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Photo Essay

My favorite place in Iceland: The Ice Diamonds Of Breiðamerkursandur

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Steaming geysers, thunderous waterfalls, breathtaking canyons and vast lava fields – I saw more stunningly beautiful places in my week in Iceland than in any other country in such a short time. But my favorite place? None of those. My favorite destination was the place that puts the ‘ice’ in Iceland: Jökulsárlón, Iceland’s most famous glacier lagoon, and even more so Diamond Beach, just across the street from the glacier.glacier lagoon ice icelandWhen I parked our car in the little car park right on the black sand beach, I understood immediately why it was called Diamond Beach: like bright diamonds in different shapes and sizes, dozens of chunks of ice litter the beach, giant waves crashing against them, moving the smaller ones around, and forcefully repelled by the bigger ones.jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beachWalking towards the water, I started seeing more icebergs floating around in the ocean, being tossed around by the waves as if they were paper boats and not bulky chunks of ice.jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beachIt is a spectacular sight, and I don’t think there’s anything like Diamond Beach anywhere else in the world (correct me if I’m wrong!).jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beachThe icebergs in the water are chunks of ice that broke off the glacier and then slowly floated down towards the ocean through the lagoon and a short river that connects the glacier lagoon with the open sea.jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beachThe lagoon was formed by the receding Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, of which massive chunks of ice break off regularly. There are dozens of them floating in the lagoon before they slowly glide out into the ocean.jokulsarlon glacier lagoon icelandEven though the sea is cold, the water here is warmer than in the icy lagoon. And so the ice chunks are thrown around and smoothened by the waves, and eventually they are thrown back at the beach.jokulsarlon iceland diamond beachYou can’t help but wonder how old the ice is that has been washed ashore – these pieces had been part of the glacier for centuries!jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beach - CopyThere aren’t two days when this beach looks the same – every day, new chunks of ice arrive, and others melt, and all of them are changing their shapes all the time during the melting process and the constant washing of the waves.jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beachBack in the lagoon, in between the ice chunks, you can spot seals that make their way into the lagoon from the ocean, curiously inspecting the massive blocks of blue-ish ice.glacier lagoon ice iceland sealThe light blue color of the ice was one of the most fascinating things about Jökulsárlón – the only other place I’ve seen ice like this was at Puerto Moreno Glacier in Argentina.jokulsarlon icelandYou often only see a tiny fraction of the entire iceberg – the bigger part are usually underwater. Some of them are as big as small houses!jokulsarlon glacier lagoon icelandJökulsárlón translates to ‘glacial river lagoon’ and only appeared in 1935, due to the melting of Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Over the years, it has become Iceland’s deepest lake, currently 814 feet (248 meters) deep. The lagoon has fourfold since the 1970s, to give you an idea of the current rate at which Iceland’s glaciers are melting.jokulsarlon glacier lagoon icelandJökulsárlón and the Diamond Beach are the one place in Iceland that I really want to return to – with more time to photograph this spectacle and ideally during the winter months, when the sun rises and sets late. Because apparently, seeing this place during sunrise (the sun rises over the ocean) is even more magical.jokulsarlon iceland diamond beach

Practical information

How to get to Jökulsárlón from Reykjavik: There are organized tours from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón, but renting a car would be preferable, especially if you want to take your time to take photos. The drive from Reykjavik takes just under 5 hours (231 miles /372km), and from Vik just over 2 hours (119 miles /192km).

If you’re driving Icleand’s Ring Road (Highway 1), you’ll pass Jökulsárlón anyway – the lagoon and the beach are literally a stone’s throw from the road.jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beachIf you’re driving all the way from Reykjavik, plan in some extra time for the drive because you’ll want to stop several times along the way to photograph waterfalls, black sand beaches and the breathtaking Icelandic scenery – trust me. It’s a lot of time in the car for a day trip, but it can be done, if you are pressed for time.jokulsarlon icelandTake into consideration though that in the winter time daylight is limited to six hours, so you’d be driving in the dark for most of the time, and roads can be icy. In the summer months you’ll be driving back to Reykjavik in daylight even if its 9 or 10pm! Also remember that in Iceland the weather is extremely unpredictable and can change rather quickly.jokulsarlon iceland diamond beachOther things to consider: Be careful when you photograph the icebergs right by the water – the waves can be quite high and unexpected, and several people got their cameras wet (I almost lost my phone when a wave caught me unexpectedly, and both of us got wet feet!)jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beach and iceDuring the summer months, you can take a boat ride across the lagoon. That’s something I’d definitely want to do when I return to Iceland. There are two kinds of boat rides – an amphibian boat (35-40 mins, ISK5,000 /US$40), and a zodiac boat (45 mins, ISK8,500 /US$69), that goes almost all the way to the glacier.jokulsarlon icelandThere is a small café in the car park of the glacier lagoon – after a couple of hours of photographing or simply marveling at the lagoon and the ice bergs on the beach it’s nice to be able to warm up with a cup of coffee or a hot chocolate.jokulsarlon iceland diamond beachAllow about two hours to visit both Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach – if you’re a photographer, you’ll probably want to plan in even longer than that. Make sure to dress accordingly, there’s an arctic breeze here, especially on the beach, that’s quite chilly.

dani jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice iceland beach1
This would be an example for what NOT appropriately (i.e. warm) dressed looks like!

All images were taken on the Highlights Of Iceland self-driving tour by Icelandic Farm Holidays. Icelandic Farm Holidays provides you with a rental car and an itinerary for every day, but you can decide individually how much time to spend in each suggested stop, or add additional ones. Accommodation is provided in a mix of Icelandic farm houses, B&Bs and hotels.

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Venice fun facts & my top five travel tips for Venice

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I love Venice. And in my opinion, it’s a place you should visit at least once in your lifetime, no matter if you dislike crowds or not. Remember that it’s popular for a reason, hence the high number of tourists.venice afternoon sunFor me, Venice is magical. Some people I meet are more jaded, complain about Venice being too touristy, too crowded, and too expensive. And yes, all of these things are true, and yet, it is a city that doesn’t compare to any other city in the world, in its beauty, the way it is set up with its canals and surrounded by waters on all sides, its stunning architecture, and the often aristocratic and elegant, sometimes crumbling and deteriorating buildings.Venice ItalyWhen I was in Milan last fall, I realized that Venice was only 2 hours away – on Italy’s high speed train. I knew I was going to leave Milan on a Monday, which is the day Venice sees the least tourists (and it was off-season). And so I booked a train to Venice on a whim – I was so close, how could I not go? It had been years since my last visit, and I was looking forward to a couple of days of simply wandering the streets and taking photos.venice grand canalI’m sharing my favorite pictures with you today, plus some fun facts about Venice you might not know, and last but not least: my top five travel tips for Venice. venice love locks italy

Fun facts about Venice:

There are no cars in Venice

No cars whatsoever – all you hear when you walk the empty streets at night is the clicking sound of high heels.venice coupleVenice has 170 canals   Instead of streets, Venice is interspersed by canals – 170 of them. venice canal

Over 400 bridges

To cross these canals, inhabitants have over 400 bridges connecting the different parts of the island.venice kayakVenice is made up of 115 little islands

To be exact, I should say islands or archipelago instead of island, because Venice is made up by 115 (give or take) tiny little islands.venice island

Venice has over 200 churches

This is an amazing fact considering the compact size of Venice.venice at nightThe city of chimneys

The number of churches might not be all that surprising considering Italy is a strictly Catholic country, but did you know that there are 7,000 chimneys in all forms and sizes in Venice?venice sculptures

Almost as many bell towers as churches

And then there are the bell towers – a whopping 170 of them! San Marco is the most famous one, and you can enjoy vistas over Venice from the top. Well worth the €8 admission, in my opinion!venice from st marco campanileSan Marco Campanile is a replica

Speaking of the famous bell tower: this is actually a replica of the original one! The first one collapsed in 1902. The current one was built to look like exactly like the original one.   venice love locks18 million visitors per year

