Arctic Adventures

arcticadventureswedenWhy are you doing this?” was the recurring question… from my mom, my friends, everyone. “Well, isn’t it obvious? It’s romantic!” I replied. “A long walk on the beach is romantic, being in the middle of nowhere by freezing temperatures is not, you’re crazy,” ok, so I’m crazy big deal, what’s new. But I maintain that it is romantic. Romantic in the literary sense, with images of frozen landscapes and eternal sunsets, reindeer meat smoked over a fire while sleddogs yap in the distance. Jack London, Nils Holgersson, Knud Rasmussen, great arctic explorers with nothing in view but white plains under white skies. I was not worried by the cold or the fact that I am a klutz with zero camping experience, dogsledding was a childhood fantasy I was going to fulfill no matter what. Maybe I should have worried a little more…

Kiruna, Arctic Outpost

The first book my father read to me was The Adventures of Nils Holgersson, by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, which was the steppingstone to a lifelong pursuit of literary happiness. My favorite character in the story was the head wild goose Akka who came from Kebnekaise, the mountain that towers over the city of Kiruna and the highest in Sweden. Arriving there in the noon sunset, flying over the majestic silver lands, made me feel like I was a wild goose myself. I almost forgot how afraid I am of flying… or how there was basically no landing strip, just solid snow.

kirunaKiruna is a very interesting place, the northernmost town in Sweden, founded in 1900 around the largest iron ore mine in the world, which provides work for most of the population. From the distance in the darkness, it looks like a massive cruise ship, wrecked on a hill, and leaves a rather eerie impression. Parts of the town have recently been destroyed and rebuilt, or sometimes simply moved, to follow the iron ore deposits. It is truly fascinating to me that humans would go and settle in such a remote and uncomfortable place: our capacity of adaptation never ceases to amaze me. It’s even more impressive to imagine that the indigenous Sami People have been living in the area for over 6000 years, braving the cold with nothing but reindeer skins and tents. And it is cold: on average -20°C (-6°F) in the winter. My very informed hipster friends told me it would be 25°C (75°F) over there, because of global warming, and that I would be “the last person to see snow in the Arctic Circle”. You betcha. It was -40°, my dear friends, because climate change actually makes this part of the world even colder. So, yeah, I saw plenty of snow.

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A Frozen Palace

Although Kiruna is a remote, extreme place, tourism is far from scarce, the town has been attracting mainly Scandinavian tourists since its founding, largely because of its surroundings which offer incredible natural sites practically untouched by the human hand. The Swedes are great with ecotourism and ensure that even the dumbest foreigners won’t soil and disrespect the grand Lappish grounds. Since 1990, a whole new fauna of tourists have been flocking to Kiruna to admire the magnificent IceHotel, the first of its kind in the world, basically a huge igloo with rooms decorated by international artists with various ice and snow sculptures, all more breathtaking than the next.

peacockThe IceHotel is located in Jukkasjärvi, a village near Kiruna on the banks of the Torne River, from which the ice material for building the hotel is harvested every year. Although some might see it as a “tourist trap”, the mere fact that they go through all the trouble of creating this mesmerizing frozen palace just to see it all melt with the first rays of the April sun shows the amount of dedication and passion behind this very lucrative concept. The temperature of the hotel is kept around -5°C (23°F), which seems warm compared to outside, and though sleeping there did not tempt me one bit, I could imagine that, with the reindeer skins and all, the prospect of a pleasant night was not entirely out of the question. I never expected this place to be so moving, and yet my imagination was immediately captured by the tall sculptures that looked down at me. The IceHotel is truly a fairytale vision that conjures shadows of Norse gods in icy drinking-halls, roiled with mead in preparation for epic battles. I left there overflowing with energy and inspiration, ready to embark on my journey through the arctic wilderness.

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The Boreal Forest

This trip to the Arctic was really planned on a whim in just a couple of days. I contacted the people at Kiruna Sleddog Tours and basically said “I have no idea what I am doing and what to expect, just take care of me for three days” and they did just that. For a girl who has no experience with the rough outdoors, this was taking a big risk. We were assigned a guide, Sam the Australian musher, and it was going to be just him and the two of us in the boreal forest. He first took us to the base and gave us extra-warm clothing so we would survive the intense temperatures, and quickly we were on our way, snowmobiling in complete darkness through the taiga towards our wooden camp. I was pretty scared of the snowmobile at first and Sam tried to reassure me “it’s easier than driving a car“… well I sure hope so, I don’t drive. “Oh… well, it’s like a bicycle then“… nope, no luck there either, I can’t ride. Sam vigorously laid his two gloved paws on my shoulders, gave me a little shake and said “good luck, snow princess“.

snowmobileusBLI am proud to say now that a snowmobile is officially the only machine I can handle. I actually got pretty good at it, though I kept my speed reasonably safe. Snowmobiles are very heavy and it is not always easy to stay on the tracks… and if you don’t, you get stuck in the high snow. I believe I left the outline of my sumo-like figure somewhere in the wilderness. I actually drove past it the next day in shame, it was still there. We spent the night in the heart of the forest in a small cabin with no water and no electricity, but with great service, because Sweden is awesome. We did have a small wood stove which almost kept me warm through the night. Unfortunately there was no bathroom, but I’ll generously spare you the details. We awoke the next day in the subdued light of the arctic sunrise, surrounded by frozen trees and shimmering snow. We were offered an iconic breakfast of Kalles Kaviar (fish roe paste in a tube) with melted cheese on Swedish flatbread. I had prepared myself not to gag, but it was actually delicious and I am sad I didn’t bring some back with me. It was perfect heavy food to fight off the cold and send us off to explore our surroundings.

reindeerBLWe were lucky to catch a glimpse of a female reindeer walking in the snow with her calf, which is pretty rare according to Sam. She was not afraid of us and completely unaware of the magical moment she provided. We quickly started ascending towards higher grounds and eventually reached a vast flat bit of land with no trees, nothing for miles, it was so calm and serene. We stopped to view the last moments of the sunset and Sam explained we were in the middle of a frozen lake. We dug through the thin layer of snow and marveled at the thick opaque ice that lay underneath us. The colored sky against the absolute whiteness that surrounded us was like nothing I’ve ever seen and is honestly very hard to describe. In the extreme weather, dressed like we were, we felt like astronauts discovering a whole new planet.

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Friends and Foes

We were driving back towards base to pick up the dogs and that’s when things started going awry… First, we had quite a scare when Sam stopped to check our faces and we realized Adrien’s cheeks and nose were completely lifeless. They had frozen so badly that his skin was discolored in big white patches. Adrien was disappointed I didn’t take a picture (boys will be boys), but I was too busy trying to rub his face back to life. Frostbite and blisters are a dangerous possibility in extreme temperatures, they are not to be shrugged off. They are vicious problems to have because they creep up on you and numb you, so you don’t even feel there’s anything wrong with you. We later found out Adrien’s fingers fell victims to the frost and he got horrible blisters from it. Nice little disgusting things for show and tell, just like he wanted.

dogWe arrived at the kennels at dark and the dogs seemed very excited to go out on a run. While they were assembling my team, I noticed that one dog, appropriately named Zulu, was very wild and trying to pick fights with all the other dogs. He was also much larger than all his companions and I am inclined to believe he had some wolf in him, by the size of his paws. I asked Sam “are you sure about that dog? is he ok?” and he replied “yeah he’s a sweetheart this one“, just as Zulu snapped at my hand with a fierce growl. Oh boy. I climbed onto the sled that was tied to a tree on a small slope. Zulu was tugging and howling like mad. Sam said “ok, I am going to untie the sled, stand on the breaks and when you are ready to go, just remove your feet to the sides“. Now sure, that was all great advice, except that Zulu had decided otherwise: even with all my weight on the breaks I had no control over them, he and the other dogs pulled the sled so hard that midway down the slope the breaks caught on a rock and I was flung headfirst into the snow, while the dogs continued into the darkness. When I came to my senses, the “I told you so” was severely burning my lips and I fought back tears of frustration. Crying by -40 is not encouraged.

