Are The Gondolas Of Venice Worth It?

Venice was nothing like I expected. One of the most famous cities in the world, I had imagined a thriving metropolis with all of the usual characters – traffic, brand names, and bumbling crowds. Instead, I was met with what become one of my favorite cities in the world.

With a population of about 60,000 living in the city (260,000 in the surrounding metropolis), it’s fairly small which gives it the ability to retain its charm, which it does very will by winding you through alleyways and side streets, over bridges, letting you duck into cafés and pizzerias along your path to nowhere – a labyrinth with no end, just more. There are no cars in the city, so all of the traffic is made up of pedestrians, and thankfully, they stick to St. Mark’s Square and the surrounding area.

The Campanile is one of the icons of the city and the clocktower is in the back, over the archway.

While busy, the Piazza San Marco is a fantastic place to sight-see. Dominating the east side of the square is St. Mark’s Basilica, a Roman Catholic church that showcases Byzantine architecture. The church is flanked to the north by St. Mark’s Clocktower, which hangs above a busy throughfare. Freestanding in the square is St. Mark’s Campanile, a bell tower that began as a needed watchtower in the 10th century, before reaching its current height in the 1500’s. Due to a poor foundation, the tower fell in 1902 after some repairmen noticed the shifting of bricks while they worked. Closest to the docks is Doge’s Palace, a gothic palace that used to be the political center of the Venetian Republic. (Despite the efforts of Elon Musk, this Doge will not be going to the moon.)

The square was a nice place to relax with a group of friends and drink a couple bottles of wine and people watch. We had arrived in the late morning after waking up early to visit a glassblowing workshop in Murano, a set of islands that are about a 20 minute ferry ride north of Venice.

Murano is known for its glasswork.

As we lost ourselves in the back alleys of the city, we stopped for lunch and I ordered a Margherita pizza, perplexed to see that I had to cut it with a fork and knife instead of the rolling cutter I’m accustomed to in the U.S.

After refueling, we made our way across some more bridges until we found a gentleman waiting at the base of one of the bridges, offering gondola rides. The going rate starts at €80, getting you a 40+ minute ride around the side canals. While the price tag is hefty, this is the picture of Venice that you think of. This is what it is famous for. My friends and I took turns playing musical chairs around the boat, each getting an opportunity to see the city from the front and rear (snapping posed shots for Instagram, of course.) The water is surprisingly dirty. I couldn’t see more than a few inches below the top of the green-blue waterway. The tide was fairly low when I had gone; you could see indicators on the sides of buildings where water had risen before, some several feet higher than where the water was currently.

The canals of Venice. Notice the water marks on the buildings from high tides.

The city has a new Mose system, a series of 78 floodgates that block water from coming in from the Adriatic Sea. This is especially important after the November, 2019 floods that destroyed hundreds of millions of euros worth of houses, businesses, and monuments.

As we floated on, we passed many other gondolas which had an impressive way of acknowledging right-of-way with calling out, singing, and simple gestures. The gondoliers were all very positive, friendly, and seemed to enjoy their days of transporting countless tourists around the waterways of the city. I was keeping my eye out for Marco Polo’s house and the building that Daniel Craig chased Eva Green to in Casino Royale.

Venice is an incredible city. It has a perfect blend of sight-seeing, a laid-back atmosphere, and hidden gems to enjoy. Have you been to Venice? What did you think?

Famous for its maze of canals, the city has inspired nicknames for other cities that you may be interested in:

Iceland – Reykjavík

In case you missed it…

After dropping Anna off at the airport, we made our way back towards Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland and home to about 2/3 of the country’s population. We were going to be here for just one night before heading off to Akureyri for a few days and returning for another night before our flight home.

Hallgrimskirkja Church.

Our Airbnb was about 20 minutes outside of the city center, nestled in a quiet neighborhood with a lane divider meaning you had to come down the street going the correct direction or make a dramatic loop around the needlessly large block to be able to access the driveway.

In order to lengthen our funds, we decided to head to the local Bónus supermarket and get some ingredients to make spaghetti, since the place we were staying had a full kitchen. While I made dinner, Rachel had started on doing some laundry. We had picked this particular Airbnb because it had a washer and dryer, which meant we could cut our packed clothes in half.

Clearly, we don’t understand how European washers work…

After starting to run our clothes through the wash, we noticed that the wash cycle never ended. Eventually, we had to force the washer to stop, never figuring out how to put it through a drain cycle, so when we opened the door, the clothes were sitting in a puddle of water. I tried for a little while to Google the model of the washer and tried to figure it out but in the end, we had to improvise. Rachel and I created an assembly line, where I fished the clothes out of the washer, ringing them out before passing them to her to ring them out further in the shower and putting them into the dryer. We continued this for the entire load, minus the few items that we had to hang dry around the room (like merino wool base layers.)

