Europe 2018

Brianna & I left for Iceland on Friday, September 28!  If you’d like to catch-up on our adventure, this is the site for you.  We posted blog updates on the daily(ish).

If you’re interested in seeing some pretty pictures, there’s a direct Instagram link at the bottom of this page (you don’t need an Instagram account to see our pictures). We did our best to capture all of the fantastic moments of Brianna and I’s first trip to Europe together.

We visited: Iceland, Bob & Rachel, Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart, Switzerland, Bruges, and Amsterdam.

Leaving Day

If you think it’s impossible to sell a house, move into a new place, and take a trip to Europe, all in the same month… you are sorely mistaken!

The hardest part of our month starts today 😉

The Day We Landed in Iceland

If we’ve learned anything about traveling, it’s to expect the unexpected and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Eventually, shit goes sideways.  That’s why it didn’t really shock me when the TSA agent in Detroit said that the body X-ray found something unusual hidden in the general region of my crotch.  I was even able to laugh as they vigorously patted down and grabbed me. They’d eventually go on to tell me that something in my pants had tested positive for explosive residue.  Thankfully, a retest cleared me and they were able to send me on my way; such is the traveling way.

The planning we did and didn’t do played heavily into the general success of our first day in Iceland here.  Our original plans were to hit the Blue Lagoon hot spring immediately after landing, to give us something to do before our hotel room could be checked into.  We changed that plan a bunch of times and put it off until the point where only evening reservations were still available.  In practice, our indecision was rewarded with a blue lagoon sunset and dinner that we wouldn’t have otherwise been a part of.

The Blue Lagoon gets a bad rap for two main reasons:  the cement pool is man made and it’s super popular.  Both of these things are true.  If private hot springs are your thing, there are many natural options with fewer people.  For us, two introverts, the Blue Lagoon was still a good time.  There is enough space to get away from everyone else and the smooth cement bottom makes it easy to float around and explore.  It was super crowded though, and I did accidentally hold the hand of am elderly Japanese man under the water while Brianna and I were waiting in line for a beer.  It’s all good, accidental hand holding happens. All three of us has a good laugh.

What is there to say about Reykjavík so far?  

-It’s is a modern city, not medieval. Don’t come here expecting a Paris or London like experience.

-The locals are the nicest RBFs you’ll ever meet.  Almost all Icelanders have resting bitch face syndrome, but will bend over backwards to help when help is needed. 

-There are miles and miles of jaggedly unforgiving volcanic rocks.  (Incoming game of thrones reference) one part of the island looks like Dragonstone, while another part of the island is literally where north of the wall scenes were filmed.

We’re going to try and climb a mountain tomorrow if the weather holds up.

The Day We Hiked to the Steinn

We only hiked up to the Esja Steinn!? Yep. Like everything else in life, time and weather make fools of us all. The original plan of doing our hiking on Monday had to change because of 100% rainy forecast. One unfortunate difference between a Monday and a Sunday in Iceland is that Sundays run fewer buses and our plan pretty much relied upon the use of public transportation.  We made it to the mountain range without any problems, just didn’t have enough time to do the entire 4-5 hour loop hike.

Esja trails were unsurprisingly busy, littered with all sorts of tourist and locals alike.  There were hikers with fully energized schnauzers, hikers with exhausted Rottweilers, and even a few hikers with kids who’d hang their heads upside down and drink straight from the rivers teat.

The hike itself was both challenging and beautiful.  Climbing higher unlocked an amazing view of the countryside in one direction and a continuously clearer awe striking picture of the layered mountains and peaks from the other directions. Hiking has become a sort of home for us in and of itself. Wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, we want to hike and we want to hike more. We enjoy the challenge of a steep climb but are also just as happy if it’s a flat walk. We like to push a fast pace but don’t have any problems taking a little time to smell… the volcanic rock.

The by and far best part of the day was that we didn’t get lost.  Wandering mindfully doesn’t always mean we know where the hell we are, were, or are going. 