dogsled1They quickly reassembled a new team for me, with much nicer dogs, and, though I was scared now, I knew that if I didn’t get right back on that sled I would probably just give up. My courage was not in vain, we scurried through the forest, lit only by my headlamp and lo and behold, we were transported straight to fairyland. I have never seen anything like it: absolutely everything in sight was covered in frost and glittered with a thousand twinkling elvish lights. It was so majestic and surreal, I forgot how cold it was and just kept on and on, completely awestruck. And that’s when it happened. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my brain and my eyesight was leaving me, I thought I was going to faint. We barely made it to the lavvu tent, where I slowly came back to my senses with a cup of tea by the fire. What happened is that my metal headlamp got so cold against my skin that it froze my brain. It was a very scary feeling. Luckily the lavvu, a traditional Sami tent coated with reindeer skins, was surprisingly cosy and warm even by -40 outside. I can still smell the smoked reindeer leather on my hat and scarf and it instantly takes me back like a magic.

sunset4It was the last day and we had not seen the northern lights. In my heart, I had secretly given up on them so as not to be too disappointed… but as we came out of the lavvu there was a faint glow in the sky, like a big flattened arch. Very faint, almost invisible, but it was there! We had seen the northern lights. Trying to be content with that, we drove back to base on our snowmobiles, tired and sort of relieved that it was all over. We were crossing a big white field when my snowmobile got out of control -I couldn’t turn anymore- and I violently drove it off track where it got buried under a big pile of snow. We all had to stop to dig it out and that’s when the most wonderful thing happened: we realized that behind us this entire time were the most epic northern lights in all their splendor. Good thing I am such a klutz.

adrienauroresI am surely not going to attempt a description of the northern lights. It’s true what they say, it’s incredible and you have to see it with your own eyes, at least once in your life. We were ecstatic, dancing and rolling around in the snow, yawping like simpletons, singing whatever came to mind. A moment of pure euphoria. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined anything like what I saw. We stayed out under the lights as long as we could without being turned into ice. That evening we were invited to dine with the mushers, a great honor as we were the only outsiders, but I couldn’t focus, my head was full of northern lights, I even introduced myself as Adrien. But it didn’t matter, nothing did besides the intense happiness I was feeling.

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You can never come back

That night during dinner there was nothing but rosy cheeks and laughter. A perfect ending to a great adventure. Being surrounded by all these brave men and women from different countries and continents, all united by a passion for frozen wilderness, made me feel warm and special. I was an insider now. Part of me is still stuck behind in the smokiness of that lavvu tent. Yes, you see, that’s the problem. You can never come back. Once you’ve seen such beauty where do you go from there? Home? This journey was so fabulous, so unexpected and so epic that I feel like the returning heroes of medieval poetry: in between worlds. Not quite here nor there. Just suspended in haunting sensations and forever changed. Coming back from traveling is always a little difficult, but the readaptation in this case is very different and honestly quite brutal. I’m not there yet. Oh, of course, the feeling will eventually settle -doesn’t everything?- but I know I will never wash the smoke smell from that scarf and I will keep sniffing it when no one is watching. I will keep conjuring the green light and sparkling snow like a revered prayer when I close my eyes at night.

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What to wear in extreme temperatures

  • Forget about cotton, it will actually keep you cold and wet, which is the last thing you want. You should favor wool or synthetic materials like polar fleece.
  • You must use the onion method and add lots of layers, but keep them rather loose. Tight clothing is not recommended.
  • The most important piece of clothing is the under-layer. You need two-piece long johns made out of 100% wool, merino wool being the best. It’s pretty expensive, but trust me, you need it.
  • Hands and feet are the first candidates for frostbite. Wear  two layers of socks (I had my first layer 100% wool and my second 70% wool) and two layers of gloves (one thin 100% wool glove and one specialized mitten for extreme cold).
  • Get some good snow shoes like Sorel for example. Get them at least one size too big to leave room for the think socks and movement: you will be wiggling your toes to keep them warm.
  • You must also have a fur or wool hat (I had an old fox fur shapka that I wore over a polyester beanie) and a balaclava (mine was not made of wool and it kept getting frozen because of my breath, so try and buy one made of wool).
  • Over the long johns, wear sweaters and waterproof pants, a wool scarf and the best parka you can find, preferably with real fur trim on the hood because it keeps much warmer. A coat stuffed with down is always recommended, though pricey.
  • Leave your skinny jeans and converse at home, don’t be silly.
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Zealand, Kingdom by the Sea

Denmark blogWhat did I know about Denmark? It’s cold, dark and austere, they eat weird fish stuff, they are all freakishly blond and talk funny, and apparently their government is perfect and Bernie Sanders can’t shut up about them. Happiest country on earth? Perhaps, but it seemed far-fetched. I had planned to spend about five days there and was thinking to myself “Ugh, I am going to be so bored”. Usually nothing excites me more than discovering a new country, but this time I was unforgivably jaded. Possibly overworked. Exhausted. Maybe even a little depressed. Actually, I really knew absolutely nothing about Denmark. And it turned out to be exactly what the doctor prescribed: a fairy-draft of fresh air and freedom, and a voyage into a land of undisturbed beauty and revered tranquility.

Hundested : A Fisherman’s Cottage

I arrived on Zealand jet-lagged out of my mind and starving. We rented a car and drove straight to the fisherman’s town of Hundested where I had rented a tiny traditional Scandinavian cottage, by the oldest village of the area. Why Hundested? No idea, I picked it completely by chance… and ended up in paradise, far from anything remotely catering to foreigners. Located in the Northern part of the island, the town gets its name from the many seals that hang out by the shore (in Danish they call seals “sea-dogs”, hence the word *hund, cognate with “hound”) and becomes a bustling harbor in the summer season, when the Danes are lured by its beautiful sandy beaches. In October though, it was completely deserted. I was alone, surrounded by apple orchards, contemplating the entrancing stillness of the North Sea.

applesThe impatient growling of my grumpy stomach interrupted my reverie. I had to find a place to eat, although it was late and I was in what seemed to be a ghost town… Luckily the Halsnæs Bryghus was still open: a cozy Danish brewery that serves simple, traditional cuisine. I sleepily pointed to the blackboard specials and was served a plate of marinated black herring and fish cakes surrounded by a colorful garnish of giant capers and bright pink onions. In a basket were very neatly arranged triangles of rugbrød, the black rye bread that would become my culinary staple for the next few days. From the bar, that was carved directly into a wooden boat, I ordered their house-brewed beer, light and tangy. I dozed off on the car ride back, wondering why my meal had been so pleasant. Surely this must be an exception… I mean, this is Denmark after all.

Prince of Denmark

I woke at dawn, burdened with jet lag yet invigorated by a night spent in the coolness of a few dying embers. I had a frugal breakfast of freshly picked apples while I strolled on the grey beach, planning my day. The first stop was the very predictable Kronborg Castle in the town of Helsingør, immortalized by Shakespeare as Hamlet’s castle of Elsinore. It has been standing, opposite to what is now Sweden, at the extreme northeastern tip of the island since the XVth century. I arrived at the site on a cold, foggy and altogether tragic-looking day to the shrill barking of rather aggressive seagulls. There was definitely something rotten in the state of Denmark.

hamlet kronborgThe “Hamlet Tour” was about to start and a costumed Horatio appeared in the courtyard. He took us through the castle dramatically pointing out the locations where the story takes place, bringing the play to life, which was totally thrilling to a Shakespeare-addict like me. I had never realized how precise he was with his descriptions: most scholars agree that he gathered all the details about Kronborg from troops of traveling actors that had come to perform for the Danish court… it is possible that Shakespeare himself might have made the trip there. The Feasting Hall where the final scene takes place is very impressive. Originally it was decorated with 100 tapestries of the king’s “ancestors” (real, legendary and some just completely made up) and the royal couple sat underneath a stunning canopy decorated with a whole array of symbolic details. Seeing this masterpiece was the highlight of my day. Shakespeare also accurately describes the famous Danish “Gunpowder Toast”: every time the king raised his glass, a drummer next to him would drum to alert the trumpets on the roof who would sound to alert the canons who would then fire away. Every time. Talk about quiet dining.

canopyThere is so much fascinating history about Kronborg Castle that I couldn’t even attempt to relate it all here, but the anecdote I found most amusing pertained to the life of King Erik, who first ordered the construction of the castle. Near the end of his reign, his subjects were less than happy with him and decided to depose him… King Erik was so upset about it that he just left and became a pirate instead. Yes, a king who became a pirate. How cool is that. The last part of my visit was going down into the casemates and the foundations of the castle. Only scarcely lit by torches, this subterranean realm is a fascinating labyrinth, the resting place of the legendary Holger Danske, war-leader of the Danes, materialized as an awesome statue by artist Hans Pedersen-Dan. If the kingdom of Denmark will ever be in peril, Holger Danske the Giant will wake up and save the day. Just like Jesus.