After the adventure that was laundry, we wanted to explore downtown with the remaining daylight that was available. We hopped back in our Kia and made the quick drive to a parking lot outside of the Hallgrimskirkja Church.

The Hallgrimskirkja Church dominates the iconic skyline that we associate with Reykjavik. Its design was inspired by the basalt columns that decorate the country’s volcanic landscape and sits atop a hill that overlooks the whole city and harbor. The church took a relatively long time to build. The local parish started looking for designs in the 1920s before an architect was selected and construction began in 1945; however, the church’s construction didn’t finish until 1986, thirty-six years after the death of the original designer.

Me and my boy, Leif.

While the majestic spire steals your attention at first, the building does offer much more. The front door is large and beautiful, decorated with imagery and text. In front of the church is a statue of Leif Erikson, the Nordic explorer thought to have been the first European to have set foot in North America. The statue was gifted to Iceland by the United States in 1930 as a commemmoration of the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland’s first parliament meeting at Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir in English) which also happens to be the oldest parliament in the world.

After making Rachel take a lot a couple pictures of me posing in front of Leif Erikson, we wandered into the city, choosing one of the many streets that lead away from the church into the shopping and restaurant district of the city. We wandered the streets, popping into souvenir shops and bookstores and a cool Viking-inspired shop that sold carved axes and jewelry.

Rye bread ice cream.

Wanting a break from the mild climb of the hilly roads, we stopped in the famous Kaffi Loki. I got a local beer and we split a rye bread ice cream complete with cream and a tasty rhubarb syrup. It was delicious! This took us towards the end of the night and we were back near our car so we headed back to our Airbnb for the night to rest before heading up to Akureyri.

On our way back through, at the end of our trip, we stopped for another night in Reykjavik. The morning of our flight home, we had a few extra hours to go back to the city where we were able to see the Sun Voyager sculpture, a symbol of freedom and hope.

Sun Voyager looking over Mt. Esja.

Reykjavik is a wonderful city and I cannot wait to go back. Do you have any can’t miss spots in Iceland or is it on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below.

Iceland – Vík To Höfn

Continued from Part 1.

From here, we headed east along the Ring Road. We took a few short stops during our drive, but one was extra epic. There was a gravel road that ran off of the highway and we decided to follow it. Thankfully, we had a 4×4 vehicle because this drive was bumpy. We inched along bump by bump until we flattened out into a parking lot. We had made it to Sveitarfélagið Hornafjörður, a beautiful fjord that offers glacier hikes and an incredible view. We did a quick change of outfits and were so excited about our find that we had to bust out some dance moves.

Fun fact: This glacier was one of the landing spots for the first aerial circumnavigation of the world in 1924.

Along the highway, on either side of a bridge, you arrive at Diamond Beach. Jökulsárlón lagoon carries mini iceburgs out to the sea from the Breidamerkurjokull glacier giving incredible photo opportunities who want to capture the beautiful, blue-clear ice shining against the black sand. It definitely earned its namesake, in terms of looks. While we were enjoying the view, one seemingly brave individual unzipped his jacket to reveal a wetsuit and grabbed a surfboard from his vehicle. He ended up just snapping some photos of himself with a remote-controlled camera.

That night, we stayed in Höfn, a small harbor village. We got some subs with local fish and ice cream before calling it a night. My cold was really acting up and I sat outside in the Airbnb’s common area doing my best not to keep everyone awake with my coughing. Extra strength menthol cough drops were my lifeline during this trip. Those and bags of sweet chili pepper Doritos. As the night went on and I tried to make myself tired enough to sleep through my cough, I was looking at the My Aurora Forecast app to see if we had any chance of seeing the northern lights. It was too cloudy the entire time we were there, but there was some magnetic activity in the area that night.

The next morning, we drove up to the Viking Cafe, near the Vestrahorn mountain. For 800 Icelandic Króna (ISK), you can visit an abandoned viking village movie set, an easy walk from the cafe. You’re free to roam the grounds and explore, but by the time we reached the settlement, the rain and snow had picked up and we were getting pelted and drenched, cutting our exploration to just a brief run through.

After we made it back to the car, we took a short drive to the Stokksnes area – a gorgeous beach with dramatic views. Between windstorms throwing sand at us, a frigid breeze, and more snow, we managed to have an outfit change and take my favorite photos of the trip. I’m cutting this paragraph short because I cannot find words to describe Anna’s work here.