Venice attracts an insane amount of people every year – 15 million! During the summer, Venice sees 50,000 people in addition to its inhabitants every single day! Take into consideration that Venice only has 60,000 inhabitants and you realize how crazy this number is! Many of these tourists arrive on cruise ships, and the steadily rising number of cruise ships that dock in the lagoon city are posing many problems for the city.
venice grande canale before sunset400 gondoliers are offering their services

For the 400 gondoliers the visitor numbers are great – they never have to worry about losing their job! except for one female gondolier, who was allowed to join the male gondoliers not all that long ago, in 2010 – the world of gondoliering is a men’s world. It’s one of the hardest to get jobs, by the way: only 3 to 4 new licenses are issued every year.venice canale grande gondoliers

Venice travel tips

Use ShareVenice to get from the airport to the city

ShareVenice is a shared shuttle service, which groups you with other passengers and thus makes your transfer from the airport to Venice much cheaper. The ticket is €19, instead of the pricey water taxis which cost anything between €100 to €160 (for 4 people with luggage) from Marco Polo Airport to Venice City Center. Venice’s water taxis also offer to share the boats with other passengers, but still charge €35 per person – booking online with ShareVenice is your cheapest option. The boats are capped at 10 passengers, and the journey takes between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on which dock in Venice you get off at. ShareVenice also offers very affordable tours of the Grand Canal and a glass factory tour to Murano, by the way.Venice ItalyBuy a travelcard  If you want to make the most of your time in Venice, use the vaporetti (water buses) and water taxis. You’ll get the best value for money by buying a travel card (€18 for 12 hours, €20 for 24 hours, €25 for 36 hours, €30 for 48 hours, €40 for 72 hours or €60 for 7 days). A single ride is €7, so if you’re taking 3 or more trips in a day, it’s already worth it. The best value for money is the 7 days card. A travel card will allow you to experience Venice from the water for much less than a gondola ride (they start at €80), and it’s well worth to tour the canals via boat. Bonus tip: take a golden hour/ sunset ride!venice grand canal before sunset

Where to eat

Sadly, Venice has the reputation to have some of the worst food in Italy, which makes sense, considering most of the people who work in the city don’t actually live in Venice but in Mestre on the mainland. So the people who are actually eating in Venice are tourists who probably won’t return, so why put a lot of effort into making the food. My main tip: Eat as far away from Piazza San Marco as possible. The closer you get to the piazza, the worse (and the pricier!) the food gets, it seems. On the upside: Pizzeria Antico Forno is so good that it made it on Conde Nast Traveler’s list of the best ten pizzas in all of Italy (!), and the recently opened i Tre Mercanti is an amazing food gallery with all kinds of Italian specialties and wine. The best way to make sure you’ll have a decent meal in Venice? Check Tripadvisor. Scroll through the list of best restaurants in Venice, read through the last few reviews, and mark down the place that sounds best to you in your map. Also: don’t leave Venice without trying a Spritz, a typical Venetian drink with Campari (or Aperol), Prosecco and sparkling water. If you find a local place, you can get it for as little as €2, but even €4 is still a good price (if Spritz’s are on the menu for €8 or more, you’re probably sitting in a tourist trap).venice aperol spritzExplore more of the lagoon Venice is amazing, yes, but there are a couple of other islands nearby that are well worth a visit, too, and they are easy to get to from Venice via water bus. Burano, a little island (actually four islands, so you still have canals and boats here) is famous for its colorful pastel houses; Murano is famous for its glass art but is also incredibly picturesque, Torcello is a tranquil little island with a famous ancient church. San Michele Cemetery Island is also a welcome escape from the crowds and has some beautiful tomb stones and graves.venice from above

Don’t sit down

Well of course you can sit down and take a break (and you should – you’ll be on your feet a lot!) but if you want to sit down in a cafe to sip a cappuccino, be aware that it’ll cost you a lot of money. Venice’s cafes are notorious for their overpriced coffees and unexpected surcharges – a €6 surcharge for a live band playing nearby is not uncommon, and with tip and the already pricey drink you can easily end up with a €15 bill for a cup of coffee, so be aware of that. The safest way to make sure you’re not overpaying for a coffee is to drink it like the locals: standing up at the counter. That way, you’ll avoid the service charge and other possible surcharges, and shouldn’t pay more than €2 for a cappuccino or €1 for an espresso.milan brioche breakfast

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Icebergs, waterfalls, geysers & lava fields: Highlights from an Iceland road trip

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My trip to Iceland feels almost like a dream now. But the photos (and video!) show that it really happened – for a week, I road tripped through one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited.iceland lakeWith its surreal landscapes that often made me feel like I was on a different planet, Iceland blew my mind.myvatn geothermal fields icelandOtherworldly, that’s how most people describe Iceland, and to be honest, I don’t think there is a word that fits better than this: otherworldly. The only other place I’ve been to that I described as such were the otherworldly landscapes of Chile’s Atacama Desert, where I also came across volcanoes, a bizarre moonscape, rugged mountains amidst wide open barren lands, geysers and geothermal fields.icelandic moonscape6Iceland is different though – first of all, it is called Iceland for a reason, so there was nothing of that desert heat that I experienced in Chile. And of course there is ice in the Land Of Ice, lots of it. The glaciers, glacier lagoons and snow-capped peaks that we often marveled at were a reminder that the stunning black sand beaches were deserted for a reason: it is too cold to swim in these Arctic waters.jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beach icelandBut thanks to its geothermal activity, the country is dotted with hot springs – and the best thing is that many of them are free to use for anyone. You also have hot springs with facilities and restaurants onsite, like the famous Blue Lagoon and the Myvatn Nature Baths (pictured below) in the north of the country.myvatn nature bathsFor seven days, Rease and I drove through Mars-like landscapes, through volcanic plains, often covered in bright green moss, through snow-capped mountains, alongside fjords, and passing too many waterfalls to count! Skogafoss waterfallWe drove on narrow, winding mountain roads, sometimes unpaved, so that we could feel the volcanic rocks crunching under the tires of our car.iceland sheepNot only the scenery changed constantly, the weather changed equally as much. We would wake up to a rain storm and two hours later find ourselves taking our jackets off because the sun was shining so bright.iceland sceneryMagical is another word that is often used to describe Iceland, and as we were driving along the winding roads hugging the eastern fjords, passing black sand volcanic beaches to our right and volcanoes to our left, it did feel like a magical fairy tale land.Ásbyrgi Canyon rockIt wasn’t all too surprising to learn about the Huldufólk, the hidden folk (or simply elves) who play a big role in Icelandic folklore and are believed to live spread out all over the country. Sometimes you will spot little elf houses, basically miniature versions of Iceland’s colorful houses, in fields or on the side of the road – and it seems absolutely possible that little elves and fairies actually live in them.eskifjordur cottages by the fjordI will share more details about our road trip route and the practicalities of road tripping in Iceland in upcoming posts, but I wanted to start with some of my favorite images and the highlights of our road trip.southern iceland mountainOne of the most spectacular places I visited in Iceland was the Jökulsárlón glacial lake in the south of the island, which is filled with massive chunks of ice that have broken off the glacier, and slowly float out of the lagoon into the open sea.glacier lagoon ice icelandI don’t think there’s anything quite like this anywhere in the world – a beach littered with icebergs of all shapes and sizes, waves clashing against them. jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beach and iceThe best thing about road tripping in Iceland? The journey itself! It’s not just about the stops along the way – the drastically changing scenery never gets boring. southern iceland mountain roadSince Iceland is such a compact country, you can find yourself hiking on a glacier, through a lava field, and behind waterfalls – all within a few short hours.
Iceland seljalandsfoss waterfallWe hiked in the majestic Ásbyrgi canyon in northern Iceland, where I wished we had more time to see the canyon from the top – a stunning sight.dani photographingThe northern part of Iceland was just as scenic as the south with mountains, lakes and volcanoes.
myvatn peninsulaAnd the lunar landscapes are eerily beautiful:icelandic moonscapeSeeing geysers erupt? Definitely something you don’t get to experience a lot! The geyser pictured below erupts every six minutes, and I could’ve stayed for hours watching it erupt again and again. Geyser Eruption IcelandThe Hverir geothermal fields were completely different than the geyser above, with boiling mud pools and some of the most intense orange colors I’ve ever seen in nature. iceland hverir geothermal fieldYou can see more of these enthralling geothermal fields – mounds that are topped with sulfur-coated boulders, high-pressure steam vents that are streaming thick clouds and smelly gas into the sky, bubbling mud pools – right in the beginning of my Iceland highlights video: From there, we headed to Dimmuborgir, which are vast, oddly shaped lava fields. dimmuborgirLook at these amazing lava formations!
dimmuborgir iceland volcanic rocks daniAnother highlight? Icelandic horses of course! While I’m not into horseback riding, I had to stop several times to pet horses on the side of the road. One of the farm houses we stayed at was actually a horse farm – something this animal lover was more than happy about.  icelandic horsesIceland has an unusually high number of waterfalls, considering how small it is. This is due to its location – being in the North Atlantic brings a lot of rain, and being so close to the Arctic created many glaciers. iceland gullfoss waterfallThese glaciers melting, plus all the rain water, means not only lots of waterfalls, but also very powerful waterfalls – Dettifoss is in fact the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe. gullfoss waterfall close-upI wish I could include a photo of the northern lights, because the night we saw them was definitely a highlight of the trip, but in my excitement about seeing these unique green lights dancing in the sky I managed to break my tripod while setting it up. I guess that’s another excuse to go back to Iceland!
icelandic mountainsIceland being an island means that it is blessed with thousands of miles of dramatic coastline – 3,088 miles (4,970km) to be precise. The black sand beaches (which are volcanic ash, not sand) never failed to impress. iceland south coastFjallsárlón is a smaller glacier lagoon, not far from Jökulsárlón, but with less tourists! Despite braving a rain storm during our visit, it was one of the remarkable places we stopped at.
glacier lagoon ice icelandI am finishing this post with another thing that Iceland is really good at: sunsets! On the list for my next visit? Seeing the sunset over the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. But with lakes, volcanoes, geysers and waterfalls, there’s pretty much an epic sunset guaranteed every night, no matter where in Iceland you are. fjord sunset iceland eskifjorduriceland sunset1If you’re planning your own Iceland road trip, check out:

Planning a trip to Iceland on a budget: Things to know before you go

For more of our epic road trip, read:

southern iceland dani carAll images were taken on the Highlights Of Iceland self-driving tour. Icelandic Farm Holidays provides you with a rental car and an itinerary for every day, but you can decide individually how much time to spend in each suggested stop, or add additional ones. Accommodation is provided in a mix of Icelandic farm houses, B&Bs and hotels.

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Why You Need To Visit Lombardy, In 20 Photos

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Had it really been four years? This question ran through my mind as I was watching the familiar sights of sprawling vineyards and tall cypress trees from the train. Yes, it had really been four years since I last went to Italy, a country that I list as one of my favorite countries in the world every time when asked to name my most beloved countries.bergamo pizzaAnd yet, my travels didn’t bring me here for years before my last visit in 2011, and again it had taken me nearly half a decade to return, even though after my last visit, I had vouched to visit more often again. Because if I know one country well, it is Italy, with about a dozen visits under my belt. Thinking about it, it is probably the country I’ve visited more often than any other country. lake garda saloThe Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, Rome and Liguria – I know them all so well. And yet, even after so many visits, I still have many regions in Italy to see: Puglia, Emilia Romagna, Calabria, Abruzzo, Sicily and Sardinia, to name just a few, are all places I have yet to explore. And the north, which I passed through so many times when driving down from Germany – somehow I never stopped there, despite glorious tales of beautiful alpine mountain trails and famous lakes like Garda and Como. lake garda view over salosirmione lake garda italySo when I was invited to get to know Milan and Lombardy, a region in northern Italy, I jumped at the chance. And when I finally laid eyes on Lake Garda, I couldn’t help but ask myself: What took me so long? Why didn’t I come here earlier?

I am not sure why the north doesn’t get as much attention as famous regions further south, because every place I went to was gorgeous and had something special to it.

Which is why I thought I’d introduce you to Lombardy with the favorite pictures of my trip, showing you why this part of Italy is well worth a visit.

1 Quaint lake shore towns

Lombardy might not have any access to the Mediterranean, but now that I spent some time there, I say: it doesn’t really need it! With famous lakes like Como and Garda, and lesser known but not less stunning lakes like Maggiore or Iseo, Lombardy still has plenty of beaches. I loved the small towns that dot the lake shores – they usually come with a picturesque promenade, colorful buildings, plenty of sidewalk cafes and lots of gelaterias.lake garda sirmione

2 Lake Garda sunsets

Who needs beach sunsets when you can have sunsets like this?! Lake Garda really showed off while I was visiting, coloring the sky in some the most vivid colors possible – none of the tourists who were meandering up and down the promenade could simply walk by – everybody pulled out their camera or cell phone to take pictures. A true show stopper!lake garda sunset2  

3 Hidden gem #1: Brescia

I had never heard of Brescia before I visited the city, which turned out to be home to the most significant Roman ruins in all of Lombardy (see below)! The big university city still manages to feel like a small town in its historic core, and there are enough architectural highlights to fill a photo essay on their own: striking churches, beautiful piazzas, grand mansions, castles and the famous Santa Giulia monastery. The best part? There were barely any tourists in town!brescia town square

4 History alive

Brescia’s historical heritage is among the most significant in all of Italy. There’s the 8th century Santa Giulia monastery which now houses a museum of epic proportions: here, you find a collection of over 11,000 items spanning artifacts from prehistoric times, antiquity, the Lombard Age, the Carolingian Age and Venetian ages. You could spend an entire day wandering the 12,000 square meter large museum, but wait.. there’s more! Brescia is also home to the oldest Roman ruins in northern Italy, and wandering the streets you’ll stumble across a well-preserved Roman Capitolium (Roman temple), forum and theater. I was lucky enough to be one of the first visitors who got to try out brand new multimedia glasses (ArtGlass) at the museum, which transformed the ruins into the magnificent buildings they once were. It made me wish I would’ve had glasses like those when I hopped from ruin to ruin in Rome and Pompeji – what a spectacular feature and way to bring a place back to life!brescia museum 

5 The scrumptious regional cuisine

I ate so much good food in Lombardy that I was seriously concerned about fitting in my dirndl – I was heading straight to Oktoberfest in Munich from here (in case you’re wondering: the zipper just closed and I tried not to breath all day). I could easily post 20 photos of the meals I devoured, but the food in Lombardy deserves its own post – stay tuned for mouth-watering photos of all the ravioli, gnocchi, pizza, polenta, risotto and pastries I stuffed myself with. Pictured below are some of the best gnocchi I ever had – topped with truffles!lombardy gnocci

6 Hidden gem #2: Bergamo

Bergamo, another town I’d heard of before coming to Lombardy, charmed me with its Citta Alta, the Upper Town, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the plains around the Lower City and offering fantastic views all the way to the Alps and even to Milan which sits southeast of Bergamo. Historic Renaissance and Baroque architecture is plentiful here, and I loved the distinctly medieval feel of the Upper Town.bergamo italy

7 Roman ruins with a view

The Grottoes of Catullus are the remains of a massive Roman villa, which belonged to the Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus. He sure knew to picked one of the best spots along the shores of Lake Garda, the Sirmione peninsula which The vast complex consists of the criptoportico hall (famous for its sixty pillars), there is a triple window grotto, many well preserved pillars and arches and baths, plus a collection of items found on the site. lake garda ruins

8 Olives fresh from the tree

To be honest, I had no idea olives still grew that far north – but you can find olive orchids throughout Lombardy and I loved having some fresh olives from the region with a glass of wine at night.lake garda olive tree

