Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Charming Town of Sintra

A quaint little town worth the trip, Sintra

I was staying in the Sinatra mountains so a day trip to Sintra was just just 10 minutes away.  After doing my research on what to do in Lisbon, a day in Sintra as at the top of the list.   Given I was staying in the Sintra mountains, it was just 10 minutes away.  However, for those staying in Lisbon, I would still recommend this as a day trip.  It is such a quaint little town and has several attractions to see, the National Palace of Pena, Quinta da Regalia, The Moorish Castle and the National Palace of Sintra.  Unfortunately, we did not get to tour much beyond the National Palace of Pena because it was Christmas Eve and everything was closely early for the holiday.  I had heard from more than one person that the gardens at Quintal da Regalia were beautiful and to be missed, so I'm bummed we missed them!  However, we did get to see The Pena palace and it looks like a set from a Disney film.

We then had a late lunch at a little restaurant in the middle of the square right by the National Palace of Sinatra.  It seemed really touristy so we didn't expect much but it was one of the places actually open.  We were pleasantly surprised by how good the food was!  The Traveling Hillbilly recommends the vegetable soup.  It was more of a potato soup with vegetables, great comfort food on a cool day.

I hope you all get the chance to visit one day.


Pengiuns, Sharks, Eels and More!

The aquarium in Lisbon is supposed to be one of the best in the world, so we had to go there.   Plus it was Christmas Day and one of the few things that was open.  Turns out that Christmas day is their busiest day of the year.  Despite the crowds, we really enjoyed it.  The place is huge, so it didn't
actually feel too crazy.  They have animals from all regions/oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific, Indian and so on.  We saw penguins, sea otters, sharks, starfish, eels, sea dragons and all kinds of cool things from the sea.  It is a clear and easy to follow path.  You start at the top and then get a chance to go "below the surface" of the sea at on the lower level.   It was a great way to spend Christmas afternoon.

The Traveling Hillbilly would recommend it for all ages!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Day 1 in Lisbon

Started the day off with a stroll around the beautiful grounds of the hotel.   There's just something about an early morning walk before everyone else is out and about that brings peace to your soul.  No big wildlife sightings, beyond the ducks in the lagoon, but still an enjoyable stroll.   So glad I decided to stay up in the Sintra mountains.  It's a bit of a drive from Lisbon, but worth the drive.

After my morning stroll, it was time to head to Lisbon to meet friends for lunch at Belcanto, the first restaurant in Lisbon to get 2 Michelin Stars.  Beclanto is one of the several restaurants chef José Avillez owns in Lisbon.  It did not disappoint.  We decided on the chef's tasting menu with wine pairings.  Now it was not a cheap selection, but it as a wonderful way to spend the first afternoon.  The food was great and the presentation incredible.  The whole experience was a journey and one I think we'd all go on again.  My personal favorite dish, was the truffle porridge.  Yummy!!!   

We left the restaurant completely stuffed, but happy.  We walked for a bit before heading to the rooftop bar at the Barrio Alto Hotel.  We had been told it had one of the best views in the city and was the place to go see the sunset.   Given our long and leisurely lunch, it was actually already dark by the time we got to the hotel!  But the view of the city at night was still stunning.   However, we later stopped at Silk to have a nightcap and I have to say the view from there was stunning as well.   During my research, I found a lot of information about the amazing views in Lisbon.  After the two we experienced today, I'm looking forward to more. 

All in all a truly great way for the Traveling Hillbilly to start off the 2016 holiday adventure!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Final Thoughts on Iceland

What a truly beautiful country, both the scenery and the people.   Everyone I came across was more than welcoming.  You can tell they are proud of their country and want to show it off.   I felt completely safe.   Never did I feel like I had to watch my back, watch my bag or anything.  The country is just so warm and inviting.

I  heard the rise in interest in visiting Iceland was due to Game of  Thrones.   I don't watch the show, but it is filmed here.  However, they also had a big surge in tourism after the volcano erupted in 2010 and shut down European flights for a several days.   I guess all that news coverage got people thinking about and interested in learning more about Iceland, which brings me to the scenery!

For the most part they seem genuinely pleased by the growth in tourism.  They have been converting a lot of the apartments into hotels and there are a lot of people offering up guest rooms.    I wonder though, how a country with just over 300,000 people, more than half of which live in/near Reykjavik, will be able to sustain millions of visitors.  I read somewhere they are expected to have over 1.75MM visitors this year/next year, not sure how accurate that estimate is, but the growth in tourism is significant in recent years. I'm not sure they have the infrastructure to handle it all.   I can't imagine it won't be a drain on all their natural resources. 

The Scenery
It is a country worth seeing!   It truly is magical and a country of such diverse landscapes; lava fields, volcanoes, glaciers, rivers and streams.  Despite the rise in tourism and all that comes with it, it still seems undisturbed.  There were often times where I thought it looked like Hawaii, if Hawaii didn't have a ton of resorts built up.  With all the rivers and streams, at times it looked like Montana.   It was actually nice to be in a place that hasn't yet been overbuilt or doesn't have long lines for everything you want to see.   That may be changing though with the growth in tourism. 