Dinner for the night happened at a “sushi train” restaurant.  Instead of having to order big sushi rolls, smaller sushi plates spin by on a conveyor belt in the middle of the table as you hang out.  Grab what you want to eat and ignore everything else.  Pretty fucking genius.

Having spent last night at the English pub, we had to try out the Drunken Rabbit tonight (Irish pub).  It might seem silly to spend time at these kind of pubs while in Iceland, it’s really not though.  The Drunken Rabbit has a 2-for-1 Sunday night Strongbow special – original Strongbow.  Process that shit!

The Day We Did the Lava Tunnel and Hot Dog.

Our day started out with a touch of regret. We really wanted to hit up the Golden Circle tour but decided against it because of forecast, 50mph wind & rain.  The regret turned to gratitude as we walked out the door for our Lava Tunnel tour and were greeted with a face full of cold weather. We had made the right call.

Tour buses in Iceland are pretty painless. The businesses want you there and appreciate how much you’ve paid to get there.  If you don’t know, even the cheap stuff in Iceland is expensive. From what we were told, they have to import all of the things and then tax the crap out of it.

Neither of us can sleep on an airplane but have zero trouble snoozing out on a bus. We awoke about 30 minutes into the ride and found ourselves in a different world.  The rain had turned to snow and the wind was pounding the side of the bus to the point where it felt like we were going to tip over. The thing about wind in Iceland is that it comes in from every direction.  The bus was getting blown toward the ditch at the same time it was getting blown toward oncoming traffic… maybe that’s why neither actually happened.

There are so many cool things to say about the lava tunnel that it’s hard to choose what to share. We’re not geologists so we can skip the science lesson.  Probably the most interesting thing about the lava tunnel that I can confidently share is not something you’d probably read about in many other places.  Our tour guide told us that ALL lava tunnel tours now require guides.  This is because people would throw rocks at the ceiling for the purpose of breaking off souvenirs.  People are dicks. Also, the lava tunnels have a problem with trash.  Apparently, Icelanders will dump old couches and cars into holes.  See, it’s not just Americans, crazy people be everywhere.  It makes sense though, right?  Lava tunnels are normal to Icelanders, throwing shit into a hole, however pretty it might be, it isn’t a big deal.  In America, it’d be the equivalent of throwing trash into a forest.  Trees and wildlife aren’t a big deal to us because they’re normal.

THE BEST part of the lava tunnel was when the tour guide turned all the lights off.  I don’t think that I’ve ever experienced absolute darkness before today. Absolute darkness is liberating, it’s terrifying, it’s something I would recommend. The porous lava rocks don’t reflect light or sound.  We never planned on taking this particular tour, now it’s my favorite.  Checkout a lava tunnel if you ever have the chance.

We returned to the hotel after our lava tunnel tour, wet and tired. What did we do? Visit the Big Lebowski bar, of course! The pictures we’ve posted on instagram do it more justice that I can with words, check em out:  We also went on a successful/fail hunt for a local retro arcade bar.  Successful in that we found where it was, fail in that it was locked up and indefinitely closed.

Our evening capped off with a nap and a hot dog.  Napping is important when you’re traveling; an impossible pressure to do and see everything exists.  Sometimes you have to just accept that sleep is a necessary thing.  After our nap, we shared an epic hot dog!  We went on a walkabout town and ran into a restaurant called, Street Dog. Brianna had been saying that we needed to try a local hot dog, so we did, and she was right (as usual).  The Street Dog proprietor made us an Icelandic hot dog with the works, and even let us borrow some of his cups to try a drink.  We heard about a thing that Icelandic people do over Christmas, drink a malt extract & Applesin mix, and he was kind enough to tell us how to try it out. The hot dog was made out of lamb and tasted like actual meat. The drink was kind of a sweet & fruity meets dry & malty soda mix. We highly recommend trying both this place and drink thing (which is actually called jólaöl).  Chatting with the hot dog man was like having a conversation with Brianna’s dad, Mel, minus the beard :-).