 9 Breakfast brioches

Italian breakfasts may seem small and unassuming – a cup of coffee and something sweet with it, usually a freshly baked pastry, like a brioche (known as cornetto in the south of Italy), but these brioches are just to die for! I’m usually not a croissant person, but these heavenly, buttery, crisp on the outside and cake-y on the inside. Speaking of croissants – I shouldn’t have mentioned that word, because brioches don’t like to be compared to their French counterparts. While similar, they’re not made the same way, and brioches can come simple (without filling), or filled with jam, honey, custard or nutella. What a great way to start the day!italy cappuccino and brioche

10 Milan’s many faces: The bohemian face

One of the reasons I wanted to go on this trip was because it’d give me the chance to spend an extended period of time in Milan. I’ll be honest here: I wasn’t all too fussed about Milan when I first visited Italy’s second biggest city in 2011, but heard glowing reviews of Milan from other travelers. I knew that Milan deserved a second chance – and I am glad I gave it another shot. I loved Milan the second time around, but telling you about all the things I discovered this time around would go beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll bring you a full article on the different faces of Milan I got to see. But let me at least mention a few of the things I loved about Milan: for one, its bohemian side in the Isola neighborhood, where the tree-lined boulevards and the grand buildings reminded me of Buenos Aires.milan isola district

11 Milan’s many faces: The hipster face

And the Navigli District with its terrific street art, flea markets and hipster hangouts.Milan mosaic house

12 Milan’s many faces: The historic face

And the historic side of the city, with remarkable columns, churches and of course the magnificent cathedral.milan columns

13 Pastel colored towns and villages

This is one thing I love about Italy in general, and Lombardy was no different than the rest of the country: all of its towns have narrow streets lined with pastel colored houses and green or blue wooden window shutters. So pretty!lombardy colors

14 UNESCO World Heritage (lots of it!)

Lombardy is home to only 6% of Italy’s population, but it is home to 8 of the country’s 51 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which is quite impressive and makes Lombardy in fact the region with the highest concentration of UNESCO sites in the country! From the rock drawings in Valcamonica and the Sacri Montichapels to the combined site of the Longobord’s Places Of Power In Italy (including  Brescia’s monastic complex of San Salvatore and Santa Giulia) or the workers’ village of Crespi d’Adda, there are some really interesting UNESCO sites to be explored in Lombardy. brescia roman ruins

15 Lakes meeting Alpine mountains

Tuscany might have rolling hills, but Lombardy has Alpine mountains that meet azure blue lakes! Being on or by these lakes, surrounded by green mountains, some of them with snow-capped peaks, is a stunning sight. And different from the Alpine lakes further north, the lakes here benefit from a more Mediterranean climate, which means the water gets really warm here during the summer months. Lombardy’s landscapes definitely stand out. lake garda island

16 Medieval castles

If you are a history buff and can’t get enough of ancient castles, Lombardy is the right place for you! With its many strategically placed hilltop towns, naturally there are lots of medieval castles that were built to protect the cities during the times when Italy’s regions weren’t as friendly with each other as they are today. I was impressed to see how well preserved most of them are! brescia castle

17 Medieval towns 

This goes with #16 above – it’s not just castles, cathedrals, palazzos and mansions that are well preserved in Lombardy – you can find entire ‘Old Towns’ all over Lomardy that still look pretty much what they used to look like hundreds of years ago. I often felt like I was stepping back in time – and I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true.bergamo architecture

18 Charming red roofs everywhere

I love getting a bird’s eye’s view of a city, and in Italy I am usually in luck, since there seems to be a tower that can be climbed. Red tile roofs just have a special charm, don’t you agree? brescia views

19 A French Riviera vibe

Like I said – Lombard doesn’t even have access to the Mediterranean, and yet, in several of its lake side towns, I felt a Cote D’Azur vibe. Maybe George Clooney felt that way too, and that’s why he bought a house on the shores of Lake Como? Anyway – I loved the sophisticated flair when I strolled down the wide, palm tree lined promenades, passing yachts in the water and elegant ladies with big sunglasses and hand fans in the cafes. The main difference between here and the French Riviera? It is much less pretentious and much less expensive. lake garda salo

20 Polenta e osei

This pastry alone is worth a trip to Bergamo, where this local specialty is from. Funnily enough it doesn’t have any polenta in it, despite being named polenta e osei, but that’s because it looks like a perfectly mounded polenta. It’s topped with marzipan and the black topppings resemble the osei, which means birds.polenta e osei bergamo

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My journey through the Philippines in pictures

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This is my very last post about the Philippines – at least for now. My next trip to this gorgeous country is already in the works, and I can’t wait to visit all the places I didn’t make it to the first time around.bohol rice fieldsWhenever people ask me about my favorite places in South East Asia, I can’t stop gushing over the picture-perfect beaches I visited, the lush green islands with their scenic rice fields and softly swaying palm trees, a stark contrast to the urban sprawl of Manila which is rapidly turning into a modern, advanced city; rivaling Singapore and Bangkok with the number of skyscrapers and shopping malls that continue to emerge in the ever growing capital. When I sat in one of Manila’s third-wave coffee shops, located in one of the shiny fancy malls, after returning from Palawan, I couldn’t believe that a day earlier, I had shared the road with ox carts and that I didn’t even have cell phone reception in El Nido – now I was surrounded by people who were all glued to their smartphones again.bacuit archipelago boatsThe many faces of the Philippines were fascinating, the marine life breathtaking, the people welcoming and kind. But I’ll let the photos speak for themselves – follow my journey through the Philippines in pictures:flying into manila philippinesIt all started when I flew into Manila, and the capital couldn’t have been more surprising – I expected to hate it because everyone who had visited the city seemed to thoroughly dislike it. Read more about my time in Manila here: Living it up in Manila
bonifacio global city manilaFrom Manila, I flew to Boracay, because I was craving some beach time. I had been wanting to visit Boracay, famous for its ridiculously pretty White Beach, for years, and this travel dream finally came true.boracay island paradiseI spent hours just staring out at the water, listening to the sound of the softly clashing waves. For the first time in months, I was able to relax 100%.boracay white beach6As if a stunning 4-kilometer long beach with soft, powdery sand and crystal clear water weren’t enough, Boracay also boasts some of the most memorable sunsets I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Every single night! Read more about my time in Boracay here: Debauchery in Paradise: Letting loose in Boracayspider house boracay sunsetMy next stop was Bohol, a short flight from Boracay, which I added to my itinerary to meet these little guys:tarsier bohol philippinesTarsiers! The other attraction Bohol is famous for are the oddly shaped Chocolate Hills. I should have stayed longer to check out some of the beaches, but I was told there are nicer beaches in Siquijor, a nearby island reachable by ferry.chocolate hills boholYou can read more about my time in Bohol here: Tarsiers and chocolate hills in Bohol
bohol rice fields philippinesSiquijor was the one place in the Philippines that exceeded my expectations – by far!siquijor beachIt might have been the witchcraft (which Siquijor is famous for) that charmed me, or simply the incredible natural beauty of the island. Read more about this magical place here: Searching for magic in mystical Siquijorsiquijor waterfall philippinesFrom Siquijor, I took a ferry to Dumaguete, where I based myself to do what would be a highlight of my trip: Swimming with sea turtles in Apo Island!
sea turtle apo islandFor the stunning underwater life in all its glory, have a look at my Apo Island gallery on Flickr.

underwater world apo island philippines

The next island on my itinerary was sadly not just a quick ferry ride away – instead, it took me nearly 16 hours to get from Dumaguete to El Nido, and the trip there included buses, a ferry, a minivan, a plane and a taxi.

bacuit archipelago viewpointMy destination was worth the strenuous travel day though: Palawan, the crown jewel of the Philippines.island hopping el nidoI could go on and on about the incredibly picturesque beaches and lagoons of the Bacuit Archipelago off the coast of El Nido, but I let the pictures speak for themselves.el nido las cabanas beach