Apples, Ships and Vikings

My second day on the island brought a great deal of excitement: Vikings! When I said I knew nothing of Denmark, that was not completely accurate… I didn’t know much about modern Denmark, but Vikings and Norse mythology, I knew very well. With a passion. I discovered this interest while studying Anglo-Saxon literature in college and writing my Bachelor’s thesis on Beowulf. Research indicates that the main story of the poem takes place in Lejre, the area I was about to visit. In the poem there is also an example of a Viking-style ship burial, which deeply entranced my imagination and has already led me to seek out Sutton Hoo as part of my travels (see blog post).

vikingsRoskilde, the former capital of Denmark, was founded in the 11th century by Harald Bluetooth and quickly became one of the most important cultural and political centers of the Viking Age (By the way, the “Bluetooth” system was named after him, because he “unified” Denmark and Norway. The Bluetooth symbol is made of his initials, the Runic letter ior.svg & Runic letter berkanan.svg runes). That’s where the Viking Ship Museum is, home to five 11th century Viking ships excavated in 1962 from the Roskilde Fjord. They had been intentionally filled with rocks and sunk in preparation for an attack, which possibly never occurred. These ships were precious troves of information for archaeologists and helped develop their understanding of Viking maritime history. They are indeed very impressive to behold and I was very moved by their powerful and dignified presence. After the visit, I continued my journey wandering around the harbor where a reconstruction of a Viking longboat, the “Sea Stallion from Glendalough”, was moored among thousands of shimmering jellyfish. In good weather, it could probably outsail most modern ships and contain about a hundred people, making it a true masterpiece of naval engineering.

longboatWhile I was there, a few experimental archaeologists were working on a new boat and I was invited to watch. In a parallel life, that’s exactly what I would have dedicated my life to. Opposite the harbor stands the Cafe Knarr, which essentially serves cuisine inspired by the Viking Age, with only local ingredients, very close to the way people would have eaten in the 11th century. I had a beautiful smoked salmon sandwich with those marinated pink onions I love so much and was served a tall glass of oak mead, which was a delicious discovery. More please.

After my trip through the Viking Age, I traveled further back in time into the Iron Age: the Kingdom of Lejre was an important historic and legendary center, from which grew what was to become medieval Denmark. Scholars are very confident in identifying the literary Heorot (Hrothgar’s mead-hall in Beowulf) with Lejre, where examples of similar halls were excavated. It had been a dream of mine for years now to go and explore this land of legends and take in its very special energy. It is, in my opinion, the most stunningly beautiful part of Zealand, with apple trees galore and pheasants playing hide and seek in the bushes. The autumn light endowed this place with a soft magical mist, giving it an aura of suspended time. I felt peaceful and happy to be alive.

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Trees and Rocks

I had heard that not too far from Hundested stood the ancient forest of Jægerspris Nordskov, and, at its center, Kongeegen, the Tree King, one of the oldest oaks in Europe, estimated to be between 1500 and 2000 years old. There was no way I was going to travel to Denmark and not pay my homage to His Majesty the Tree. It takes about an hour and a half to reach him on foot and, naturally, everyone was suggesting I go there by bike. I kept nodding and smiling, artfully concealing the fact that I don’t know how to ride a bicycle to save my life. In Denmark that’s completely unheard of. Newborn babes ride out of the womb on bikes. To them I am a monstrosity. The last time I rode one of these two-wheeled devilries I almost drowned. Don’t ask. But, of course, as there are no limits to my stupidity and recklessness, I said, “sure, why not, let’s bike there”. To be honest, I probably could have managed better if the bicycle I rented had brakes. Which it didn’t. Here is a picture of little old me before I was covered in dirt, blood and gravel. See how proud I look? Well, that didn’t last.

bike2After multiple falls and frights, my howls of pain disrupting the suspended serenity of the misty forest and scaring a few poor pheasants, who were just minding their own business, I finally arrived at my destination. And it was worth every scratch and bruise. There he was, inside a round fence, his frail and featherless boughs bent over sturdy crutches, Grandfather Oak, the King of the forest. This huge, epic, Ent-like tree was split in half, stretching its black wily branches in every direction, still proud, like a grand Scandinavian baobab. It was very moving to imagine all the things this tree had seen, the Vikings that had revered it as Thor’s sacred shrine and the countless generations of birds that had dwelt in its leafy nooks.

kingoakThis day’s adventures were not over. After ditching the infernal bicycle and retrieving my four-wheeled chariot, my heart was set on finding Carlsstenen, a very elusive 5000-year old dolmen that used to be featured on the 5 Kronen banknote. In the vicinity of Frederiksværk, it is located on a private property near the farmland of a stately mansion, but apparently they don’t mind if a few polite visitors go check it out. Of course, I didn’t know that and there was no living soul I could ask… nor was there even the slightest sign indicating its location, so I followed an incorrigibly vague red dot on Google maps. I spent what seemed like hours pushing my way through cornfields and nettles. I had decided to try my luck by entering a forest where an arrow was painted on a rock. Not very convincing, but hey, that’s all I had. I searched the woods and found nothing. It was getting dark fast and uneasy fancies of being chased by wolves started to form in my mind. I was about to give up when I emerged, with smudged mascara and twigs in my hair, right in front of the Lord of the estate and his three hunting dogs. Luckily, he pointed me in the right direction, which ended up being just a few steps behind the mansion. Clearly the Norse gods were messing with me that day. I always had a feeling Loki would take an interest in me. The nice man seemed very concerned that I would remain outside at dusk (which solidified my wolf theory), but now it was a matter of dignity, I had to see the dolmen. After a five-minute walk, surrounded by the gargling sound of pheasants skipping about, I found it. It really doesn’t look like many people ever come here. The dolmen is just standing there among the trees, with nothing to protect it. You could climb on it, scribble your initials on it, I am sure you could even lick it if you wanted to. Not that you should do any of those things (well, the licking would be fine, albeit somewhat unsettling). I myself was contented to dance a pagan fairy-jig around it, which was apparently successful enough to almost immediately bring on a cascade of torrential rain. I ran for my life and reached the car drenched to the bone. What an interesting, strange and eventful day. In the end, I really went through all this trouble just for a tree and a rock. What does that say about me? You decide.

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Land of Legends

Zealand was always a word that evoked a magical and nondescript kind of dream. Land of the Sea. There is something so excruciatingly romantic about Vikings, longboats, mead, runes and the melodious poetry of Norse mythology. Something so ancient and out of reach that it seems just as fictitious as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But it’s real. It can be touched, smelled, heard and tasted all over the island, from the soft caress of a pink forest light to the crisp and pungent flavor the air delivers from the North Sea. The land is breathing under every single footstep, singing to you through every hush of wind. Some people hear it and others just continue on their way. But it is there, alive and real for any wanderer who will accept the beckoning of this land of legends.

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Spanish Euskadi

bilb1I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Basque Country for my concert. All I knew is that it is a region with a very strong culture and its own language, inhabited by people who don’t necessarily identify as Spanish and have had the desire to become independent since the 19th century, sometimes expressing it through acts of violence and terrorism. It is an area of the Pyrenees that extends from France to Spain along the Atlantic coast, overflowing with natural beauty and infused with warmth, culture and tradition. Spending only three days there was ridiculously short and I only got a glimpse of everything Euskadi has to offer.