For our trip back, we stopped at the same Airbnb in Vík as our first night (where I once again tried to stay up until the middle of the night to have a chance at seeing the northern lights) and revisited Reynisfjara. Along the road to the beach is the Loftsalahellir Cave, which you can get to after a steep, muddy climb. We snapped a few more photos and continued on. We had to drop Anna off at the airport before Rachel and I continued to Reykjavik and then the north.

We were one small slip away from being covered in mud trying to get here.

The Ring Road is essentially the only way to traverse most of Iceland. There aren’t secondary or tertiary routes to follow, so if something happens on route 1, it happens to everyone trying to drive on that section. We ended up in a long standstill that resulted from a car crash a few kilometers ahead. Rumor was (I spoke with a lady that had a badge so I believe her) that the family had to be evacuated by helicopter, though I never thoroughly followed up on the story to see how valid that was. Nothing pops up on Google, so I have to assume the incident was minor. We eventually got through and dropped Anna off at the airport, saying our goodbyes and heading off for the second half of our trip.

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Iceland – Keflavík To Vík

Our Roadtrip Around The Southern Half Of The Island Nation

Rachel responded to a post she saw on Instagram from a couples photographer who was looking to go to Iceland and invited a couple along to split the cost in exchange for a photo shoot. This was how we met Anna.

I knew of Iceland and it had been recommended to me by several friends, but as someone who despises the cold, it never climbed high on my to-go list. Oh boy, how that has changed. I would go back anytime now.

We flew into Keflavík Airport in mid-March, nearing the end of winter. You basically have two seasons in Iceland – winter offers the best chance to see the aurora and summer gives you the midnight sun and the longest days to explore the country with.

I was feeling a bit under the weather. A cold had been spreading around my workplace and had finally gotten to me right before we left for the trip. It would end up sticking with me for nearly two months before we left for a trip to Cancun.

Anna had been to Iceland a number of times before so she was all prepared to load us into our rented Kia Sportage, hook up a transportable WiFi device (I definitely recommend renting one for ~$10/day) and start driving us away from the airport. It’s a lot of barren land between Kevlavik and Reykjavik, the nation’s capital and largest city. Barren land and roundabouts. I still hear “take the second exit towards Hafnarfjörður in my head from our drive back to the airport.

Seljalandsfoss.

Driving on route 1, the highway known as the ring road because it makes a circle around the island, we were essentially making a U around the bottom half of the country. Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, where we found a number of beautiful waterfalls and fell on our butts traversing the slippery ice. The drive around here was awe-inspiring; your jaw drops as you pass mountain after mountain, waterfall after waterfall, each location more beautiful and impressive than the last.

Right outside of our Airbnb.

For the first night, we stayed near the town of Vík, the southern most village in the county with a population of about 300. We stayed in a cute little room that was nestled on a farm off the main highway. We were met by a nice woman and her black labrador, let into our room, and from there we planned our excursion. We headed into town to grab a veggie burger platter from the gas station (this would become a recurring theme) and stopped by Reynisfjara for a quick visit to the famous black sand beaches and basalt columns to shoot a few photos. As we strolled along the beach, everyone was heading up the beach, towards the parking lot. Before I could realize why I was the only person close to the water, a sneaker wave engulfed my legs, soaking my bottom half. I was lucky enough to maintain balance, but my boots and pants were drenched and I had to leave them to dry for the next two days. There are a myriad of signs warning of the dangers of sneaker waves and I just happened to be the person not to heed them.

The wave got me just a moment after this.

The next morning, we woke up early and took a (very) quick hop down the road to visit Skógafoss. This wonderful waterfall (“wonderfall,” if you will) is visible from the road and a big tourist attraction, which makes waking up early a must. As we approached, we really felt the power that the fall had. It was loud and grew exponentially the closer you stepped. We ditched our jackets and Anna snapped some great pictures that captured our modest selves juxtaposed against the height of the falls. There was a steep staircase that took you to an observation platform for another vantage point. [Continued in the next post…]

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A Perfect Stay In Akureyri

Iceland has been in the news this week with consistent earthquake tremors that have led some to believe a volcanic eruption in the populated southwestern peninsula is imminent. No need to worry, however; both Reykjavík and Keflavík Airport are deemed to be out of the way of potential lava flow. While 2/3 of the Icelandic population live near the capital, the island nation offers so much more and a lot of that is in the north, where you can create a base in Akureyri – the country’s “northern capital.”