We stumbled onto a random comedy club on the way back from the hotel and decided to check it out.  We were a little early for the show, but it was happy hour so we decided to drop in anyway.  The actual show was less a comedy act and more a dude playing semi-funny songs on the guitar and making fun of Don Trump.  While we both appreciated laughs at the expense of our current president, we ditched out a little early in search of some dinner/drunk food.

The last food on Brianna’s wishlist to try was lcelandic street food, a.k.a lamb or shellfish soup.   Our soup had more meat than potatoes and carrots, which seemed unusual, and they gave unlimited refills with as much fresh baked bread as you could eat.  Aside from the general RBF culture, we didn’t really have many bad customer service experiences while in Iceland.  Our  hole in the wall Icelandic Street Food diner was definitely best of the best though, well, probably  tied with the hot dog guy anyway.

The Morning We Left Iceland

Iceland is the first of many reminders that even though we are leaving a country, there are still hundreds of Iceland sites left unseen, thousands of trails and mountains left unhiked – known limitations of our trip. A full two weeks wouldn’t have been enough either. 

Here are a few final thoughts on the Icelandic leg of our epic trip:

1.) We never used any of the local currency, Icelandic króna – ISK. I tried to pull out some currency when we first arrived and it failed.  Luckily, we had read beforehand that currency isn’t really necessary in Iceland, and it’s true.  All of the shops and diners had mobile credit card machines that made transactions fast and easy.

2.) RBF (resting bitch face) is real, it just doesn’t really mean much. Check out the picture I posted with this entry.  It’s a street mural capturing a group of Icelandic locals as they hang in the street?  Anyway, only two of them are smiling.  The guy in the middle has a smile, but everyone else seems to creeped out by him.  He also looks American.  The second person smiling is the lady in the lower-left, and her smile is pretty fucking terrifying.  

3.) Reykjavík is easy to navigate. Much of everything worth seeing is within walking distance and the bus system was pretty hassle free if you’re not in the mood for renting a car or hiring a taxi. We might rent a car the next time we come out, for flexibility and exploration purposes – the roads are in decent shape and traffic was more like a Lansing than it was like a Chicago.

4.) There are a shit ton of tourists in Iceland.  We read an article that said the tourists outnumber the natives 7-1 in the summer months.  October was a good month for us to pick, ratio might have only been 2-1.

5.)  Many bars stay open til 0400 and almost all have live entertainment.  The performers were Icelandic, as far as we could tell, but sang only English tunes.

6.) Free Wi-Fi is everywhere in Reykjavik: bars, hotels, coffee shops, tour buses, super markets, and hot dog stands. Everywhere.

The Evening We Arrived in Germany

The flight into Frankfurt was pretty smooth until it came time to pick up baggage claim.  Apparently, major airports have separate rooms for baggage claims, and once you go into a wrong room… there is not an easy way for getting back to the right room.  We were able to bounce from Korean airlines to the information desk, where they” kind lady pointed us to the correct door.  Once at the correct door, we picked up a solitary black phone and explained our situation.  We were told to walk back into the secure area and pick up our bags.  The process seemed pretty lackluster on the security side, but we got our bags and went along our way.

Rachel picked us up and we were finally able to meet the newest addition to their family, Arabella! It has been an evening of resupply for the soul.  Spending time with some of the ones we love the most makes Germany feel very much like home.

The best part about tomorrow is that Rachel and Bob have made all the plans.  Brianna and I don’t have to worry about where we’re going or what we’re doing. That being said, I think the plan is to visit a castle, drink German beer, and eat German food. WIN.