Bilbao

To my romantic ears, the city of Bilbao evokes an exotic kind of romanticism, shrouded in mystery and lined with decadence. I admit that my excitement for this city comes exclusively from my obsession with Kurt Weill’s Bilbao Song which I play on repeat to the point of insanity. It is the opening number to the Brecht, Weill and Hauptmann 1929 musical “Happy End”, which I know in French because the lyrics are by my favorite author Boris Vian, famously sung by the great Yves Montand. There is something so uncanny and intriguing about the whole atmosphere of the song, with its shiny green moon, that has truly immortalized the city of Bilbao.

bilbaoBilbao is the largest city in Basque Country and the capital of the Biscay Province. Its center, located on both sides of the Nervion River, is on the small side which makes it very easy and pleasant to get around on foot. The first thing that struck me was the mixture of old and modern and the overall edgy vibe of the city. People are definitely hip over here. Hip, intellectual anarchists ready to get their party on. The Guggenheim Museum is the city’s main attraction and gave the local tourism industry a new boost when it opened in 1997. The building itself is now among the most recognizable monuments in the world with its iconic titanium, glass and limestone structure designed by Franck Gehry. It is one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art with works from Mark Rothko to Juan Muñoz. In front of the museum stand Jeff Koons’ Puppy, a topiary sculpture of a West Highland terrier, which has become one of the major symbols of the city of Bilbao. There is something absolutely magical about the way the Guggenheim monument reflects the colors of the Basque sky. I am not usually keen about modern stuff, but this one really got me.

guggenheimMy favorite part of this short time spent in Bilbao was simply wandering around the city. I was lucky to be staying at the very cool Silken Gran Hotel right next to the Guggenheim, which is close to all the main points of interest. I don’t speak a word of Spanish and I did not quite know how to approach the city. I tried going into a few old churches but everything seemed closed, so I just decided to stroll around. In the central neighborhood of Indautxu I stumbled into the Parque Doña Casilda Iturrizar, a delightful public garden with a huge fountain and the prettiest geese I’ve ever seen (though their smell did not match their comeliness). I could have stayed there all afternoon, writing postcards under the palm trees in the soft springtime air.

fontaine2As usual, my heart was set on seeing the medieval part of the city. I crossed the river on the iconic Zubizuri bridge and made my way towards the Casco Viejo, the Old Quarter. This part of Bilbao is very impressive: it is dark, narrow and looks like it was probably pretty dangerous at some point in history. The medieval part of the city was built over 700 years ago and there were originally only three streets which later became seven, giving this area its nickname “Zazpi Kaleak” (the seven streets). It is a very lively place filled with live music, street markets and pretty girls having coffee on terraces. As far as old churches go, the two that really caught my eye were the Catedral de Santiago and the Iglesia de los Santos Juanes, both stunning architectural masterpieces. I still have no idea why everything was closed, but I was very disappointed not to be able to go inside. I quickly cheered myself up with some delicious local white wine (as if I needed an excuse).

fontaine3The only other place I had been to in Spain is Barcelona and it seemed like a different country altogether, so I felt like the culture here was very unfamiliar to me. I was starving and kept roaming the streets of the Old Quarter trying to find a restaurant, but everything looked more like a bar. People covered every inch of the street, sitting on the ground in groups with beer in plastic cups. I felt really lost. I actually ran into other tourists who also couldn’t find a place to eat. How was this possible? Basque country was supposed to be famous for its food! I asked the locals, they laughed and said “food everywhere!”, I still didn’t get it. I went to bed hungry. Silly me, I learned the hard way.

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Vitoria-Gasteiz

The real revelation of this trip was Vitoria-Gasteiz. I spent so little time there I could kick myself. I fell in love with this incredible 12th century city, capital of the Basque Autonomous Community. It is one of the most amazing locations I’ve ever been to: a crucial historic, artistic, spiritual and culinary center. It was awarded the title of European Green Capital in 2012 and is ranked high on the list of “nicest places to live”. What immediately struck me was the wonderful energy of this city. It is so full of life, love, light and magic that it hits you like a powerful ray of pristine sunshine. Just being in Vitoria-Gasteiz made me happy to be alive. Exclamation point.

vitoriaI can’t believe I had never heard of this city before, it has everything I love. Including some fascinating history. When I arrived in the city center there was some type of military reenactment going on in front of a very imposing monument on the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca. I later found out it was to celebrate the epic victory of General Wellington over the Napoleonic army at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. Listen to Beethoven’s musical tribute to “Wellington’s Victory” with his Opus 91.

vitoriabattleUp a few stone steps from the plaza is the entrance to the old city center of Vitoria-Gasteiz. The Medieval Quarter is one of the best preserved in Europe, full of treasures as far as the eye can see, kept perfectly intact under the watchful presence of the Four Towers of San Pedro, San Miguel, San Vicente and Santa Maria. The neighborhood is located on a rather steep hill which has led the city to install neo-constructivist electric ramps which are surprisingly not an eyesore. And it’s fun to run down them backwards. This brought me to the Cuchilleria Kalea where I finally understood what people do for food in Euskadi…

pintxosThe solution to all my problems were pintxos. They are the Basque equivalent of the Spanish tapas, little tasty bites of food served in small bowls or fastened with a toothpick on a piece of bread. Nearly every bar serves them and it was a perfect way to sample the wide variety of delicacies the 2014 Spanish Capital of Gastronomy has to offer. The super friendly locals recommended the very charming and casual Bar Idoia. The highlights there were the idiazabal (sheep’s milk cheese), the boquerones (fresh anchovies), the various croquettes and, my absolute favorite, the chorizo bathing in cider. That’s just unfair. I was blissfully ignorant before tasting those delicious little devils and now I need to live with the knowledge of their existence, so far away from me, excruciatingly out of reach. I might cry. And best of all, the local wine. I had never had white Rioja before and boy is it a treat. Perfectly dry and fresh. The area around Vitoria-Gasteiz is well know for its wine and the prices are deliriously low: my friends and I went through fourteen glasses of wine for the equivalent of $20. That’s one glass in New York City. The quality of the wine was outstanding and although I drank double the amount I am used to, I was just very slightly tipsy. No headaches or bad surprises with the local wine.

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The Basque Mountains

No trip to Euskadi is complete without a glimpse of the Basque Mountains. My friends from the Gastroswing Festival brought me deep inside the wilderness to a remote village called Ibarra, where I got to experience a feast at a traditional sagardotegi (cider house) in an idyllic setting. Memories of this day will sing forever in my heart. The Iturrieta Cider House is as authentic as it gets and lets you discover the txotx ritual, which is basically all-you-can-drink cider: you are given a glass, walk up to a huge wooden barrel and catch the continuous stream of cider from a distance to aerate the liquid. The locals were also having fun catching it directly in their mouths. We were all a huge wet laughing mess of cider by the end of the day.

cidreWe were treated to a traditional cider house lunch which was composed mainly of cider chorizo (my new best friends), tortilla de bacalao (cod omelet) and txuleta (rib eye steak), then cheese and desserts. I am not a carnivorous fiend, but I must admit that was some of the best meat I have ever had. It was grilled to perfection in their little outdoor kitchen and I could swear some of the magical mountain air somehow seeped into the flavors of the beautiful and rich pieces of beef. I am pretty sure I ate and drank more than ever before in my entire life, it was a very decadent experience full of giddy cheer. Like a grand hobbit feast.

meatAfter lunch I left the bustling group of cider-infused patrons and wandered off alone to gaze at the peaceful and luxuriant mountains. The sound of the cooks crooning old Basque songs in the distance filled the air with a perfect sense of melancholy. It was the ideal backdrop to my hopelessly romantic nature-gazing. Near the edge of the cliff, there was an old swing that I eagerly climbed onto. The soft wind was still transporting the warm and soothing smells of the feast and my soul was pleasantly intoxicated with the thrill of the adventure and the effect of the golden cider. It was the opportune moment to savor a nice cigarillo and carelessly swing away.

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Wait for me!

Three days go by like three minutes in Basque Country. I feel like I’ve experienced so many things and yet I didn’t cover ten percent of what there is to explore. The cultural identity is so strong and inviting that I am already planning my next trip there. I relate to this land, the joy of its people and the pride they take in their traditions. I can’t wait to discover the cities of Pamplona and San Sebastian, visit the coast and maybe cross the Pyrenees into French Euskadi. And definitely have many more decadent feasts of chorizo and cheese.

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Scotland road trip

viewOn my way to and from the Isle of Skye, I stumbled upon many interesting places while road tripping through Scotland. My deep love for epic Albion had prepared me for sights of beauty, but my expectations were greatly exceeded. Scotland is full of treasures, mysteries, incredible history and eerie, romantic legends: Everything I adore. It was very exciting to drive into the unknown and stop whenever there was a sign for a castle or a lovely view overlooking a loch. It was a delightful poetic adventure.