El Nido was indeed the grand finale to a fabulous journey, and you can read more about it (and marvel at more photos!) in these two posts:

bacuit archipelago boatFrom Palawan I flew back to Manila for a few days of city life after weeks of island and beach hopping, and got to know fancy speakeasy bars, indulged in scrumptious vegetarian food (a rare find on most of the islands I went to) and visited the historic district of Manila, Intramuros, before boarding my plane to Bangkok.intramuros manilaConsidering that the Philippines consist of more than 7,000 islands, I feel like I only got a small teaser of the country, but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the country.siquijor palm treesIf you’re considering visiting the Philippines, check out my budget breakdown: How much does it cost to travel in the Philippines?, which also has some travel planning and money saving tips.el nido sunset

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The grand finale of my Philippines trip: El Nido (Part I)

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El Nido was one of the two places I was looking forward to the most on my Philippines trip (the other one was Boracay), as everyone who had been there was raving about the unspoiled beauty of the deserted islands off the coast of Palawan, the island El Nido is located on.El Nido PalawanAs I was holding on for my dear life in the van that took me up to El Nido from Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s main airport, I was praying that it would live up to my high expectations, but since Palawan had recently been declared the most beautiful island in the world, I was pretty confident that it wouldn’t disappoint.el nido beach viewWhen I booked my flight to Puerto Princesa, I wasn’t aware that it would take another 5-6 hours to get to El Nido from the airport, which would make this a 16-hour travel day starting in Dumaguete 6am in the morning and reaching El Nido 9pm at night. The hours in the van were some of the most horrible driving I’ve experienced so far, even beating the van driver from Laos to Chiang Mai who fell asleep halfway through, forcing one of us passengers to take over the wheel.bacuit archipelago shell philippinesThis driver surely saw the narrow winding mountain roads of Palawan as his own personal race track, and several times when he accelerated before a sharp turn I was convinced we’d shoot over the guardrail into the woods.el nido las cabanas beachAgainst all odds we made it to el Nido alive, and I realized mistake #2: not booking a hostel in advance. My driver took me to a number of places, all of which were full, and just when I was about to give up hope and thought I would have to spend the night on the beach, I lucked out and got the last single room in a hostel.el nido with boatsWhen I went to explore the town the next morning, I wasn’t all too impressed, to be honest. The beach seemed dirty, and while others might find the ramshackle buildings charming, I just found them.. ugly.el nido kayakBut nobody comes to El Nido for the town. People come here for the Bacuit Archipelago. The archipelago is made of 45 islets, most of them nothing more than limestone karst cliff outcrops surrounded by crystal clear water, some of them boasting secret beaches or hidden lagoons. What all of them have in common is that they offer some of the best snorkeling in the country.bacuit archipelago island hopping tourThe best way to see as many of them as possible? Go on an island hopping tour. There are four different tours which can be booked just about anywhere in town, creatively titled Tour A, B, C and D. The tours are all pretty similar: the boats leave El Nido around 9am and get back around 5pm, include a lunch and 4 to 5 snorkeling stops.bacuit archipelago boatWhen I researched the various tours to decide which ones to go on, I had found that most people were recommending A and C, so those were the ones I went on (I would have loved to hop on all four tours, but El Nido is not the cheapest place to hang around in, and it’s probably good that there is no ATM in town, forcing you to leave when you run out of money).bacuit archipelago boatsI decided to start with tour A and on a rather cloudy morning I hopped on a little Filipino fishing boat to cruise around the islands.seven comandments beach philippinesOur first stop was the 7 Commandment beach, a small sandy beach, fringed by palm trees. The snorkeling area was small and I almost didn’t go in the water because it was still overcast and I thought I might even be cold. But I am so glad I eventually did go in! There were already more fish in this little spot than I had seen in all four of my snorkeling stops in Apo Island. It was like a beautiful underwater plant garden, and I would have been satisfied staying here all day, laying out on the gorgeous beach and going for an occasional snorkeling dip, but this was only stop 1 of 5.Bacuit Archipelago underwaterThe second stop was already our lunch stop, and we spent well over an hour on a tiny strip of sand beach, and the crew was preparing lunch (lots of fresh fish, rice and fruit) while we were sunbathing and snorkeling. The snorkeling area was much bigger than on the first beach, and I loved the marine life here. You could snorkel all the way out to a massive limestone rock that stuck out of the ocean if you were a good swimmer and see plenty of fish everywhere around you.Bacuit Archipelago underwater PhilippinesAfter lunch (very filling if you’re not a vegetarian; leaving you starving if you’re a vegetarian), we moved on to our third stop, a hidden lagoon that we had to swim into, entering via a small hole in the rock. Getting there was a bit difficult because it was extremely rocky – we were all wearing our flip flops or water shoes and were still struggling. Here I could see why Alex Garland’s The Beach was apparently inspired by his time in the Philippines (even though the book is set in Thailand).bacuit archipelago lagoonHe was probably trying to keep the real beach a secret, but in this case, when five boats get there at the same time and fifty people try to make their way in there at once, it is a bit underwhelming. Only at the end, when everybody else had left and the lagoon was almost empty, I came to appreciate the stunning beauty of it with the towering limestone rocks towering high above me.bacuit archipelagoNext was an absolutely stunning stop: First we cruised in a big circle through the Big Lagoon, only open to the ocean on one side, and surrounded by massive limestone rocks on all sides. After that, we stopped outside the lagoon to snorkel in what is best described as a real-life aquarium. The coral, the plants, the fish – so so many fish – it truly felt as if someone had dropped me into an aquarium. I could’ve stayed there forever.Bacuit Archipelago underwater snorkelingThis was only my first island hopping trip in El Nido, and it didn’t disappoint. I was already looking forward to my next one!

For more impressions from Palawan and practical information on how to get to El Nido, where to stay, what to do and other things you should know before you go, check out Part II of this post: The grand finale of my Philippines trip: El Nido (Part II)bacuit archipelago lagoonbacuit archipelago beachbacuit archipelago philippines

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Road trippin’ in Southern Israel: Masada and Timna Valley