The Day We Went to Burg Eltz Castle

Being amongst old friends has its perks; we woke up around 0730 this morning and didn’t have a care in the world. I rolled out of Bob & Rachel’s super comfortable downstairs guest bed thinking that all I wanted was a cup of coffee, I was wrong. What I really wanted was to make a hot cup of coffee and place a stroopwafel on top of it. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. A stoopwafel is a kind of caramel glazed breakfast biscuit.  The heat from the coffee softens and melts the sugary stroopwafel into quite a heavenly treat.  Those with an adventurous spirit might even dare to dip it into their coffee!

After fattening up on some homemade biscuits and gravy breakfast (I’ve probably gained a good amount of lbs on this trip already), we hit the road for Burg Eltz castle.  The drive was about an hour and a half, with the first hour on the autobahn and the last half hour comprised of mostly farm roads that were completely void of people.  Little did Brianna and I know, today is Unification day, a German holiday to celebrate German reunification in 1990. The holiday wouldn’t normally mean much if anything to us, but today it meant that Burg Eltz castle would be abnormally crowded for what would have otherwise been a quiet Wednesday.  

The castle itself is unlike most others I have seen in that it is completely hidden within a secluded valley. The nature of it’s hidden location isn’t one of the main reasons that this castles is still completely in tact and so many other similar castles are nothing more than ruins and speculation. The Eltz family were politically connected social science geniuses.

What was the first thing we did upon arriving to the castle?  Eat food of course!  Brianna and I had our own German pretzels and split a schnitzel between the both of us.  The pretzel looked divine, but only after biting into it did we realize that there was a hidden buttery surprise inside.  It’s not a huge secret that I’ve largely cut meats and dairy out of my normal everyday diet.  I do believe that indulging in culturally different foods is important, probably just as important as visiting castles and cathedrals.  Food has the ability to bridge gaps in both time and space, it can bring people together or split them apart.  Understanding what people eat and why is essential to putting together the pieces of who they are and how they got there.  Food pictures are some of the most fun things to share via Instagram because pretty much everyone can relate to them in one way or another.

Holiday traffic was high, and as a result, there were no English speaking tours being offered today. We were given an English translated pamphlet to read while the German tour guides spoke their Germanic scripts.  It worked well for me because of my tendency to space out during guided tours.  Instead of wondering what I missed, I just reread the pamphlet and refreshed myself on what was going on in that particular castle room.  

The Burg Eltz castle is really well maintained, definitely worth the trip into the country. Some European castles are for show and others for function, Eltz definitely leans more towards function in that the family used it’s trade-route location to secure multi-century long political and strategic relevance. 

We returned home from the castle for a little bit of modern fun.  The kids had some prescheduled sports activities that were pretty special for us to be able to sit in on and support.  

Tomorrow, we head to some pretty serious Stuttgart festival fun.  Wish us… luck? 🙂

The Day We Did Cannstatter Volksfest

Our day started out lazy, again.  Everyone else went to bed reasonably early last night, 10-1030pm, while I stayed awake and drank all of Bob’s German beer.  I was four beers deep by the time I noticed that each beer was 7.9%.  By that point it was too late, so I did the only thing I knew how to do: opened another beer and veraciously attacked a box of goldfish crackers, fistfuls at a time. 

The morning was a little more difficult than yesterday, knowing we’d be leaving our friends behind for this next piece of our adventure.  When Brianna first brought up the idea of leaving Bob and Rachel’s a day early, I wasn’t a fan.  Half of the reason for our trip was to see our friends and I didn’t want to cut that short.  She was kind enough to remind me that the other half of the reason for our trip was to hit a German beerfest type event, and Volksfest would be our best chance. It took me a minute but was eventually able to agree.  Besides, it wasn’t like we were saying goodbye to Bob and Rachel, we were saying, “see you in Switzerland.”

^Brianna was right, as it should be^

Before departing on our first German train, the four of us spent a few hours exploring downtown Weisbaden. Rachel took us to her favorite lunch place, Ratskellar, where we each had our own sweet mustard schnitzel & pretzel. Yes, we do know that there’s much more to German food than pretzels and schnitzels, but when one of your best friends tells you to try out one of her most favoritest foods in the world, you fucking try it. Rachel has street cred.  And yes, it was every bit as good as she said it would be.