Rosslyn Chapel

Ever heard of it? Probably for the wrong reasons… Yes, it’s the “grail chapel” made famous by the Da Vinci Code. Great beach book, whole lot of rubbish. Nevertheless, Rosslyn Chapel is without a doubt one of the most fascinating and historically important sites in the world, where the facts are just as interesting as the legends that surround it. I first learned about Rosslyn at the Sorbonne when I was studying medieval symbolism and I had been dreaming of traveling there ever since. I have never seen such a masterpiece in all my travels and it was very moving to stand there under its stone ceiling of carved stars and flowers, appreciating all the faith, effort and craftsmanship that went into creating such a remarkable work of art. There is something incredibly powerful and inspiring about Rosslyn Chapel and the grounds around it, as if they were suspended in time. It’s a shame people are more interested with 21st century fiction than in actual fact and age old legends – which the locals seem to take very seriously (ask them about the black dog of Rosslyn Castle and see them shiver) – but I guess we must be thankful towards Dan Brown after all, because all the visitors his book brought in helped restore the chapel and save it from further damage. If you want to learn more about the real story of Rosslyn, I recommend the book that was recommended to me by the guest shop keeper, Rosslyn and the Grail by Mark Oxbrow and Ian Robertson (the title is flashy but the content is academically interesting yet easy to read).

rosslynpinkRosslyn Chapel was built in 1456 under the orders of William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness. The original plan to build a cruciform cathedral was abandoned and only the Lady Chapel was constructed. The symbolic imagery that literally covers every inch of the chapel is thrilling to learn about, decipher and speculate upon, and many mysteries still remain. The volunteer guides are very knowledgeable and will be delighted to answer all your questions. The concept of the chapel reminded me greatly of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona because of the presence of nature. It is rather unusual to be in a church and feel like you are in a forest, surrounded by leaves, trees, flowers and green men. I admire the inspiration of the architects who dreamed up such a unique vision and executed it with so much talent. The most moving part of the chapel to me is in the crypt, which was used as a workshop for the stonemasons: on the wall are very clear engineering drawings that the architects sketched out. It’s the little details like that that bring you so much closer to the reality of these people’s lives. It made me feel like I knew them, it was very special. I left Rosslyn with a feeling of peace and illumination that has stayed with me ever since.

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Kilchurn Castle

Located at the northeastern end of Loch Awe, there stands a very picturesque ruin that used to be the home of the Campbell Clan. It is one of the many castles in Scotland that are free of charge and that you can explore at your leisure. It was built in the mid-15th century by Sir Colin Campbell on what used to be a small island. It was abandoned in 1760 after it was struck by lightening and suffered severe damage. The view from the top of Kilchurn Castle is absolutely breathtaking with the serene lake at its foot and the towering Cruachan Mountains in the distance. The different colors and textures of the nature are superb (the presentation photo at the top of the blog post was taken at Kilchurn). Discovering such a beautiful site while wandering through the marshlands with no one around but the sound of birds is truly the epitome of romanticism. I could easily imagine myself in a Gothic novel, a rebellious and curious heroine riding in search of the ghost of some dashing dark-eyed knight.

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Oban

As an official “Friend of the Classic Malts”, the Oban Distillery was definitely on my checklist (if you register online you can visit the main Scottish distilleries for free). Had I known that the town of Oban was so pretty I would have planned on spending at least a whole day there. It is located by the Firth of Lorn, opposite the island of Kerrera and started attracting visitors after Sir Walter Scott published his poem The Lord of the Isles in 1814. The Oban Distillery was founded in 1794 and is one of the smallest in Scotland, with only two pot stills. After visiting Talisker, I expected to know everything already and was very surprised by how different the process and the smells were. The flavors of peach and honey in the distillery were beautifully intoxicating and made me appreciate this underrated scotch much more. After my educational and inspiring visit, Oban 14 has actually become one of my favorites whiskeys: it is smooth and fruity with just the right amount of smoke and hints of orange rind, figs and salted caramel. The color is a spectacular deep honey gold. Perfect for a soothing drink by the fire on a quiet evening.

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Dunstaffnage Castle

Three miles away from Oban, on the banks of Loch Etive and surrounded by wild and mysterious woods, stands the very awe-inspiring Dunstaffnage Castle. Built in the 13th century by the MacDougall Clan, it is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland. Before the construction of Dunstaffnage, it was the site of a Gaelic stronghold dating back to the 7th century and legend has it that it was once home to the Stone of Destiny, a ritual artifact used for the coronation of monarchs up until Elizabeth II, in 1953. When the MacDougall Clan was defeated by Robert The Bruce in the early 14th century, the castle became Crown property and was appointed to the Campbell Clan. A few steps from the castle, lost and forgotten among the tall whispering trees, lie the ruins of a 13th century chapel with a few old graves. The feeling I got from this place was unsettling, to say the least, and filled me with an immense sense of sorrow. Maybe the Ell-Maid ghost was looking over my shoulder.

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Tea at Inveraray Castle

We stopped for a light lunch at the Inveraray Castle tearoom. It is a fairytale castle built between the 18th and 19th centuries for the Duke of Argyll, chief of the Campbell Clan. Its claim to pop fame comes from the castle being one of the sets for the hit TV series Downton Abbey. The tearoom is run by the Duchess herself and offers an exclusively locally sourced menu showcasing some of Scotland’s best products. I had a delightful cheddar and red onion sandwich and discovered the delicious Arran Dairies ice cream, which is really to die for. I then took a stroll through the beautiful gardens, picking up flowers that had fallen from the bushes and admiring the sweet little lambs frolicking in the pasture next to the castle. I could get used to this.

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Loch Lomond

There was no way I would leave Scotland without stopping on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond for a moment of fairy meditation. I must have a lucky star shining above me, because every time I go to one of my dream places I am never let down, even though I build it up in my head like a crazy person. My obsession with Loch Lomond comes from the famous folk song “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond” with its mysterious lyrics: is it about the Jacobite uprising and the decapitated heads of the executed rebels? or is it about the underground otherworld and its fairies escorting the souls of dead Scots back to their homeland? I don’t suppose we shall ever know… The banks of the enchanting blue loch do seem like they belong in a song or a magical landscape from a picture book. Having a suspended and complentative moment breathing in its pristine rustling air was very special to my heart. I have taken home with me a happy place that I can access by simply closing my eyes and murmuring the song on the tip of my lips.

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Hadrian’s Wall …or not

This road trip did not end as glamorously as I had intended and resulted in a very silly adventure. While departing Scotland and driving towards Carlisle, I was set on catching a glimpse of Hadrian’s Wall, which main purpose was to keep out the Pictish tribes of ancient Alba, the natives of what is now Scottish territory. I was foolishly counting on a sign showing up on the way to Carlisle or some locals who would know in which direction to point me. Boy, was I wrong. There was nothing. Zilch. After asking many people, who seemed to just make fun of me, I was sent on what appeared to be the right track and came to a sign that said “Hadrian’s Wall path”. That sounded good enough and we drove our car on the path, that was very muddy from all the rain. After a while, with no wall in sight, we noticed that this path was not at all intended for driving and was getting narrower by the second and we could not turn the car around because of the mud. We kept on until we got to a great field. That’s when I got an impromptu call from Mother Nature and decided to answer it behind a tree. As I was doing so, a herd of cows suddenly started fiercely charging towards me and I had to take refuge in said tree. I am not usually afraid of cows (I grew up in Switzerland), but these looked pretty aggressive… probably drank too much whiskey. I stayed up there for a while as my boyfriend tried to shoo them away unconvincingly. By the time I could get back down, it was almost nighttime and there was no signal… so of course that’s when our car got stuck in the mire. I thought we were going to have to spend the night in the car with mad cows staring at us. After an hour of foul hard work, we finally got the car out and drove away, covered in muck from head to toe. A perfect ending to a perfect road trip? It ain’t no fun if nothing stupid happens.

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Conclusion

So much to see, so much to see! I feel like I just got a tiny glimpse of all Scotland has to offer. It’s extremely frustrating. Scotland is full of beauty, adventure and surprises, it’s truly the perfect road trip land because it’s hard to go wrong with anything (except Roman walls apparently, or maybe I am just uniquely talented for misadventures) and there are things to discover everywhere you look. I did not expect to fall madly in love with Scotland, but it was so much better than I had anticipated. All I can think of now is going back and exploring more castles and unearthing more legends.

