what to read next! I do like to keep a bunch of books around so I always have a book to read next or to take on vacation. And I really like to have books on the shelf; I love the look and I genuinely enjoy having the visual reminder of a specific story or character.

Happy reading!

(image via Covet Garden)

Iceland: Reykjavik and The Golden Circle

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After doing as much research as we could during our limited planning time, Adam and I decided that we only wanted to spend one full day in Reykjavik. It’s a small town that’s an interesting amalgamation of fishing culture, high-end sportswear shopping, and active nightlife. We stayed in an airbnb in town and liked being able to walk everywhere. We were right by the main shopping street and Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland.

We walking around a bit when we got there Saturday evening and immediately set off for Starters (Forétta Barrin in Icelandic) for dinner.

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Adam and I lament the lack of any kind of food scene here in Bern. Coming from Charleston this seems less than fair given how forward thinking the food culture was in the Southern city, but still. Every menu here is a variation on the same meat, sauce, and potatoes theme, and it would be nice to have a wider variety of options.

So we were thrilled to eat at Starters. They have lots of different plates for sharing (or not so much: it was hard for me to give up my arctic char, as I knew it was difficult for Adam to grant me a few bites of his perfectly-cooked horse steak), all made up of unique pairings and ingredients. There’s nothing on the menu you can’t pronounce but we still felt that everything was special. We’d highly recommend it.

After dinner we grabbed a couple beers at Kaldi, a cozy beer bar in the center of town. It was so bizarre to walk around well into the evening and have it still be so light outside! Even as we were walking home at 11:30 pm the sun was shining off to the northwest. Therefore, if you’re traveling during the summer months (late May, June, July, early August) and you’re hoping to get any sleep I highly suggest bringing an eye mask with you, especially if your accommodations don’t have blackout shades or the like. Ear plugs are an essential travel staple for us as well.

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IMG_7950On Sunday we grabbed coffee and a waffle at Mokka (by the way, custom dictates that you spread jam on the waffle and eat it like toast. who knew?!). We read back issues of British newspapers and made a very loose plan for the day. We walked to Hallgrímskirkja and went up the elevator to see the best views of the city and beyond. It’s a quick ride up and about $5 if you’re interested.

Though many of the stores were closed we did stop in Geysir, a beautifully curated shop filled with wool sweaters, designer clothing, and just about anything that would make one nostalgic for pastoral (or urban) life in Iceland. It’s a pricey boutique, but many of the pieces look timeless.

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IMG_8040We ate a leisurely lunch at Prikid before walking to Harpa and the harbor. Harpa is the city’s main concert hall and the architecture is incredible. Covered in geometric, three-dimensional windows, the structure is not short of views or photographic opportunities. It would be lovely to catch a show here, but you can also take a guided tour if you’re interested in seeing the main halls and stages within.

Afterward we strolled around, popped in the photography museum, shopped a flea market, and ate a hot dog because one must, they’re everywhere! We had one almost every day.

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That evening we had dinner at Frederiksen Ale House. They had excellent fish and chips and a great beer selection. We called it an early night and headed back to the apartment to do some road trip planning for the next day.

I have a few tips for self-drive tours in Iceland, which we would highly, highly recommend. A lot of people might feel more comfortable with the structure of a guided tour on a bus or minivan, but we preferred to drive ourselves so we could go our own way, take our time, and make whatever stops we wanted. But there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • The roads are narrow and usually only two lanes, even on the main highways (outside of Reykjavik). There are no shoulders either so one should take extra precaution when driving in inclement weather, which can come on suddenly. Thankfully we never went through any terrible storms, but in the colder months I know sudden snowstorms are not uncommon.
  • Only stop at turn-offs or designated scenic points. It’s tempting to want to stop and take pictures of everything, but given how narrow the roads are and lack of shoulder, it’s important that you don’t stop on the road and hop out of your car. Every few kilometers or so there are turn-offs and parking areas for just this reason so try to use those instead of putting yourself and others in danger.
  • Try to rent a 4-wheel drive if possible. It’s a little more pricey, but the extra security might be worth it to you.
  • Don’t bother with toilet paper…unless you need to use the restroom every thirty minutes. There are plenty of places to stop along the way–gas stations, tourist stops, etc. We bought some to use just in case but never did. Plus, there aren’t many trees in Iceland so it would have been a bit tricky logistically….
  • Opt for a GPS or mobile hot-spot. We used Google maps on our phone to find our way and it was immensely helpful to have internet in the car. Despite how desolate the country is, you can get a pretty good signal to help you stay on track, or get off the beaten path. It is important, however, to remember how to get your bearings by simply looking around you.
  • Bring snacks and lots of water! Iceland is very expensive and stopping for lunch on your road trip can really add up. We packed sandwiches and snacks to eat on the go, supplementing with hot dogs as we went. Apples, cherry tomatoes, chips or crackers, cereal bars, and gummy bears were all handy to have around.
    • On a semi-related note, stop in Duty Free upon arrival. Alcohol is very expensive and we saw everyone stopping here to pick up wine and beer before grabbing their luggage. We grabbed a few of each ourselves (plus some mini bottles of Icelandic vodka for a little taste test) and saved quite a bit of money had we decided to buy it in town.