After some light souvenir shopping and a brief stroll through the park, we said “see ya in Switzerland” to our BFFs and hopped onto the 1424 to Stuttgart via Mainz. Even though this was far from my first European train ride, I shared more than a little of Brianna’s trepidation. It’s been 11 years since my last visit to Europe and smart phones weren’t a thing back then.  This time around, all of our train tickets are digital / on our phones.  Luckily for us, everything was just as easy as we had needed it to be.  We’re basically pros now (remember I said that when things go sideways in any number of our half dozen upcoming train trips).

Stuttgart is a busy industrial type town with a lot of construction that threw us for a loop as we attempted to navigate our way out of the train station.  I would say that Stuttgart is a bit like Detroit in that there is a lot of automotive manufacturing, but that’s as far as the comparison really goes.  Arriving at a train station that we’ve never been to is a pretty fun experience.  Exit to the left? To the right? Or just go straight out the main exit? Luckily for us, Brianna’s eagle eyes spotted our hotel from a park just outside the train station (we went left and then turned around and went right, zigged when we should have zagged).

The hotel’s close proximity to the train station was planned, as was the hotel’s close proximity to Cannstatter Volksfest, or so we thought.  We thought Volksfest was gonna to be a 20 minute walk from the hotel, it turned out to be more like 60. Three transportation options pretty themselves:

1.) Taxi – Nein, too expensive.

2.) The U (subway) – Nein, too unknown.

3.) Walk – Ja, we are hikers.

And so we walked.  The town was quiet with the appearance of safety for most of the hike. The hardest part of our trek was in trying to find a bridge to cross the large Neckar river that separates the part of town where our hotel was from Cannstatter. Much like the train station experience, our zig zag approach to navigation worked again.  We made what ended up being only a 40 minute walk and only had to turn around a couple of times. 

Volksfest is a large German fair-like event that could be both seen and heard as we approached.  Much like in America, there are lots of spinning rides, to include a giant Ferris wheel.  There was a ride that shot people up, a ride that shot people down, and another that whipped them from side to side.  The swooshing sound that large carts full of people make as they pass eerily close to your head is a bit unnerving at first.  Our nerves calmed after a beer or two.  

Brianna and I wandered the fairgrounds, exploring foods and beers.  There were a lot of “beer tent” type buildings for purchasing beer, but they mostly seemed like a collection of German night clubs where the patrons would go to dance on the table and sing along to live bands.  Every place serves the same beers and we tried them all.  We drank some beers out of plastic cups while we wandered, others we drank out of proper pint glasses and steins.  The trick with drinking out of glass cups was that they would give you return tokens and charge a 2 Euro deposit per glass.  We almost stole a couple glasses, as buying a mug for 2 Euro is pretty much impossible, but we ended up deciding against it.

Of the food we ate, there isn’t much to say other than YUM!  We split foods to ensure we could continue eating all night long without getting full.  Yeah, it’s called, “fat kid teamwork.” The chicken seemed simple enough at first glance, but it really was cooked perfectly to the point where the meat just slid off the bones.  It reminded me a lot of aunt Kris’s beer butt chicken, which is really a compliment to both aunt Kris and the German people.

Of the beer we drank, my favorite was probably the Weizen-Russ; sourly deliciousness.  The most interesting beers were the radlers.  These were beers mixed with various other ingredients, like lemonade, ginger beer, or Sprite.  Radlers weren’t my favorite tasting beers but they did rank high on the new experience chart.

I never thought I’d be writing to tell everyone that Brianna and I closed down Volksfest, but we did.  We were sitting at a table with fresh Malteser Kristall Weizen beers when a large German security guard yelled something at us that we really had no chance of understanding.  It didn’t make sense that the fest would be closing at 11pm, but who are we to argue with large German security guards? 