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Skye: There can be only one

highlanderHonestly, I would not have picked the Isle of Skye as my first choice destination and it turned out to be one of the most deliriously gorgeous places I have ever been to. There is nothing more exhilarating that being surprised like that and this trip turned out to be my favorite so far. Skye is simply magical: nowhere have I seen so many colors, textures and geographic variations all gathered in one place. There is something delightfully wild about this island that conjures images of obscure legends, unknown fairy-creatures and ruggedly handsome clansmen. It seems like the ends of the Earth, a rock in the sea exposed to all the whims of the elements, beautiful and eternal. Skye does not belong to man… it lets us trespass into its misty land with a promise of illumination for the pure of heart.

Talisker

I will not lie, the catalyst for this trip to Scotland was my growing passion for single malt Scotch whiskey. My favorite is Talisker, for its sophisticated smokey flavor, and I am in good company because it was also Robert Louis Stevenson’s beverage of choice. The distillery is located in Carbost, a very small village in the Highlands near the beautiful Loch Harport. I arrived under the rain, which happened to stir up all the lovely smells of the water and earth around me, giving me a special taste of the nature Talisker is drawn from. The visit of the distillery is fun and educational, I learned a lot and it did improve my understanding and appreciation of whiskey in general. My advice is to sign up online for the “Friends of the Classic Malts” passport that lets you visit many distilleries for free with nice little gifts at each spot. After exploring the Talisker distillery, I went to grab a bite at what seems like the only place nearby, the Old Inn. What a surprise! I had one of the best meals of my life. All the food they serve is locally sourced and their bread is fluffy, delicious and homemade. I had their incredible smoked salmon, the largest mussels I’ve ever seen in a delicious cream sauce and jumbo shrimp from the neighboring lochs, accompanied with some of the local ale. I had no idea  Scottish cuisine was so delightful.

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Dunvegan Castle

So, what happened is that I did not prepare this trip with the usual amount of OCD research… we decided to just wing it, true road trip style. Sometimes it’s nice to let things unfold on their own: you eventually end up in the right places. We were driving for a while, under the rain, admiring the scenery, when we see a sign indicating Dunvegan Castle nearby. A castle? Of course, always! We walk through the wild garden up to the imposing castle gate, where we are greeted by a sweet old lady who says “welcome to the home of the MacLeod clan chief” …are you kidding me?! Did we really just happen to stumble upon the MacLeod Castle?! “Highlander” is one of my favorite movies from my childhood. When other girls were busy playing with dolls, I was fighting alone in the woods with an imaginary sword and humming “who wants to live forever”. I had never known the movie was inspired by real people and now I was strolling through the home of the clan chief. Life is good to me. This was epic.

dunvegancastlemacleodEven for people who aren’t geeky fans of heroic fantasy films, it’s absolutely worth visiting this highly interesting castle: the MacLeods used to be the most powerful family on the island and their lives are intricately entwined with the history and legends of Skye. My favorite artifact – the most intriguing one – is the Fairy Flag. The MacLeods have a very uncanny relationship with the Otherworld and their most prized possession is that tattered piece of cloth which, legend says, was given many years ago to a clan chief by his fairy lover. It has been the clan’s talisman ever since and was used as such for the last time during World War II. Needless to say, they take it very seriously. Scientific examination suggests that it dates as far back as the 4th century and may have been brought back from the Middle East during the Crusades. When this was explained to the clan chief at the beginning of the 20th century, he just stated “no, my ancestor got it from the fairies” to which the historian simply responded “oh, I am terribly sorry, I must surely be mistaken then”. Sir Walter Scott was a great admirer of the Fairy Flag and stayed many times at Dunvegan Castle, to gather inspiration from its legends and the nature around it. Some of his letters to the clan chief are exposed at the castle, one of which speaks of a “lake of terror”, which was music to my ears. When I asked the old lady working there if she knew what that was, she said “yes: exaggeration”. With a big smile and in finest Scottish accent.

Dunvegan_cup,_Fairy_flag,_Rory_Mor's_horn_(engraving,_sometime_before_1890)

The Fairy Bridge

Three miles away from Dunvegan Castle, on the side of the road to Portree, lies the Fairy Bridge of the MacLeod legend, a site illusive to the innattentive traveler. In Gaelic it is called Beul-Ath nan Tri Allt (The Ford of the Three Burns). This is where the clan chief said farewell to his fairy bride for the last time before she vanished into Fairyland, giving him the Fairy Flag as a parting gift (according to some versions of the story). This place made me feel very strange, especially under the violent weather. I strongly believe legends and sacred sites do not stem out of thin air, they are older and run deeper than our modern rationalized society lets us think. The Fairy Bridge is not a welcoming place, it is a bridge between worlds, between our human perception and the realm of Faerie. There was a tormented atmosphere surrounding the place, everything felt alive and inhabited, the wind lifted nature’s whispers into a whirl around me, sniffing me out, testing my fairy potential. The fairies of these legends are not the playful winged creatures of Victorian fancy, they are the avatars of the faded gods of yore, passionate, beguiling, mysterious and dangerous at times, for they are above the very human concept of good and evil. The Fairy Bridge is one of those special places where the rift in our world can be experienced and our mystic links to the Otherworld tamed and rekindled.

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The Fairy Pools

The Isle of Skye could easily be a mythical land found in one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s poems, so many sites are straight out of a painting and deeply connected to legends and folklore, mostly about magical and otherworldly creatures. The Fairy Pools are no exception. Located near Glenbrittle, this hiking trail is perfect for admiring the Cuillin, the largest mountains on the island. From the car park, follow the Allt Coir a Mhadaidh, a stream that will take you to a series of small waterfalls called the Fairy Pools, where the bluest, most enchanting waters run gaily, rippling with fairy laughter. Towering in front of you is the cleft peak of Sgurr an Fheadain, pictured below against the iconic Scottish mist. Hiking through the valley was quite an adventure under the rain and into the mud: the small streams became torrential rivers and crossing them meant perilously jumping from rock to rock. I would love to come back in the summer, to be able to wander more pleasantly and perhaps swim in the inviting azure ponds. Nevertheless, the landscape is breathtaking in any season, with a patchwork of  unexpected colors and mountaintops alive with legends of a thousand years.

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Eilean Donan

After less than three days, it was time to say good-bye to Skye, with a heavy heart eager to return. Right after the bridge that brings you back to the main land, there is a stunning and imposing 13th century castle that bears the beautiful name of Eilean Donan. Located on a small tidal island at the converging point of three lochs, this incredibly picturesque castle used to be the stronghold of the Mackenzie Clan but is probably more famous for being the home of the MacLeod Clan in the movie Highlander. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Scotland, but I must be lucky because when I arrived (under the rain again) there was no one, and I was free to roam the castle grounds as I pleased, lost in my melancholy reverie. The view over the three lochs with Skye in the distance is absolutely magical… it made the parting sorrow much sweeter and offered me an inspiring last glance at my beautiful misty isle.

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Conclusion

What a journey! A very unexpected love at first sight. I think the month of May is a very special time to visit the Isle of Skye because, even though it is supposed to be the “dry” season and it was almost constantly raining, there was something marvelous about experiencing the rebirth of Spring in a land so close to its natural and legendary roots. May is also the month of baby sheep and the island basically becomes covered in them, everywhere you look there are cute balls of fluff on four legs prancing about, which is as good as it gets in my opinion. I had the most magical and galvanizing time on peaceful and tempestuous Skye, the one and only misty island in my heart, my very own Avalon. I sometimes wonder if it was all just a fata morgana in the cloudy distance and if what I experienced was just the result of a fairy-induced dream. I will have to go back and check, very soon, just to be sure.

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Munich, the City with Heart

angelmunichI was lucky to spend two days in Munich last winter and was enchanted mostly by the stunning churches in the city center. It is a perfect city for just strolling around and discovering things by chance. Every time I saw a church, I just walked in and stumbled upon incredible architecture, paintings and sculptures. Being in Munich was a particularly interesting and unsettling experience… As a person pretty obsessed with the history of World War Two, it was indeed strange to recognize locations from black and white pictures covered in Nazi symbolism. Munich is the birthplace of the National Socialist party and was given the title of “Capital of the Movement” by Adolph Hitler. An uninformed tourist will not see any remnants of that era and will just be able to enjoy the delights this city has to offer, but if you are familiar with the wartime footage, it can be very moving and troubling. However, dwelling on the past would not be fair: Munich has come a long way and is now a warm and welcoming city with heart.