Akureyri, Iceland.
How To Get There

Traversing Iceland is relatively simple – you follow Highway 1 or the Ring Road in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Leaving the capital region and its sea of countless roundabouts, you’ll be rewarded pleasantly by heading either way, but for the sake of this post, we’re heading north. Cross under the Hvalfjörður tunnel, bypassing the fjord’s vistas and about 45km, and continue along the Ring Road which will take you about 5 hours over mountains, one-lane bridges, and beautiful landscapes. There are several gas station stops along the way to fill up on fuel or grub. You’ll be coming down a mountain as you enter the city of 18,000.

The drive up to Akureyri is full of tons of places to stop for pictures.

*Big Tip* Please do not try to drive between the two cities during white-out conditions. The risk is not worth it.

Where To Stay

We stayed in a super cool tiny house that we found through Airbnb. It sat across the bridge overlooking the fjord and Akureyri from the eastern side. The place had a loft-style design and the side of the building that faced the water was almost entirely window, letting you wake up to an absolutely perfect view. The homeowner even left a pair of binoculars for you to try to catch some whales that swim up the fjord during certain times of the year.

Back down in the city, you can find a few more homestays as well as hostels such as Akureyri Backpackers, which offers quality rooms and a decent food menu. I recommend the potato wedges and a beer then take a walk over to grab some icecream from Brynja or Isbuden Akureyri.

*Tip* Use this link to save up to $65 off your first Airbnb stay.

Our tiny house with an incredible view of the fjord.
What To Do

In order to get the most out of a trip to the north of the island, it’s a good idea to take a tour of the Diamond Circle – a lesser known but, in my opinion, better version of the famous Golden Circle that is right outside of Reykjavík. This was our route:

⭐️Goðafoss is your first stop, a powerful waterfall surrounded by a legend that a lawspeaker transitioned Iceland into the Christian religion when he threw pagan idols into the water.

You’ll hear it from the road before you see it.

🔥 Dimmuborgir is a lava field covered by large lava tubes and several trails for you to explore around. It was used as a shooting location in a few Game of Thrones episodes, too. Unfortunately, the trails were heavily iced over, so we only took a few steps before deciding to skip this stop.

💧 Grjótagjá is a small lava cave with a thermal pool inside. It has two entrances where people can battle back and forth between which the correct in-and-out direction is. It’s pretty icy, has steep climbs to crawl up and down, and lacks any safety parameters, so be careful. This was also used in GoT, specifically the scene where Jon Snow and Ygritte finally share an intimate moment. The steam from the water is so hot that any picture I tried to take was immediately fogged up.

🥚 Námaskarð is a geothermal area covered in volcanic mud pools that you’ll smell before you see. Once you catch the scent of rotten eggs lingering in the sulfuric mist, you’ll know your close. The high winds will make it all the more intense. You can follow the trails around, catching photos of what I’d say is closer to a Martian landscape than that of Iceland.

It looks like a picture from NASA’s Perseverance camera.

🌋 Krafla is a place to stop for a hike that will take you to the caldera of a volcano and a picturesque lake sitting in the middle. We were pressed for time, so didn’t get to stop, but from what I’ve seen, it would be worth it. Make sure to look out for the toilet along the road.

💦 Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall (a statement disputed by Rhine Falls in Switzerland and dependent upon ice melt from the Vatnajökull glacier.) We made the nearly hour drive from our last stop up to Dettifoss after a snowfall. Once we arrived, the road to the falls was open so we continued forth at an incredibly slow pace traversing over rocky roads to preserve our rented car’s exterior. After what seemed like an eternity of bumpy driving, we arrived at the gates that said the falls were closed due to inclement weather. Sigh. About 100m ahead, we saw a truck that had attempted to make the drive in spite of the warning and was stuck in snow and ice. We didn’t want to chance it and turned around.

🛀 Mývatn Nature Baths make for a pleasant stop along the Diamond Circle. A less expensive option to the popular Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik, the Mývatn Nature Baths offer a chance to relax. The quick sprint from the locker room to the pool is cold and windy (trust me, you’re going to run, not walk), but once you get in the water, it is nice and warm. A nearby hot tub and sauna room make for cozy places to meet other travelers.

Hot thermal baths with a view.