The People
I've traveled a lot and you have different experiences, different impressions of each country or even city within a country. After coming back from Budapest several years ago, I told people it was liking going to grandma's house for dinner.   Everywhere you went, people wanted to feed you and the food was always warm, good comfort food.   Iceland is similar, but given the average age of its residents is only 37, I can't quite say it's like going to grandma's house.   But it is just as warm and inviting.   The people are incredibly friendly and inviting.   Always ready to listen and help out, always ready to tell a great story about their country.  

While it is fairly cheap to fly to Iceland, these days you can get flights for a few hundred bucks from NY and LA (book early though to get those kind of rates) once you arrive, everything is very expensive.   I don't think I had meal that was less than $20 US dollars, and that was for a sandwich and chips bought at a market, similar to Duane Read for you New Yorkers.   There are several larger hotels, like the Hilton Nordica and  the Foss Hotel Reykjavik, but none are truly luxury hotels, despite the luxury prices.   

It may not be for everyone, especially if you're a Four Seasons/Ritz Carlton kind of traveler, but for the adventure traveler or nature lover, The Traveling Hillbilly highly recommends a visit to this magical country and maybe sooner rather than later before it changes too much.

The Northern Lights....Robbed Once Again

A lot of you know the Traveling Hillbilly spent the holidays in Finland a few years ago with friends.  We went in the hopes of seeing the increasingly elusive phenomenon known as the Northern Lights.   After nothing but cloudy days in Finland, we never saw them, not once.  Heading to Iceland, I was excited about this second chance!   Maybe this time I would finally get to see them. 

My first day in Iceland started out as very promising.  It was a bright sunny day, despite the forecast I'd read before I arrived predicting nothing but rain for my entire stay.  And the northern lights forecast was pretty high.  They were actually expected to be pretty active all week.   However, by the late afternoon, the rain would start and as the sun disappeared behind the clouds, the chance for the northern lights dimmed as well.   The chance to see them continued to decline each day, despite some sunny, clear mornings, each afternoon the clouds rolled in and the rain started once again, distinguishing my hopes of seeing this natural wonder.  

It was my last night and last chance to see them before I had to leave.  It had pretty much been raining all day, but I went ahead and booked my spot on a boat that was scheduled to leave at 10p in search of finding the northern lights.  Unfortunately I got the email about 6pm, that due to weather conditions, the search for the northern lights was canceled.    They've proved  elusive once again!

Maybe one day, I'll be in the right place at the right time and see for myself if they're truly real!

FInally tried the local speciality - Meat Soup

It was yet another cold rainy day and a bowl of soup was just what the Traveling Hillbilly needed.  Now I’m not a big soup eater, but it is the local specialty so I decided it was time to try the meat soup I’d been hearing so much about.  I headed back to Laugavegur to this little steakhouse I’d passed by the other day.   What better place to try meat soup than a steakhouse?  

It was a small little restaurant just downstairs off the street, called Gamla Vinhusid Steakhouse.    I was glad to discover it was actually open since it was past lunch time and too early yet for dinner.    The placed looked exactly what I had expected, small, cozy and warm.    There were only a couple of other diners there besides me.   The waiter/bartender was a friendly gent.  I ordered the meat soup, some cheesy garlic bread and an ice cold beer from the tap.    And a warm apple cake for dessert.

Basically the meat soup is like a vegetable stew, made with lamb meat.    Perfect food for cold wet weather.  I can see why it’s so popular, especially washed down with a good beer.   Then it was time for the dessert.   The warm apple cake, looked delicious, it had little chunks of caramelized apples in the center and came with a scoop of ice cream and whip cream on the side, both drizzled with caramel.   The cake was a little overcooked but was still pretty good.  The ice cream however was magnificent.   I’m not sure what it was, maybe the overall experience, but it was probably the best ice cream I’ve had.  I don’t know this for sure, but given how healthy they seem to be in Iceland, I bet it was made from all natural ingredients.   I had bought more than one food item at the grocery mart that I actually knew what all the ingredients were, things like flour, sugar, vanilla.      All in all, a great way to end the meal.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Walking Behind a Waterfall

On the way back from Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon we stopped at Seljalandsfoss, possibly the most famous waterfall in Iceland.  While waterfalls are in abundance in Iceland, what makes this one unique is that you can actually walk behind it!  There is a little cave behind it where you can stand and listen to the power that is Seljalandsfoss.   I warn you, the walk is a little treacherous.   While there are some stairs that lead up to the waterfall, once you get about midway up, the stairs stop and you have to walk along the ridge of the cave.  Getting around to the other side is even more of an adventure.  It's nothing but wet, slipper rocks that you have to climb up and over.  This would be a small challenge during the day but we were doing it at night!   I have to admit, the Traveling Hillbilly was a little nervous.  At first, I didn't even want to go all the way around, I was just going to turn back and go back the same way I came.  But a few others wanted to go too, so we decided there was safety in numbers and went for it.   I was about halfway up the rocks, when I realized two of our party had turned back around once they saw all the rocks.   Unfortunately, I didn't get a great picture for you since it was so dark, but here's a shot starting to walk behind and then one  taken from directly behind it.