The Glockenspiel

I arrived in Munich by train from Switzerland, and the trip there was a paradise of snowy revelations, frozen blue lakes and serene forests. The beauty of my railroad voyage was divine and inspiring. When in Europe, I  travel by train as much as I can… it is a decision I have never regretted and a luxury I deeply miss now that I live in the United States. A short walk from the train station brought me straight to Marienplatz, the old city center, through the imposing Karlstor, a highly restored yet charming medieval gate. I was rushing to get to the Neue Rathaus on time to see the Glockenspiel do its thing. The Glockenspiel is a favorite attraction among tourists, because it is so unbearably quaint (in a good way), but when I got there all I could see were Germans in weird carnival costumes and not many obvious foreigners. The Neue Rathaus, built between 1867 and 1908 by Georg von Hauberrisser, is a masterpiece of Neo-Gothic architecture, with intricate details that are well worth lingering on. The Glockenspiel becomes alive every morning at 11 am for fifteen minutes of fairytale-worthy German magic. The human-sized figurines reenact the festivities of the marriage of Duke Wilhelm V to Renata of Lorraine, with song, dance and jousting. You can admire the dexterity of the Bavarian knight (in blue) who wins every time, naturally. Do not dismiss this attraction as too touristy for you, it is really beautiful and fun. As the crowd dissipates right after the end of the music, stay a little longer and you will be blessed with a lovely surprise: the Glockenspiel chicken will come out of its nest to say hello.

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Peterskirche

The most iconic landmark of the city is Saint Peter’s Church, Munich’s oldest recorded site of Christian cult, a rather modest looking edifice that has unexpected treasures enclosed within. As soon as I walked inside I was mesmerized by its abundant riches and interesting imagery. I was expecting an austere very “German” place of worship, forgetting that this is a Catholic church: the 18th century ceiling fresco by Johann Baptist Zimmermann is a work of outstanding artistry and the high altar is one of the most impressive I have ever seen.

peterskircheI suggest you plan staying in this church for a while: all the faces, the trumpet-sounding angels, the paintings… every little detail is worth taking in. My favorite part of Peterskirche is a little secret that most visitors pass by, completely unaware of what they are missing. In a remote corner of the church lies the bejeweled skeleton of Saint Munditia. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there emerged a new trend in the Germanic area between Switzerland and Bavaria: Christian worshipers dug up catacomb saints and bedecked them with unimaginably precious stones and rich costumes, wrapping their bones in the finest gauze and securing rubies and emeralds around every phalange, even into the empty sockets of their eyes. A funny coincidence is that I should stumble upon this fascinating historical bizarrerie when I had just received Paul Koudounaris’ book “Heavenly Bodies” for Christmas. Maybe I have a tasteless penchant for the macabre, but to me Saint Munditia holding up a cup of her own dehydrated blood is one of the most beautiful and moving things I have ever laid eyes on.

munditiaOne cannot leave Saint Peter’s Church without going up Alter Peter – Old Peter – the tower that overlooks the city. It is a highly claustrophobic 299-step climb to the top, during which I had the pleasure of experiencing numerous panic attacks. The view, that extends as far as the Alps on a clear day, is very pretty and absolutely worth it. I had yet another lovely moment struggling with my fear of heights this time, because when you are up there you are basically just hanging in the air, your back against the tower wall and nothing more than a ridiculously frail-looking fence separating you from your death. All this is made even more delightful by the children pushing you to get by and stomping up and down on the light platform. All in all, really a lot of fun. Spend a few dimes on the telescopes to scan the horizon for interesting details.

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Beer and Sausages

Munich is located in Bavaria, a region with a very complex historical relationship to what is now Germany. The Bavarians still maintain their unique identity to this day and we are lucky to be able to experience and taste it. Of course, it is unthinkable to go to Munich and not enjoy beer and sausages: “sober vegan” is clearly not the vibe here (although Hitler would disagree). I was wandering by the very romantic Sendlinger Gate, watching the birdies play among the foliage while I munched on some warm chestnuts, when I found myself walking towards the marketplace in search of some real food. The cold winter air had inspired my taste buds. Viktualienmarkt is a very charming place, full of life, music and delicious smells, butcher shops and small popup restaurants. My heart settled on a small popular shack with heated outdoor seating and I was very happy to finally use my German proficiency to order some traditional (and organic!) Weisswurst, a boiled “white sausage” made of veal and flavored with parsley, nutmeg and cardamom, served with sweet mustard. Absolutely mouthwatering and perfect with a tall glass of white beer, Munich’s signature beverage. It was a delightful lunch, but my sausage-adventure was just about to begin. In the evening, I was very excited to go to the renowned Hofbräuhaus, an epic beer hall originally built in the 16th century that included Mozart and Lenin among its regular patrons. However, the Hofbräuhaus’ most famous customer was Adolph Hitler: that’s where the Nazi Party was founded, which sent unpleasant chills up my spine for a while. It’s a very impressive place to say the least, and if you look up at some of the murals, you can see where the swastikas used to be… they are now covered in Bavarian flags, but the shape is still subtly visible. I felt very conflicted about being there, but at the same time thrilled to be in such an historically crucial spot. I soon stopped feeling guilty about enjoying myself: Germany has made enough amends, it’s a whole different country now, young, vibrant, tolerant and modern.

munich_hofbrauhaus_lI don’t care how much people want to call this place a tourist trap, this restaurant is grand and authentic. It reminded me of the street fairs in my Swiss hometown. First of all, it’s gorgeous – a huge authentic Bavarian hall with beautiful painted ceilings – and the ambiance is amazing, with a traditional band playing while all the customers join arms, waddle drunkenly and sing with lots of Germanic passion. Actually, I was surprised that nearly all the people there were German, from different regions, and it was fun to try and understand their thick accents… not a lot of Hochdeutsch going on. I ordered a platter of several sausages to taste, some of their light and fragrant house beer and a Brezen (pretzel) bigger than my head. By the end of the night I was waddling and singing louder than all of them, toasting in German with all the pretty boys cheering me on.

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Heart of Darkness?

Munich was an emotional roller-coaster for me. I spent so much time studying the fascinating and horrible history of WWII that although the city is now so far removed from its past, it still gave me a lot of food for thought. It is truly hard to believe that all this happened during my grandparents’ generation, just a blink of an eye away from me, especially when all there is to see today is a very pretty Bavarian city, warm and full of life. The contrast is mind-boggling. My conclusion after this trip to Munich was that I am actually very proud of Germany, as strange as it may sound. I believe that their strength to overcome such a heavy history and move so swiftly and brightly into a new page was very brave and inspiring. Munich was a revelation to me and taught me a lot about the past, present and future. I found very welcoming people in a formerly ruined mess almost entirely and identically rebuilt from scratch, I found gilded and philosophical treasures on every corner, I found a very ecologically forward nation and I found a City with Heart, even with the drop of indelible darkness it will always contain… But above all, I found beer! Lots and lots of beer!

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Puerto Rico, My Heart’s Devotion

iguanacropThe only things I knew about Puerto Rico, I learned from West Side Story. Also (vaguely) rum, salsa, cigars …and pirates, sure why not. And that’s all. When I came back from my trip, I was enchanted by all the secrets this beautiful island decided to share with me, my heart warmed by its glorious sun, my head swimming with information, my soul completely invigorated. I keep saying I don’t particularly like tropical places, but I guess I’ve proven myself wrong twice in a row now. Puerto Rico was a dream.