If you don’t want to spend a day driving from place to place, you can stick to the nearby community in Akureyri. Whale watching companies offer tours that will give you free replacement tickets if you don’t have any luck spotting one the day you go. We opted to have an experience with a different type of animal – we rode Icelandic horses. Although they are a bit smaller, near pony-sized, they have two unique gaits and a heavy coat. A young German girl was staying in Iceland to help tend to the farm and took us on a tour on our two horses – Gelding and Jolly. Every once in a while, our guide’s horse would stop because “he saw ghosts” and mine just decided to wander into the grass randomly before I got him turned back around.

Highlighters on horses.

Akureyri is a great town and if you have more than two or three days in the country, I highly recommend checking out the capital of the north.

Why Brussels Is Where I Fell In Love With Europe

I stopped in Belgium for a brief layover between Paris and Rome. It should have been a forgettable few hours where I could find enough time to grab a bite to eat and relax before the second leg of our flight. But Brussels had a different plan for me.

How I envisioned Europe looking.

When we arrived at the airport, we began our layover by getting on the wrong train (heading in the opposite direction towards Luxembourg.) The layover ended by finding out my luggage had been lost once we returned for the second flight to Rome. This should have been a bad experience, but it just wasn’t.

We realized, rather quickly, that our train was going in the wrong direction and made the switch at the next station to head back into the city center. Once at the Central Station, we headed down a hill towards a pedestrian-only walkway. We had no plans here. We didn’t look up “Top Things To Do In Brussels” or have any recommendations of where to go and what to see. That ended up being the best part.

We had mussels in Brussels.

The cobblestone alley we stumbled upon was what I had imagined Europe to look like. It was busy, intimidating, and foreign. You couldn’t tell where one restaurant or shop ended and the next one began. While one host is pointing you towards their menu exclaiming how its in English, you have a host across the alley beckoning for you to look at their high-quality dish pictures, all while avoiding the never-ending sea of tourists walking through you as if you didn’t exist. In other words, it was exactly what I wanted.

We found a tourist-facing restaurant to sit down for a meal, but they had €10 specials that included an entrée, frites, and a beer. It was a lot of food, too, so our bellies left happy. Our next stop were the Saint Hubert Galleries’ to window-shop some chocolates and Smurf memorabilia.

Smurfs and chocolate everywhere.

The trip was short, unplanned, and uneventful, but it left me craving more of the maze-like corridors and small, family owned shops that I romanticized about Europe having. I look forward to visiting again in the future for an extended stay, maybe with a trip out to Bruges or Ghent.

7 Things To Do On A Layover In Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of the most famous cities in the world – and rightfully so. Its laidback atmosphere lends itself to any and all visitors. When someone tells you they’re interested in going, you might instantly think of some sex shop, weed-filled Eurotrip-esque adventure, but there’s more to the city. Much more. I look forward to my chance to go back and explore the Dutch country, but these are my recommendations if you have just a brief stint in Amsterdam:

1. Take a canal tour
The best way to see the city is by boat.

Nicknamed Venice of the North, the city boasts over 100km of canals and 1,500 bridges. Because of this, I believe the absolute best way to get a grasp of the city is to see it by boat. Ranging from €10-35, the nearly hour and a half trip will lead you around the outer city accompanied by a guide that will explain the purposes of creating half-circle canals, how the residents got furniture in their skinny houses, and tidbits about the Dutch Resistance.

2. unwind at a coffeeshop
If this is your destination, your nose will guide you.

Depending on what time of day you arrive and how stressful your flight was, you may want to stop by a coffeeshop (different than a coffee shop) and pick up a little treat. You’ll notice the distinct smell as you walk by and you can stop in for cannabis or spacecake. My understanding is that drugs aren’t as legal as they are just decriminalized and tolerated – an idea that would save plenty of lives in the USA if we adopted a similar mindset.

3. Visit the Anne frank house

Currently closed until Spring 2021 due to COVID-19, the museum shares the story of the young girl who hid from Nazi occupiers between 1942 and 1944. Tickets are €14 and it is a quick walk from Central Station (where you’ll likely end up after a train ride from the airport.)

4. Ride a bike around the city
There are 1.3 bikes for every one person in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, there are more bikes (23 million) than people (17 million), meaning traveling by bike is the most authentic way to experience a Dutch city. With over 500km of bike lanes in the city, you’ll find yourself either leisurely coasting down an empty street or in the middle of rush hour with a hundred other bikes in each direction going at high speeds. Obey traffic signals, use your hands to signal turning, and use the bike lanes, but enjoy the self-driven tour of Amsterdam.

5. embrace some culture in an art museum
We enjoyed a Heineken across the street from the Rembrant House.

Home to some reknowned museums, you have myriad choices depending on your interests. The Rijksmuseum offers classic art tours and things to do for everyone. The Van Gogh Museum and Rembrandt House show off collections of the titular artist’s work. The Moco Museum sends you through stunning visual exhibits with a more contemporary flair.

