Tag Archives: tourist

Europe 2014 – Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel is an abbey built up towards the heavens on an island off the coast of Normandy. It has been a pilgrimage site since 708 AD when the voice of Archangel Michael commanded the bishop of Avranches to build a church on the mount. Originally, pilgrims had to cross a mudflat, braving wild surging tides, disorienting fog, and quicksand. Today, it’s much easier to reach thanks to a paved causeway connecting the island to the nearby town and visitors center.

From Bayeux, it was an easy 75 minute drive. Our guidebook warned us that crowds were horrendous mid-day, so we planned to arrive early and leave shortly after lunch. After parking on the mainland, we boarded a free shuttle bus to take us across the causeway, and began the winding walk up to the abbey. Following our guidebook’s suggestion, we took a path to the left, avoiding both crowds and stairs, and happened upon some incredible views along the way.

At the tippy top of the mountain is the abbey, the idea being that the closer to heaven and the more removed from society and its temptations, the better. Because there wasn’t enough level ground to support a church of a decent size, the abbey actually sits on four large crypts which were built to hold up the wings of the church. This plan worked until 1421 when one of the wings collapsed. We were assured that the remaining and rebuilt wings were architecturally sound and that we would be perfectly safe exploring the abbey and the crypts below 🙂

The picture below was taken in the Hall of the Grand Pillars, which is the crypt that collapsed in the 15th century. Those columns are 15 feet around; the architects rebuilding this wing certainly didn’t want history to repeat itself.

After our tour of the abbey, we walked down the main street and were amazed at how crowded it had become. It truly was wall-to-wall people hiking up the mountain. We stopped at the Restaurant le St. Michel for huge, tasty platters of mussels and were thankful we’d gotten to the island early.

We drove back to Bayeux, picked up a bottle of wine, and spent the rest of the afternoon watching the world go by from our hotel room balcony. It was our last day of our Europe 2014 vacation, and I wouldn’t have spent it any other way.

Europe 2014 – Paris Part I

Early in the morning, we boarded a train from London’s St. Pancras International station and a few hours later, arrived at Paris’s Gare du Nord. From Gare du Nord, we made our way to our hotel, located southeast of Luxembourg Gardens. By the time we checked into our hotel and freshened up, it was time for lunch. Because we were staying in a very residential area away from the tourist hubbub, we decided that wandering the area and looking at menus was our best option. We didn’t have far to go, as there was a very enticing cafe only a block away from our hotel. It was clearly a local place, with daily specialties scrawled on a chalkboard and very little in the way of English translations.

Luckily for us, most of the waiters seemed to speak enough English that we were able to order lunch and wine without any hassle whatsoever. Adam ordered some heavenly casserole concoction of cheese, ham, potatoes, and enough cream to kill a cat, while I ordered a salad, which sounds healthy, but only because you don’t know that it came with cheese, bacon, and potatoes cooked in duck fat. If I could get that kind of salad in America, I’d be ordering a lot more of them, let me tell you! After an amazing first meal in Paris, we walked towards the Eiffel Tower through Luxembourg Gardens. There were statues, and fountains, and a former palace built by a Medici princess.

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Europe 2014 – London Part III

On our third and final day in London, we were again blessed with great weather – sunny and almost warm enough to walk around without a coat. We headed to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was designed by Christopher Wren and built during the 17th century. Due to the fairly high cost (16.50 GBP) and Adam’s relative indifference to church interiors, we decided not to go inside.

Millennium Bridge

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Europe 2014 – 2 nights in Reykjavik

Thanks to a few Icelandair advertisements strategically placed in DC metro stations, I learned about their free stopover policy several months ago. It’s only a 5 hour flight from DC (Dulles) to Reykjavik, and then just under 3 hours from Reykjavik to London, so it seemed like a great way to break up a long trans-Atlantic trip. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland ever since I read Jar City by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason, and fitting it in on our way to London turned out to be perfect.

Iceland

Our flight left Dulles at 8:30pm on Saturday and touched down in Reykjavik at 6:30am local time. Because we were visiting in late October, the sun wasn’t yet up, and wouldn’t be for another few hours. We never check bags, unless the flight attendants are particularly nasty (they weren’t), so we were able to go straight through customs with our carry-ons and were on a bus into town within 30 minutes. Reykjavik airport is small and efficient. The drive took about 45 minutes total; I can’t say I was awake for any or all of it. After a quick switch at the bus terminal (tour buses and narrow Reykjavik streets aren’t exactly compatible), the mini bus dropped us right around the corner from our incredible airbnb house, which I found for loads cheaper than any of the other hotels in Reykjavik.