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dead sea view before sunriseThe 4am wake-up call was painful. What had I done? Was it really worth getting up in the middle of the night to watch the sunrise from a mountaintop? Not only did I have to crawl out of a bed at this ungodly hour, but I also had to climb up a steep mountain in the dark until I’d get to reap the benefits of this arduous undertaking. I was tempted to turn around under my warm, soft blanket and turn off the snooze function on my alarm.dead sea just before sunrise israelBut what was awaiting me on top of the mountain was enticing enough for me to shed off my comfy blankets and get out of bed: Seeing the sun rise over the Dead Sea.
dead sea sunrise from the mesadaI arrived at the bottom of Masada, the plateau I was about to hike up via the infamous Snake Path (not named for snakes, but for the many curves), in the pitch black darkness. Only the moon and the stars were illuminating the desolate landscape around me. I was late. The sun was due to rise at 6.30am, the climb was supposed to take an hour and it was already 5.40am when I finally got out of the car and started the hike.snake trail before sunrise masada israelThe rock on which Masada sits is 1,300 feet (400 meters) high, and since the beginning of time it has been difficult to reach the top on foot, and even more difficult to capture.masada plateau at sunriseMasada means fortress in Hebrew, and that’s exactly what Judean king Herod the Great built up on the plateau between 37 and 31 BC. The fortified complex of palaces, storehouses, bathing houses and armories was supposed to be his winter residence.masada just after sunriseThanks to its extraordinary setting and great condition of the palace ruins, Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.masada israel palaceToday, the rock is one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions (rightly so), especially during sunrise, but when I climbed the steep slopes of the dirt path at dawn, nobody else was there. Because I was late, I walked much faster than I usually do (especially uphill!) and finally passed a couple of other hikers on my way to the top. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one here, I was just the last one who had started the hike.snake trail before sunriseThe path is only about 1.3 miles (2km) long, but has more than 700 stairs and covers an altitude difference of 1,150 feet (350 meters). It might not seem like a long walk, but the winding path is quite challenging.snake trail after sunriseWhen I reached the top, I was soaked in sweat and breathing heavily, but the sun was just starting to show itself, starting to paint the sky bright red behind the Jordanian Moab Mountains on the other side of the Dead Sea – I had made it in time.dani watching the sunrise over the dead seaI walked around the deserted plateau, looking for a good spot to watch the sunrise and settled for a part where the ancient stone walls were still pretty much intact. I sat down and began to wonder what this place must have been like thousands of years ago when Herod used Masada as his winter getaway.masada and judean desertThe story Masada is most famous for is more gruesome than glorious, however: the Siege of Masada at the of the First Jewish-Roman war which ended in the mass suicide of over 900 Jewish rebels and their families. Herod the Great had been dead for 75 years when the revolt of the Jews against the Romans began. After the fall of Jerusalem, a group of Jewish rebels fled to Masada and held out on top of the mountain for three years. Eventually, thousands of Roman troops marched against Masada with the Tenth Legion and constructed a rampart against the fortress, moved a battering ram up the ramp and breached the fortress’ wall. When the Jewish defenders realized that there was no way they could besiege the Romans, their leaders decided that they all should commit suicide rather than being killed by the Roman attackers.masada israel and judean desertBecause of its isolated and safe location, Masada stayed in a fairly good condition over the centuries, pretty much untouched by humans for about two millennia!masada israel2It was only excavated between 1963 and 1965 – fairly recently. I was amazed to find so many mosaics, bathhouses and frescoes in good condition. Masada is the most complete and biggest Roman siege camp that still remains today.masada israel mosaicI took a couple of hours to properly explore the buildings and the palace, marveling at the mosaics and the well-restored buildings, trying to imagine life up here 2,000 years ago.masada and desertWhile rain water was collected in big cisterns which are also still intact, it is still a hard place to live with the harsh, lifeless desert surrounding the rock.masada ruin at sunriseI could see why Herold chose this place as his winter residency though: These magnificent views! The breathtaking vista towards the Dead Sea in the east, and overlooking the Judean Desert towards the West.judean desert in israelThe scenery around the Masada is just spectacular.masada cable car with sunriseWalking around the plateau I got to take in the views in all directions, and I was almost tempted to do another hike in the Judean Desert, but I had other hiking plans already: Exploring Timna Park.judean desert after sunriseThe best thing about a 4am start is that you can fit in a lot in your day – and climbing Masada was only the beginning of a day filled with incredible landscapes and hikes.Road trip israelAfter a proper coffee in the coffee shop at the bottom of the Masada, we hopped into the car and followed Route 90 further south. Our final destination was Eilat for some beach time and snorkeling in the Red Sea, but on the way, we’d planned to stop in Timna Valley, a desert area known for its spectacular limestone and rock formations.timna park mushroomWe had 136 miles (220 kilometers) of a scenic drive along the Dead Sea and through the desert ahead of us. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the desert, and I was happy to sit in the passenger seat, being able to stop anytime and snap some photos along the way.timna park israelWe arrived in Timna Park about two hours later, and even though it wasn’t noon yet, we were met by an extreme heat when we left the car to buy our tickets for the National Park. When we opened the doors of the air-conditioned car, it felt like we were inside an oven!timna park hikeTemperatures easily exceed 105 °F (42 °C) in the summer months, and we were about to set out on a hike in the hottest hours of the day, with no shade to protect us.timna park rock formationsThe lady who sold us the tickets to the National Park made sure that we had enough water, advising us that there was no water anywhere in the park. Just sand, rocks, and limestone pillars.timna park rocksArmed with a map of the park we drove down the narrow road that led straight towards the rocks ahead of us.timna park road israelThe valley, rich in copper, is famous for its ancient copper mines, which date back to the 5th millennium BC, and remnants of these mines can still be seen in various locations throughout the park, but what I found even more sensational was the natural beauty of the place.timna park israel hikersThe massive, multi-colored rocks, ranging from orange to red to black, reminded me of the canyons and arches in my beloved Southwest of the U.S., and also of the desolate desert of Bolivia’s southwest, even though that one is located at 13,000 feet and much cooler than this place. The erosion there managed to create some strikingly similar rock formations, however.timna park israelI didn’t care that it was unbearably hot, I had to explore all the formations that Timna Park is famous for.timna park israel rockThere is the mushroom, a giant red sandstone monolith that has been formed into the shape of a mushroom by sand and wind, rising high into the desert sky.timna park mushroomAfter a few stops at other formations, we reached the Arches, another famous rock formation in Timna Park, and you can hike up and even through the arches, from where you have a fantastic view over the valley.arches timna park israelI loved how moon-like this area felt; if you had put me down there and told me I was on Mars, I would’ve believed it. There was barely any life here – the bushes were dry and brown, there was no green at all.timna park desertscapeWe also stopped to see the Chariots, impressive rock drawings by the Egyptians, left many thousands of years ago when the Egyptians passed through this region.timna park israel cave drawingsThe Solomon’s Pillars were the perfect way to end our 4-hour tour of the park: three massive sandstone pillars that are towering 50 meters tall above me, definitely a highlight.timna park solomons pillarsThe night before, an Israeli singer had held a concert there, and while I was watching the crew pack up the stage, I could only imagine how staggeringly beautiful it must have been to listen to the music in this awe-inspiring setting.timna park solomons pillars israelI wish I would’ve had the chance to take some of the longer hikes, but it was just too hot. For my next visit to Eilat (and there’s no doubt that there’ll be a next time!), I know that I’ll be visiting Timna Park in the early morning when it is less hot.timna park mushroomSo far, this was one of the most memorable days in Israel: breathtaking views, a rewarding hike, thousands of years of history and stunning landscapes.timna park rock formation

Practical Information

Masada

  • You can visit Masada independently if you have a car or as part of a tour if you don’t have a car.
  • If you decide to hike up, start early. It gets incredibly hot in this region of Israel, especially in the summer months (up to 109°F /43°C!). The Snake Trail takes about an hour to hike, firm shoes are recommended since the path is rocky and steep, and there are many stairs. Make sure to bring enough water. If you hike up for sunrise, the cafeteria at the bottom of the rock will be open upon your return (it opens around 8am).
  • You can also take a cable car up to the top, if you feel less active. Admission with cable car (two ways) is NIS76 (US$19)
  • If you climb, and don’t take the cable car, admission via the Snake Path is NIS29 (US$7.32), but you can also hike up and take the cable car back down. Admission with one way cable car is NIS57 (US$14.42)
  • The cable car is open from 8am till 4pm (check the website for reduced hours on Holidays before your visit).
  • It is possible to visit Masada via public bus from Jerusalem, but the bus lets you off at the Masada Junction on Route 90 and you’ll have to walk to the entrance. The bus is #486, and it runs five times a day. The ticket from Jerusalem is NIS42 (US$ .
  • Abraham Tours runs a Sunrise Masada Tour from Jerusalem which also includes stops at Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. If you can’t be bothered to get up early to see the sunrise, Abraham Tours also offers a tour with a later start (7am) to Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. Both tours are offered three times a week and cost NIS275 (US$70).

masada ruins israelTimna Park

  • It is not possible to visit Timna Park without a car. If you don’t have your own car, you can book a tour from Eilat. The tours are pricey though (nearly US$100), and if you are a group of three or four people, it’s cheaper to rent a car for the day. That way you’ll also be more flexible.
  • It is easiest to visit Timna Park from Eilat, as it is only 17 miles (25km) north of the seaside resort. It will take you about 30 mins by car to get there.
  • Allow at least four hours for your visit; the park is spacious and the main attractions are spread out. If you’re planning to go on hikes, plan in at least six hours.
  • Make sure you bring enough water, sun screen and snacks. Nothing is available for purchase inside the park.
  • Be prepared for extreme heat, especially between May and September. 110°F /45°C around noon are not uncommon.
  • Admission to Timna Park is NIS49 (US$12.40)
  • The park is open from Sunday to Thursday and on Saturdays 8am to 4pm, on Fridays from 8am to 3pm; and in July and August as well as on Holidays from 8am to 1pm.

timna park arch

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Along the shores of Lake Titicaca: Discovering rural Bolivia on a 20km hike

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A random encounter at the lake