It wasn’t that late and we weren’t that drunk, so we decided to try our luck with navigating the U, their subway system.  In a normal situation, we would have been able to look at maps and figure out what train to get on. This was not a normal situation.  Do you know what happens when a beerfest closes down?  All the drunk people go home.  We managed to buy tickets for what we thought might be where we should go, not that anyone would check those tickets – the trains were shoulder-to-shoulder packed. 

The train car was hot, muggy, and smelled like old beer, but we both managed a smile in each other’s direction as the train began moving in the right direction.  If you’re wandering what could make this kind of a subway experience even more uncomfortable, it’s when more people get in your train car and everyone starts to sing loudly in a language you don’t understand.  It was actually a lot like the time I took the London Underground home after England beat Germany 5-1 in a World Cup match. We decided to exit the train early, right about the same time I started to smell a hint of vomit in the air.  The stop we jumped off at was just a half mile shy of the hotel, so the whole subway experience did give us a little help and a lot of story.

If we don’t get lost and/or confused, then we’re probably not on an adventure, right? 😀

Stuttgart, it was our pleasure!  Next up, Switzerland!

The Day We Arrived in Switzerland

There is a big difference between a low-cost backpacking trip through Europe and what we are doing.  It’s not that we are paying very much for our hotels, it’s just that the experience gap between a cheap hotel breakfast and a bed in a hostel is, well, significant. The breakfast spread this morning was the best yet, I even tried liver sausage for the first time. Eating a mouthful of liver sausage seemed a little less gross after Brianna let me know it was more like a cheese spread and not meant to be eaten alone.  

Today’s Switzerland leg of our adventure found us hopping on a train to Zurich and making a switch into Lenzburg.  None of the trains were properly marked, we made them on time anyway.  Lenzburg was not our final destination but the train options ended there because of maintenance work on the railroad tracks.  Remember when I said the trains weren’t marked properly? Neither were the buses.  Brianna and I managed to buy the correct tickets for our final destination, Beinwil Am See, we just had no way of knowing what bus we needed to board.  

More than anything else, I’m really happy with how Brianna and I have handled traveling plans as they go to Hell. We tell each other when we think the other is wrong and we haven’t yelled or gotten into a fight.  It’s almost like our travel relationship is an example of how the US government should work – semi-dispassionate checks, balances, and results that make sense.

Our AirBnB bedroom window looks directly out onto the lake Halwilersee.  The house we’re renting sits atop a ridge in such a way that no other houses can be seen, just a beautiful lake and a field full of grazing cows.  If you sit quietly in our room with the lights off, you might just hear one of the cow bells ringing as they walk up and down the hill in search of food.

Probably the funniest moments of the day took place on our grocery shopping trip.  The plan was to secure supplies for a breakfast, a dinner, and some modest drinking of local beers.  We achieved the afore mentioned goals, just not in the way we would have preferred.  Instead of taking us to a proper grocery store, the gps landed us at a gas station / mini-mart by the same name as what we were looking for.  There are 8 of us here in total, 4 kids & 4 adults, so it shouldn’t be super shocking when I say that we had multiple baskets of crap to buy.

Problem 1: We didn’t speak the lady’s language.  She spoke some combination of French, German, and Italian.  We are not fluent in any of these languages.

Problem 2: There was only one attendant working.  A line of people quickly formed behind us.  

Solutions: Buy a load of supplies, carry it back to the car, buy another load of things as the line died back down.  It could have been really embarrassing.  Traveling has a way of expanding the amount of shame one can take before it starts to adversely affect them.  That’s where we are at today and it worked to our advantage.

For dinner, Brianna had some local chicken wings while I devoured an oversized meatball and fries.  Some cultural experiences are more universal than others 😎

Tomorrow we’re off to Alpnachstad for a mountain adventure!