6. Hang out in vondelpark

The largest, and most famous, park in the city, you can stroll through Vondelpark and see people jogging, walking their dogs, or lazing about. Take your time and relax until the next leg of your flight.

7. take a picture with the “IAMsterdam” sign

Located in the Schiphol Airport, these letters offer a great selfie to make your friends jealous on the ‘gram. An original, larger set were once sitting infront of the Rijksmuseum since 2004, but were removed in late 2018 because the city council thought it delivered the wrong message (they wanted it to celebrate the diversity of the city rather than be a mass-tourism hot spot.)

Me and my sister.

Why You Should Visit The Catacombs of Paris

*Warning – some may find pictures below disturbing*

There aren’t many things that I’m afraid of. Bears, snakes, spiders, no problem. I’ll pet the biggest lion or the slimiest slug. But there are a few things I won’t tread near – the creepy beasts of the world beneath us. I mean… have you seen a naked mole rat? Nooo way.

Relatedly, I don’t seek out scary movies to watch. I’ve never understood the appeal of wanting to be scared, usually with some obviously timed jump scare that still gets you each time. There are two, however, that came to mind when I last visited Paris. The Descent (parts 1 and 2) is about a group of girls who have to fight their way out of a cave while fighting some naked mole rat zombie mutants. That is my literal nightmare… The other is As Above, So Below – a group ventures into the Catacombs of Paris in search of the philosopher’s stone before realizing they’ve essentially entered hell.

If you are going to invite me on any kind of spelunking, caving, or potholing adventure, my answer is probably no. But maybe. As much as I don’t want to come face to face with an albino, eyeless monstrosity, there’s something appealing about a site that warns you:

Stop! This is the empire of the dead.

Entering the Catacombs of Paris.

The creation of the catacombs can be summarized fairly concisely. Paris expanded in size rapidly and overfilled the existing cemeteries. In need of space, over 6 million Parisian bodies were moved underground into abandoned quarries by way of covered wagons that worked overnight. There is no way to tell who is who down here. You could be looking at a peasant or an aristocrat, the bones of privilege or the bones of frugality. We all end the same.

The logistics of getting into the Catacombs is straightforward. You arrive at a rather unassuming green building and will likely see a line (sorry, a queue) that is an hour long. They only let 200 people down at a time, pre-COVID and presumably post, as well. There is a longer line that costs less, but you may not be able to get in. We opted for the shorter, pre-purchased ticket line for €29. We grabbed an English-language audio guide and started our descent down 20 meters of stairs.

A labyrinth of dust and bone.

It’s fairly cold by the time you get to the bottom, so bring a jacket with you and some walking shoes for this 45 minute, 1.5km walk through tight alleyways of rock and bone. There are a lot of sections that are not friendly to tall people. I highly recommend spending the extra €5 for the audio guide, because you can take a gentle stroll between the numbered guide points taking in the history and stories of the underground Paris.

Various gated passages will peak your interest as you try to look down them for a glimpse of what’s being hidden from you. Maybe a cult of druids who are summoning the king of naked mole rats, but probably just some ballsy Parisian cataphiles who are trying to escape the life above for a few hours.

Over 6 million sets of bones exist down here.

You can only spend so much time around a city of dead. Your mind will wander and there’s some lingering dread that you’re ready to shed by the time you get to the stairs that will take you back up and drop you by a side street and skull-themed gift shop.

If you’re in Paris and have a few hours free in the morning, I’d suggest venturing over to the Catacombs of Paris. I may not have sold it to you on excitement and flare in this post, but sometimes we need a bit of realism that can bring us back to Earth. You may be in the city of lights, but it hides a dark history beneath.

The skulls and bones are all mixed up.

Cruising Around The Aegean Sea

I never considered taking a cruise before. I envisioned them as either too family-friendly with kids running around, screaming, being in the way or full of old, entitled people, playing bingo and white washing the culture in all of their destinations.

I was mostly wrong.

As part of my trip to Greece through a group tour company, we ended our stay in the country by taking a cruise around several of the islands:

Mykonos

What do you notice first? The gorgeous, white buildings that backdrop the harbor, providing a beautiful contrast to the vibrant blues and purples of window shutters and flowers. The pleasantly arranged seafood platters at each restaurant that tries to ensnare you from your first step off the boat. Or do you go straight for the maze of walking streets that take you from one bougie store to the next, juxtaposing your life into that of a Kardashian’s for but a few moments.