Despite all the warnings about napping and jet lag, we were going on a few hours of sleep at best, and the down comforters on the king size bed were too much to resist. We decided that if the sun wasn’t up yet, we didn’t need to be either.

A few hours later, with sunlight streaming through our window, we found the energy to get out of bed, shower, and bundle up to explore the city. Temperatures were in the low 30s – not exactly warm, but certainly bearable. First up, the church of Hallgrimskirkja, which looks unlike any other church I’ve ever seen.

Hallgrimskirkja

The church was right up the street from our airbnb house and is said to have been designed to resemble the basalt lava flows in Iceland’s landscape. The statue in front is of Leif Eriksson, famous Icelandic explorer. The church is free to enter, but is very spartan inside, keeping with the Lutheran tradition.

Inside Hallgrimskirkja

Inside Hallgrimskirkja is bright and airy and worlds away from the embellished and adorned Catholic cathedrals I’m used to visiting in Europe. At the back of the church is a large and beautiful pipe organ, the only adornment. The organ weighs 25 tons.

Hallgrimskirkja pipe organ

Although the organ is impressive, the real attraction, in my opinion, is the bell tower, which is open to visitors for a small fee (I believe it was Ikr 900 per person – just over $7). You buy tickets in the small gift shop, then take a very small elevator all the way to the top.

Hallgrimskirkja square

Reykjavik view

Reykjavik view

After our tour of Hallgrimskirkja, it was time for lunch. We quickly found out that food in Iceland is expensive, so we turned to a local hole-in-the-wall noodle place for a hearty, warming meal on the cheap. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was popular and amazing. Hubby got chicken, I got veggies, both extra spicy. It was deeeeelicious.

Noodle lunch After lunch, the plan was to walk down to the harbor area and do some sightseeing, but the weather had other ideas. Just as we were heading out, it started pouring. Already cold and tired, we were not ready to add soaking wet to the mix, so we opted for a low-key afternoon in a coffee shop with our books and bowls of steaming lattes. Eventually, the rain stopped and we ventured out to do some browsing in the shops along Laugavegur, where I picked up a souvenir from the Handknitting Association of Iceland (see photo below).

This hat my look silly, but it was warm!

This hat may look silly, but it is warm!

After an early dinner (we ate at Fish, which was ok but not great), it was time for bed. None of the legendary Reykjavik pub crawl action for us! I’m not as young as I used to be, folks.

Day Two in Reykjavik was sunny, but cold with a biting wind. We spent the day wandering around town, window shopping, and trying to stay warm.

Colorful houses

Beatles bar

I let my husband steal my hat to keep warm

I let my husband steal my hat to keep warm

Lunch at Snaps

Lunch at Snaps

For lunch, we decided to splurge on the lunch special at Snaps restaurant (located in the Hotel Odensve). We were not disappointed! The menu descriptions were victim of a little mistranslation (the description on my husband’s meal – the far plate in the photo said “open faced sandwich”), but both dishes were incredible. We couldn’t believe how much food we received for the price (Ikr 1800 per plate) – especially when prices for similar restaurants were at least Ikr 2200.

After lunch, we caught a bus out to Laugardalslaug, one of the local swimming pools on the outskirt of town. While not nearly as resort-like as the famous Blue Lagoon, it was incredibly nice for loads cheaper. One thing you must do in Iceland, either at Blue Lagoon or at a local pool, is take a dip in a “hot pot” – a small pool naturally heated by geothermal springs. Basking in clear blue water, naturally heated to 104 degrees, while the snow falls was easily our favorite experience in Iceland. I didn’t visit Blue Lagoon, so I can’t compare, but I highly recommend Laugardalslaug – it’s easy to get to, incredibly clean, and we were the only non-Icelandic people there. I wish I had taken a picture, but I find that hot tubs and iPhones aren’t the best of friends.

After a few hours lounging in the hot pots, it was time to catch the bus back into town, find something for dinner, and go to bed early before our 4am wakeup call. Next stop – London!

Check out these other posts to read about the rest of our Europe 2014 trip! 

  • London Part I – arrival in London, fish & chips, a snazzy pub, and the British Library
  • London Part II – walking tour of London highlights, Westminster Abbey, and an Irish pub
  • London Part III – St. Paul’s, Borough Market, and an incredible WWI memorial at the Tower of London
  • Paris Part Ia walk through Luxembourg gardens and sunset at the Eiffel Tower
  • Paris Part IIthree blockbuster sites: Notre Dame, Versailles, and Sainte Chapelle
  • Paris Part III – the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Auguste Rodin museum
  • Bayeux – small town France
  • D-Day Beaches – paying tribute to the Greatest Generation
  • Mont Saint-Michel – an abbey on an island