When we met Don Hilario, we were dead tired. We had already walked 15 kilometers, at an altitude of 12,600 feet. This random encounter, (which wasn’t so random after all), was exactly what we needed to keep us going for the last five kilometers of the hike. lake titicaca cowsThe old Bolivian campesino who lives right on the shore of Lake Titicaca doesn’t get to see foreigners very often. So when he does, don’t expect to be let off the hook any time soon. Our Lonely Planet guidebook, even though mostly unreliable in South America, was spot on in this case when it briefly mentioned you might run into an odd character named Don Hilario on the hike to Yampupata.lake titicaca view boliviaYampupata itself is not really a tourist destination, a sleepy village on the lake shore, which is why there aren’t many unknown faces passing through here. And even though the village is connected to Copacabana, the closest town, via a dusty dirt road, it is far enough to let you forget that you were anywhere near a larger settlement. Out here, the lake shore farmers and fishermen live pretty much the same way they did fifty years ago.lake titicaca housesLonely Planet also mentioned that Don Hilario had a large collection of postcards from all over the world, which he would show hikers if they were lucky, and sure enough, after sitting us down on one of the reed boats that are typical for Lake Titicaca, he went into his little hut and returned with two hands full of postcards. We were grateful to sit and rest for a few minutes, so we eagerly read every single postcard he showed us, from places like Canada, the US, Holland, the Czech Republic, New Zealand and Germany.lake titicaca reed boatAfter admiring his postcard collection he offered us a ride in his new motorboat – the reed boat in front of the house seemed to be purely for show these days – but we decided to continue walking before we’d loose the last remaining bit of energy we still had.lake titicaca viewIt had taken more than four hours to get to Sicuani, the tiny village where Don Hilario lived, and it was our first ‘warm-up’ walk for our five-day trek to Machu Picchu a couple of weeks later. We were both still recovering from sickness and had never hiked at such a high altitude, so we figured it was time to test our fitness levels.lake titicaca road to yampupataThis hike, which we had found in the Lonely Planet, sounded just right for our first test run. It seemed to be mostly flat, so it would be a good way for us to ease into the high-altitude trekking.lake titicaca yampupata hikelake titicaca yampupata and isla del sol view

The perfect day hike from Copacabana

I was also keen to get out of Copacabana, were we had based ourselves for a few days, because Copacabana turned out to be a town I didn’t care too much for, except for the fantastic lake views from top of the Cerro Calvario mountain maybe. copacabana viewLake Titicaca itself is the true attraction here, and not only because it is the highest navigable lake in the world, but also because of its mystic aura. It was here where, according to the beliefs of the Inca, the creator god Viracoca rose up and create the sun and moon, stars, and the first human beings. This all took place on the appropriately named Isla Del Sol and Isla De La Luna, both only a short boat ride from Copacabana, and even closer from Yampupata. Isla Del Sol would be the place of our second warm-up hike.lake titicaca boliviaDuring the hike we barely met anyone. Every now and again a motorcycle would pass us, but if we didn’t pass through a village, we were on our own, aside from the odd llama or some sheep and pigs.
lake titicaca llamaThree kilometers into the hike, we passed a small set of Inca ruins, which we had to ourselves, and another two kilometers later we reached Chani, a small village where tourists from Copacanana who booked a boat ride on the lake were taken to experience a floating restaurant (a tourist trap).lake titicaca yampupata hike roadUp to here, the road had been following the shoreline the entire time, but now it turned away from the lake. Many empty ruins sat along the way, remnants of settlements that had been erected and left many moons ago. They added to the sinister atmosphere in this isolate place, making me wonder what it must have looked like here at the height of the Inca empire.lake titicaca deserted houseslake titicaca fieldsWe passed a religious shrine inside a cave, followed by a steady climb to the top of a hill. The altitude was hard to get used to and I felt like I was huffing and puffing more than ever before, walking slower than an 80-year old woman. When I reached the top, I was rewarded with views over the Camino Precolombino, and the road luckily went downhill again towards the water.Bolivia lake titicaca hikeNear the lake we reached the only bigger village after a few lone houses along the road. We were greeted by chickens, dogs, sheep and some farmers who were working their fields. lake titicaca sheepUp until this hike, I didn’t have the best impression of Bolivians – they didn’t seem overly friendly or welcoming, most of them seemed to see you only as a walking cash dispenser.But here, in this part the country where people barely ever get to see foreigners, we were greeted with smiles, hellos, and in the next village over by the sweet Don Hilario.lake titicaca church boliviaAfter waving goodbye to the old man, we had another uphill walk to make it through, and at this point we were fairly tired. My legs hurt, I was hungry, and I was ready to lay down.lake titicaca deserted houses ruinsOnce we made it to the highest point though, the fine views over the lake and the islands, the green fields and Yampupata below us made it all worth it. Now that I could see the end point, I felt a boost of energy run through me, and I knew I could do it.lake titicaca danilake titicaca yampupata roadWhen we reached the village, we didn’t stick around long – we could have taken a boat over to the Isla del Sol straight from here, but we wanted to hike across the entire island and knew that we needed more time (and some rest before the next big hike).lake titicaca shoreLuckily we found a taxi that was heading to Copacabana right away (10 bobs pp) and only half an hour later, we were back where we started.lake titicaca blue watersThe achievement of the hike felt extraordinary – and got me even more excited for the hike through the Andes to see the lost capital of the Incas, Machu Picchu. But up next was the mystical Isla Del Sol…lake titicaca views

Practical information

The walk was definitely longer and harder than expected- it’s more like 19 or 20 km, not 17 as I had read. The road was also much more hilly (up and down) than I had thought.

It took us a total of 5 hours to get to Yampupata (incl short breaks and the 30-min chat with Don Hilario).

Pack snacks and water, as there aren’t really any shops along the way.lake titicaca deserted house

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Valletta: Europe’s most underrated capital

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When Lonely Planet published its picks for the Top 10 cities to visit in 2015, I felt lukewarm about most of the cities they had chosen – I touched on the topic briefly in this article – but the one city where I wholeheartedly agreed was Valletta.valletta steep streetThis gem of a city is usually overlooked, Lonely Planet said, and I had to admit that I was guilty of that too: While I’ve told you all about my impressions of Malta, my road trip across the island, medieval Mdina and the delicious Maltese food, I didn’t tell you anything about the place I spent the most time in during my visit to Malta: Valletta, the tiny capital of the island nation.valletta balconies maltaValletta was announced European Capital Of Culture for 2018, which means at the moment there is an extra boost in restorations and new developments, adding to the city’s attractiveness, – and it will help to put Valletta slowly but surely on the list of Europe’s most charming capitals.valletta doors