Life at the Resort

So maybe what I mean about not enjoying tropical places is that “island” usually rhymes with “resort” and “beach bumming”, which are two things I am not crazy about. And this time, I proved myself right. We were staying at the very obnoxiously named El Conquistador, a luxury resort on the east coast, near Fajardo. In truth, it is a gilded cage where less-than-adventurous American tourists want to feel like they’ve been to exotic Puerto Rico without ever really leaving Miami. Yes, it is a very beautiful resort, if you like that sort of Disneyland atmosphere (and I know many who do!), but nothing there is real. I was told that even the fruit is imported from China. There is also a strange sort of Hotel California vibe, you know, the part that goes “you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave”? They do everything they can to keep you cloistered up in their shimmering prison and have you exclusively eat there, shop there and swim there. If you try to set a foot outside they will tell you tales of how dangerous it is “out there” and list the terrible misfortunes that are sure to befall you. Don’t be fooled, it’s fine and the marina is perfectly charming. Everything is way cheaper than at the resort and we found a local joint called El Racar, where we were served some freshly caught delicious red snapper with the best mofongo I’ve ever tasted.

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Palomino Island

The resort’s package deal includes free trips to Palomino Island. Although there is nothing deserted or too wild about this island (with the exception of some very lazy iguanas hanging out in the sun), it’s absolutely gorgeous and I really enjoyed relaxing over there. It’s a 15 minute boat ride away and the beaches are very pretty with all the palm trees and white sand you need to be happy in life. There is a small restaurant that serves very sweet pina coladas. We smuggled our own booze onto the island, so we ordered them virgin (and cheaper) and spiked them up as much as we wanted. Being on a small island is always fun, I grumpily admit.

viewIn the distance, a ridiculously tiny island is apparently where Jack Sparrow was marooned in Pirates of the Caribbean. That sounded like fun. We reckoned it was a 20 minute swim to get there and I very foolishly just went for it, without suspecting that a small tropical storm would start brewing as I was halfway there. The undercurrent got very strong and soon I was overwhelmed, gasping for air, kicking frantically while violent waves tirelessly slapped me silly. With the help of my friends, I made it to the island and just let myself fall on the sand, like sailors do after escaping a shipwreck in the movies. Since I didn’t end up dying, I’ll say it was worth it. The island was the size of my living room and I had a very romantic moment with myself, imagining this place as it used to be, lost in the middle of the tempestuous Caribbean.

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El Yunque Rainforest

I had read on every travel website that El Yunque Rainforest was not to be missed, and that is clearly an understatement. I would go so far as to say that if you don’t have El Yunque in mind, don’t even bother going to Puerto Rico. It is such a fabulous experience, that it will stay with you forever… but please, be sure to do it the right way. Forget your cookie-cutter resort tours, I’ve got the man for you right here: his name is John “Rubio” Druitt, an eccentric eco-explorer who will take you down the paths less traveled by, while treating you to details about the fauna and flora, philosophical conversations and historical anecdotes about the island. Without him, I never could have enjoyed El Yunque so thoroughly: it made a huge difference. He materialized my Indiana Jones fantasies for me.

evyJohn will offer you different hiking paths depending on what you want to see and how fit you are. I have asthma and a bad leg, so obviously I chose the hardest and longest hike, six hours to the top of the volcanic mountain. It was very intense for me, but it seemed ok for my friends who are in better shape and are not lame donkeys like me. I enjoyed every second, even in pain. There is so much to experience, so many small waterfalls to drink from, so many ways an invisible coqui frog can serenade you. We went through the dwarf forest, under the vines, up to the two peaks: El Yunque Peak and Los Picachos, where you are blessed with an absolutely breathtaking view of the entire island. You might want to be careful, you are off the beaten track and the edge of the cliff is right there. When it was time for John to drive us back, he suggested we stop on the way at this side of the road shack called Frutera Flores that sells local fruit, great smoothies, Puerto Rican comfort food and fresh coconut juice. They also have delicious baby bananas that I ended up eating like candy. As authentic as it gets.

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Old San Juan

I was very excited to finally arrive in San Juan and discover its history. The neighborhood of most interest for travelers on a time-budget is the old part of town, where the noteworthy sights are, and even though the area mostly caters to the average tourist, it is still possible to find wonderful, authentic, local experiences. Just walking through the narrow streets of Old San Juan is a delight for the senses: every building is painted a different color and music oozes from every possible direction. You can also find very nice shops and restaurants: I bought a beautiful handmade panama hat and some cigarillos at El Galpon, a very exotic shop with a charming vintage atmosphere. My favorite culinary experience was by far my lunch at Fatty’s West Indian, a hole-in-the-wall dive with just four tables where you are served whatever Fatty has decided to cook that day. This is by all means not even close to a fancy place, it’s hot and there can be a long wait, but it’s worth it. Fatty’s simple yet flavorful aroz con pollo is one of the best comfort food meals I have had in my life (and I never suspected beans could taste so good).

oldtownWhen I got back from a whole day of walking everywhere, including a wonderful time at the Museo de las Américas, where I learned so much about the fascinating and inspiring culture of native South Americans and Caribbeans, I got back to my hotel room pretty early and completely exhausted. I was slowly falling asleep in my clothes when I was awakened by what appeared to be live salsa in the distance. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? I tracked the source of the music through the streets of the city and remarked with mounting anxiety that it was leading me towards the notoriously dangerous La Perla neighborhood. Yes, that’s the area you are not supposed to come out of alive, if you go by the accounts on Tripadvisor… What a load of nonsense. How sheltered is the average American tourist if they think venturing outside the exact enclosure planned for them is going to result in immediate misfortune? La Perla is simply a rather poor neighborhood, not a tourist attraction but a place where you might have a glimpse of what life in San Juan really means. I had a great time listening to a very loud and large salsa band play for locals who were dancing with their kids, drinking beer and eating street food. Nothing remotely shady ever happened. You just have to understand what kind of place you are in and behave accordingly, it’s as simple as that. If you go there wearing a flashy rolex, diamond rings and a neon hip bag with a lost look on your gum-chewing face, then that’s a different story.

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The Sights

San Juan is a fascinating city from a historical point of view. Its original name was in fact Puerto Rico, founded by the infamous Ponce De Leon in the early 16th century. As a kid spending many summers in Florida, I developed a rather unhealthy obsession for Ponce and the legend of the Fountain of Youth, and it was exciting for me to visit the Casa Blanca, the residence intended for him and his descendants. To put it mildly, he was not a very nice guy, and the excitement I felt was mixed with a very special kind of disgust. I partially got over it by taking a romantic walk across the enceinte of the Castillo San Cristobal with my iguana friends. Standing there facing the ocean is a remarkable experience that transports you to a whole other time and state of mind. In a peculiar way, it was very moving. A visit to San Juan is incomplete without a visit to El Morro, a World Heritage Sight and one of the only examples of (arguably) late medieval constructions in the New World. What you are witnessing through El Morro is a massive and violent drift in the history of the world, contrasted with the lightness of the multicolored kites fluttering around it and the apparent heedlessness of the trance-like salsa beat.

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The Gallery Inn

I found my favorite hotel in the world: the Gallery Inn. The exact opposite of El Conquistador. When I walked in, I could not believe my eyes… what a feast! Carelessly arranged statues, paintings, old books, fountains, exotic birds, strange and beautiful objects everywhere. It is a luxurious, labyrinthic and decadently haunted colonial mansion owned by the entrancing Jan d’Esopo, a world renowned artist and highly inspirational woman. The Gallery Inn is a work of art… in a way, it is probably her masterpiece. When Jan heard we were musicians, she immediately conjured up a mini-concert in her Venetian-style music room where we were delighted to play some tunes for her hotel guests and her faithful white parrot, Campeche, who did us the honor of singing along with us. We were then treated to a lovely local specialties tasting dinner by the pool, which is in fact more of a fairy-dipping otherworld, lined with silent stone eyes gently watching you swim. There are no words that can begin to express how moving and fantastic this place is. It truly felt like a homecoming to my wildest fantasies. I unexpectedly found a very intimate part of my soul in San Juan.

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I think I’ll go back to San Juan

Ah, West Side Story, one of my favorite movies, you resonate on so many more levels now that I have been to Puerto Rico! However, I wouldn’t want to see it “sink back in the ocean” for all the riches in the world. I have learned so much, been surprised, delighted and challenged on every street corner. San Juan is an eternal festival of light, music, scents and flavors. I left the island with a troubled heart, heavy from its violent history and unfortunately overbearing colonial US present, but warmed by its jubilant indolence, lavish beauty and vibrant culture. I will be back as soon as can be, even if it’s just for the pleasure of holding Campeche, my parrot pirate, in my arms once more.campeche