We meandered through some back alleys to bypass some of the busier sections, but ended up behind homes of the local workers and business owners, subject to the law forcing them to keep their homes the white and azure blue you picture when thinking of Greece.

I split a delicious seafood feast with a friend, enjoying calamari, clams, and more, while escaping the 95-degree weather for a bit. We were on a tight schedule and had to be near the ship for boarding to the next destination.

Samos

The next stop for the cruise ship was actually Kusadasi, a beach resort town in Turkey. For reasons I’m still not positive on, no U.S. citizens were allowed to disembark the boat for this stop. I’m guessing it was related to Turkey’s involvement with Qatar or the 2016 coup d’état attempt. Still not sure, but it cost me an evening in the country. Luckily, I had purchased the all-inclusive drink plan right after boarding, so I explored the ship seeing which bar had the heaviest pour.

The next morning, we ventured onto the island of Samos. The Archaeological Museum of Pythagorion had a great collection of statues, busts, and trinkets from the island’s past. Just south, near the port, is the Tower of Lykourgos Logothetis, a residence/defense tower used by the island’s leader during the Greek War of Independence.

I was once a beer drinker.

We continued along the beach and followed a trail made by a Jeep to a restaurant, the Pegasus Tavern. The owners were beyond hospitable, immediately letting us sit wherever and provided excellent service. The combination of a tall lager and the shade from the grape vines helped fight off the heat until we got closer to boarding time.

When our group all met back up at the port, our tour director, Ally, gifted me a bottle of wine for my birthday which was a few days prior. I didn’t open this until we were back in the U.S. The label was all in Greek, so I had no idea what to expect. Not my favorite, to be honest. Some Google and reverse-image searches later and it turns out it was church communion wine.

Patmos

My favorite thing about the Greek islands is how each one has its own personality. Mykonos was about luxury and partying, Samos shared its history and had easy-shopping. Patmos was a laid-back beach island. We had arrived mid-afternoon, but hardly any shops were open, so we easily strolled to a stretch of beach recommended by Ally.

The beach itself was nice. It was completely empty except for us, leaving plenty of room to lay out our towels on the sand. There was a short border of rocks and shells as you entered the water before coming out to sand. The water was surprisingly cold until you mustered up the courage to dip all the way in.

We were soon joined on the beach by the happiest labradoodle who ran circles around us in the sand, leaving only to go pee in the ocean. “Max,” called a man approaching from one of the buildings behind the beach. In decent English, the man explained who he and his dog were and how he ran a beachside business here. He grabbed some folding chairs for us to use so we didn’t have to lay in the sand.

The man continued down the beach until he reached a speed boat, apparently his. He came and offered some thrilling water activities to us. For some reason, I did not participate, but two of my friends did, strapping onto an inflatable raft that he began to drag behind his boat. It was really funny watching them bounce around on the waves as he whipped them around at high speeds over the water. I always regret missing the experiences more than paying the cost to do them.

A short while later, we returned to the ship and stayed up a little too late waiting for last call.

Crete
Crete offers a big city without the hustle and bustle.

This was an early, early wake-up call. Between the lack of sleep and the lingering hangover, a good portion of me wanted to stay in bed all day. But, we’re here. We have to at least visit.

Most of our group felt the same way about skipping this island, opting to sleep in while two of us ventured onto the biggest island in Greece. It was a full-on city, but rather empty. We easily walked around, snapping pictures of some of the cooler buildings (most of it looked like any other city – office buildings and apartment complexes.) I would love to get a chance to come back and visit the Knossos Palace.

I grabbed a gyro for an early lunch and we returned to the ship.

Santorini

After a much needed mid-day nap, lots of water, and some reawakening, I was prepared for the afternoon destination – the beautiful island of Santorini.

Formed around the caldera of an ancient volcano, the cities sit at the top of a cliff that can be reached via cable car or stairs. The way up offers a gorgeous view and when you reach the top, no words can describe it.

We wandered into the town, stopping in shops looking for the perfect souvenir to reflect on our journey here. There was plenty of jewelry to try on, a sex shop that welcomed our middle-school aged boy maturity, and a wall art shop that I stopped in to grab a Crazy Donkey brewery t-shirt. I was half-tempted to lose myself in the alleys, hiding from the inevitability that I would have to leave this perfect paradise in just a couple hours.

The hunger hit us quickly and we found a rooftop restaurant to stop into. I ordered some bread, another calamari dish, and a carafe of the house white. I thought one of the five other people with me would have had a glass, but nope… I got to had to drink the whole thing to myself.