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We started our road trip as most people do: visiting the Golden Circle. It’s a popular route with three main stops along the way: Thingvellir National Park, Geyser, and Gullfoss. This post ended up being the most helpful for us because of the layered map and suggestions for detours. Instead of taking Highway 1 to 35 like most people do, we took Highway 1 to 435 and cut across the middle of the tour circle, if you will. As the post mentions, it really was otherworldly and beautiful. It was the perfect way to begin our drive. We kept saying, “I can’t believe this is real” along the way–and said it through the remainder of our trip.

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Thingvellir National Park is noted for its historical and geographical significance. It’s the site of the world’s first parliament, established around 930 AD. The North American and European tectonic plates are also pulling apart here and you can see some incredible formations. It’s a large park, but there is a stopping point for visitors right by the lake, which is more or less in the center of the park. You can get out and walk around or even scuba if you’d like to see the underwater fissures. It was cold, rainy, and windy this day so we didn’t stay long, but I imagine this would be a lovely stop for a picnic and hiking if you wanted to stay longer.

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IMG_8123A quick note about rain gear:

I bought this jacket in Bern last fall when I was in need of a new rain jacket. It was advertised as waterproof and since buying it several months ago it had proved to be nothing but. When we got to Iceland, however, I learned the hard way that it is water resistant, not waterproof. So it got pretty wet and stayed wet, which was uncomfortable. I thought about buying a new jacket while we were there, but after looking at several options we decided that for once it was actually cheaper to buy it in Switzerland. SO, invest in the right gear. I had waterproof pants that were a big help (they were great windbreakers as well) and waterproof hiking boots that were essential. The rocks can gets very slippery when wet and you’ll be doing a lot of walking to see various sites. And layers! I usually wore a t-shirt or long-sleeve shirt, sweater/sweatshirt, fleece, and jacket. Plus a scarf and a hat, pretty much the whole time. I’d also wear jeans and slip waterproof pants over them when I knew we’d be visiting waterfalls or exposed to the rain for long periods of time. You’re probably spending quite a bit of money for this trip and making sure you have the right clothing and footwear is part of that. It’s no fashion show over there; everyone is geared up and just trying to stay protected from the elements, which can be harsh.

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IMG_8154A little soggy, we got back in the car and headed to Geysir, where the world’s first geyser erupted. It’s been dormant now for quite a while, but it’s close neighbor Strokkur erupts every ten minutes or so. The sideways rain and blustery temperatures made this stop less than pleasant, but we managed to see it three times while we stood. Do be sure to stand upwind : )

We stopped for a hot tea in the restaurant to warm up. There’s a huge gift shop with lots of clothing, gear, and souvenirs for everyone.

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Road signs will point you on to Gullfoss, which is about 15 minutes away. This stop was almost comical given how cold, windy, and rainy it was when we arrived. It’s the largest waterfall in Europe so we wanted to marvel at it a bit longer, but I think we stayed no more than 15 minutes before hitting the road. It is very beautiful and powerful though so I hope you get a chance to stay longer.

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That evening we stayed at Hestheimar Horse Farm just outside of Hella. It was about an hour drive from Gulfoss, situated off of Highway 1. It was secluded and serene and I absolutely loved staying here. We were the only people at the main house so it felt very cozy and personal. After grabbing dinner in nearby Hella (about a 10-minute drive) we changed into pajamas and the complimentary robes and played cards and drank wine in the dining room. We watched the horses through the window and listened to the wind howl outside. It’s one of my favorite memories from the trip. (For reference on daylight hours, the picture of Adam below was taken at 10 pm!)

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IMG_3169They have over 160 horses on the farm and are always up for a ride. We mentioned the next morning at breakfast that we’d like to go out for an hour and they were ready to go less than an hour later. It was just Adam and me (his first real ride!) and again, it was very special. I love horses and this was a priority for me.

As for the timing of the Golden Circle, which was something that I was very curious about, on average, it takes about 6 hours or so, stops included. We left Reykjavik at 9:30 and stopped at Reykjavik Roasters for a coffee and breakfast before hitting the road. We arrived at Hestheimar around 6:00. So, about 8 hours? If you are returning to Reykjavik, as many do, then it might take less time. If you have gorgeous weather, then this might take more. I would definitely plan a full day for the tour.

I’ll be sharing the next big day of our road trip next week!