This trip was before I took an interest in photography, opting for the “live in the moment” style of travel, but I really wish I had taken some more pictures to look through. The important moments are easy to remember, but its the small intricate details that really let you delve into a memory.

As we approached the cable car station to ride back down, we noticed the line was extraordinarily long and we had a brief window to get back to the ship. We decided to take the 800+ stairs down the face of the cliff instead, a tiring walk when you’re finishing a long day.

Don’t ride the mules.

I cannot wait to go back and explore the islands again, on my own, to really get a chance to take them in at my pace. I got to witness their beauty, now I want to go back and see what they really offer.

Me contemplating how long until I get to come back to the Greek islands.

How To Explore Prague In A Day

Prague is one of the most walkable cities that I have ever been to. It’s winding, cobblestone streets leading towards Old Town Square are dotted with shops, pubs, restaurants, and more. You can easily pass people without the awkward struggle of waiting for them to make space for you or jumping out of the way for the inconsiderate brute who thinks the sidewalk was made for them and them only. If you know me, you know I hate being stuck behind slow walkers.

Our hotel, U Zlatého stromu, was right beside Charles Bridge and offered a great start to the day’s journey. The bridge has two towers on either side and for about $4USD, you can climb to the top for an epic view. Going down the stairs takes you to a little exhibit of items found around the bridge, from old tools to cellphones. The bridge itself is decorated with 30 statues, mostly of saints, that have been replaced with replicas over the years. Grab a picture with them as you stroll around pop-up vendors selling art and souvenirs.

Once you arrive on the Lesser Quarter, you can quickly find the Lennon Wall. Named for John, not Vladimir, the wall quickly popped up with symbols of freedom and western culture shortly after John’s assassination in 1980. It was used to protest the communist regime in then-Czechoslovakia. Each time we passed by, we found a busker performing “Imagine” that is impossible not to sing along with in your head.

The John Lennon Wall.

Climb the steps to the north until you arrive at Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. The most prominent structure here is the St. Vitus Cathedral, where you’ll find an incredibly long line to get in. The good thing is, you don’t need to wait in line to take a picture of the outside. Spend some time wandering around the grounds where you can find all kinds of history surrounding Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire. Statues, medieval-era buildings, one of the most fascinating things about Prague is how untouched it was during the World Wars, leaving many structures still intact, a feat that much of Europe can’t also claim.

As we descended down from the castle, we stopped by the oldest tavern in the city for a beer, and made our way towards Petřín Hill. It’s a doozy of a walk, but you can take a tram to the top if you need a little assistance. At the top, you’ll find it covered with parks and gardens. My favorite spots, however, were the Lookout Tower (it looks like a mini-Eiffel Tower), the Hunger Wall (a 14th century defense wall for the Lesser Town), and the Štefánik’s Observatory (an astronomical observatory used mainly to popularize astronomy.) Take your time here, you have a chance to slow down and take in a great view of the city, while meandering through beautiful gardens.

The city of 100 spires.

We ventured back down, towards the Charles Bridge. Just north is the Jewish Quarter, where you’ll find one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Continuing down the pedestrian-only street, you’ll come across Old Town Square. This is the perfect place to relax with a beer and food. Even the tourist trap restaurants aren’t bad, but a quick dive into some online recommendations and you can find plenty of food and drink options for under 200CZK (~$10USD.)

The gothic architecture is great to see, as well as several museums, but the biggest draw here is the Astronomical Clock. Operating since at least 1410 (with a brief lapse in 2018 for repairs), the clock has several animated figures that put on a show each hour. It’s an overstimulating experience, but it’s one you can’t miss if you’re in Prague.

From here, depending on the time of day, you can take it easy and enjoy some food and drink for the rest of the night, or you can continue on to Wensiclas Square. We chose the former, enjoying some goulash in a restaurant above a bank as I practiced my Czech with our server. It was just the most basic of phrases, but she was very happy with the effort insisting I was an exchange student, at the least, to have spent the time learning some vocabulary. I assured her it was just because I’m a fan of the city.

Below here is a shopping district where you’ll find some international brands like H&M and Zara, but you can skip that and make your way back towards the river. By now, your feet will probably be tired, but you have to make it down to the Dancing House, a pair of office buildings that stick out from the typical Baroque and Gothic buildings you’ve seen around the city.

Fred and Ginger – The Dancing House.

We took an easy stroll back up the river until we reached the Charles Bridge and our hotel. One last beer while I finished the latest episode of Game of Thrones, and we’ll call that a perfect day in Prague.