I am sure that four years from now, nobody will see Valletta as underrated anymore.Malta VallettaLet me take you on a journey of Valletta in photos – because just as I think you shouldn’t skip Malta’s sister island Gozo when visiting the country, you can’t skip Valletta when you’re in Malta, even when you’re staying in one of the beach resorts.
Malta Valletta stairsI don’t think I’ve ever been to a capital city that small and that charming – Valletta is anything but a typical nation’s capital. It is not even the biggest city on Malta.valletta dome maltaThe tiny city with a population of just over 6,000 people might even be the smallest capital in all of Europe (in fact, only Vaduz in Liechtenstein is smaller); it is definitely one of the most – if not the most – endearing capitals, with so many picturesque buildings that I never got tired of wandering the streets and photographing the different colors and styles of wooden balconies.valletta colorful balconiesThese wooden balconies started to pop up around Valletta in the 18th century and are believed to derive from the Arab/ Islamic Muxrabija (look-out place), which is popular in northern African and other Islamic states.
malta valletta balconiesWith many ships from northern Africa docking in Malta on their way to the shores of the northern or eastern Mediterranean, it makes sense that the concept of the closed balconies was adopted by the Maltese.valletta street and balconiesThe fortified city sits on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. The harbors of Valletta, Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour, are a reminder of what an important city it was for the sea trade of the Mediterranean during the 16th and 17th centuries.valletta harbor with legsThe well-preserved, precious buildings from that time also show that Malta was a very wealthy city back then, and most of the houses that are still inhabited today were built under the Hospitallers in the 16th century.malta valletta balconiesThanks to its tiny size – Valletta covers only 0.5 square miles (1.3 sq km) – you can aimlessly wander the streets without ever getting lost.valletta benchOn the fourth side, you’ll hit the old city walls at some point, a remnant of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem who built the city in the 16th century.views over valletta and the portIt was the first planned city in Europe – instead of narrow winding roads like the ones you find in medieval towns in France or Italy (or even other towns in Malta), Valletta is outlined in a grid, with long straight roads. Set on a hill turns walking into a little workout every time you head up the hill from the water.Malta VallettaTo show you how tiny Valletta is: Walking from south to north won’t take you long – the entire length of Republic Street is only 1 kilometer (0.62 miles). The width of the peninsula on which Valletta sits is even smaller, at only 600 meters (0.37 miles). You will find yourself huffing and puffing up the steep hills and stairs – but turning around and taking in the views of azure blue Mediterranean Sea makes it all worthwhile.valletta boatsThe ocher-colored houses that are typical for Malta and Gozo are prevalent here, too, and look particularly beautiful in the golden hour just before sunset. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun the buildings look almost golden, it is a great time of day to head to the Upper Barakka Gardens and enjoy the views from there with a cup of coffee (there is a small café in the gardens). Across the bay, you can see the Three Cities – Senglea, Cospicua and Vittoriosa – and parts of the yacht harbor.malta harbor view valettaWalking down Merchant Street or Republic Street, you will pass the Co-Cathedral of St John, which one might almost decide to skip over, because of its unassuming facade.
valletta cathedralOnce you set foot inside though, be prepared to be wowed, since the inside is more elaborate than the outside would indicate. The cathedral was built by the Knights of St John in the 16th century and inside, there are two large murals by Caravaggio, one of them being the largest painting he has ever produced. Not only his, but all the murals in the cathedral are stunning, and the floors are covered with marble tombstones of the Knights.st johns cocathedral valletta insideThe Co-Cathedral is open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 4.30pm and from 9.30am to 12.30pm on Saturdays. Make sure to ave your shoulders and knees covered and don’t wear high heels (because they could damage the marble floors).

Malta St johns cocathedral valletta
St John’s Co-Cathedral

Another church gem is the St Paul’s Shipwreck Church, which is equally as elaborate and also has some tombs in the floor and a gorgeous dome.The Grand Master’s Palace, which houses Malta’s parliament these days, is also an architectural masterpiece that, awash with marble, gilt and ornate coats-of-arms.valletta malta skull sculptureThe Grand Master’s Palace, which houses Malta’s parliament these days, is another architectural masterpiece, looking bright and shiny after its recent renovation.Malta VallettaThere are some museums in Valletta, such as the National Museum Of Fine Arts or the National Museum Of Archeology, but I’d recommend just wandering the streets, enjoy a coffee in one the many cafes that offer street seating. Caffé Cordina would be the most famous one, and if you decide to stop here, make sure to peek inside as well, for the intricate interior of the nearly 200 year old café.Valletta Malta Caffe CordinaI loved exploring the city on early morning runs, when most of Valletta was still asleep, and I would enjoy the breeze from the ocean before the sun would get unbearably hot a couple of hours later. On my runs around the city walls, I’d always head down to the water to enjoy the smell of the water… and the incredible blue color.valletta mediterranean shoreIf you are looking for an off-season getaway from northern Europe, I highly recommend Valletta. The summer tourist crowds have disappeared, but the climate is pleasant year round. Airfare and hotel rates are back at affordable off-season prices (check out AirMalta for special fare deals!), the unbearable summer heat is gone, and you’ll have the city almost to yourself.valletta stairs

Where to eat in Valletta

The Grassy Hopper
The Grassy Hopper is a tiny hole in the wall right by the Grand Master’s Palace, and even though it is tiny, it is a purely vegan place and the first place where I found some super healthy foods in Valletta – think Chia seeds, wheat grass, macca, spirulina or goji berries, all mixed into smoothies of which one sounded more mouthwatering than the other. The main dishes consist mainly of vegan burgers such as beet and bean or chickpea burgers, but there are also some salads and other meatless dishes on the daily changing menu. In addition to the Valletta branch, there is a Grasshopper food truck down on the waterfront (Ta’Xbiex).

Address: #123 Old Theatre Street; open Monday to Fridays from 8am to 4pm and on Saturdays from 9am to 2pmMalta VallettaCaffé Cordina
The above-mentioned Caffé Cordina is a Valletta institution with a grand outside seating area that is great for people watching and a beautiful inside area, with a pompoes design of walls and ceilings in the 1837 established café. In addition to a wide selection of yummy Maltese pastries, you can try traditional Maltese dishes such as ricotta-stuffed ravioli or rabbit here.

Address: 244 Republic St, open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 7pm and from 8am to 3pm on Sundays

Cafe Jubilee
Café Jubilee is without a doubt the most charming café I came across in Malta. Decorated with old-fashioned pictures and memorabilia, walking through the door feels like traveling back in time. The café has everything from hearty breakfasts to dinners, proudly claims it is making some of the best pastizzi in Malta and is a good place for some drinks in the evening.

Address: Konvoj Ta’ Sta Marija; open daily from 8am to 1amMalta VallettaBadass Burger
A burger place might sound like nothing special, but once you look at the menu, you know that you were wrong: there is the Obama, the Daddy or the Rocky, and all of them are massive burgers with special toppings. Of course there is a veggie burger as well, and my salad with buffalo mozzarella and fresh parmigiano felt downright indulgent (especially for a burger place!) but what delighted me the most was the Banoffee Pie on the dessert menu! It was so good that I had to go back the next day and try the Banoffee milkshake – I think I would show up at Badass every day if I lived in Malta.

Address: Old Theatre Street

badass burger banoffee pieLa Mère
La Mere offers a mix of Maltese, Indian, Mediterranean and Arabian cuisines – and lots of vegetarian options! If you are looking for a break from Maltese cuisine, you’ll find classic Indian dishes (like Thali) here, Mediterranean salads, and Arab-influenced options.

Address: 174, Merchant Street

Where to stay in Valletta

I stayed at the Palazzo Prince D’Orange, a baroque palazzo that dates back to the 17th century and has been divided into three chic apartments (including a penthouse). Newly renovated, the apartments combine the historic style of the palazzo with modern appliances and the elegance of a noble residence. The Palazzo always offers special packages, for example €350 for 3 nights for 2 persons, which is an excellent deal for the comfort and amenities the palazzo has (like a two shared rooftop terraces, a dining area, a lounge, fully equipped kitchens in each apartment). The Palazzo is right in the heart of Malta, within a two-minute walk I was on Republic Street where you’ll find tons of cafes and restaurants. Palazza Dorange Valletta Malta

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Mermaids, sailors and pirates: New York City’s whackiest celebration

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Mermaids, sailors, pirates and lots of naked skin?

I had been fascinated by the Mermaid Parade on Coney Island ever since the first time I heard about it a few years back. And this summer, I happened to be in New York when the iconic parade took place – there was no way I’d miss it (even if that meant not watching Germany’s second game in the soccer world cup).

coney island mermaid parade 2014 seamenconey island mermaid parade 2014 marineA parade with whacky costumes, right by the ocean and in the summer – to me it seemed like this was Brooklyn’s very own version of Halloween and Mardi Gras, all mixed together. Some of the costumes actually reminded me a lot of Mardi Gras – although overall the costumes were less political and more provocative.
coney island mermaid parade costumes popeyeconey island mermaid parade 2014 costumes‘You’ll get to see lots of boobs!’ my friends kept telling me before the event, but obviously that wasn’t the only reason why I was eager to check out the parade 😉

coney island mermaid parade bodypaintingThe Mermaid Parade was introduced in 1983 to celebrate the arrival of summer and to bring to life the mythology behind street names such as Mermaid and Neptune, which are among the main roads in Coney Island. Plus, it was supposed to encourage the locals to express themselves in an artistic way.

coney island mermaid parade 2014coney island mermaid parade 2014coney island mermaid parade 2014 mermaidsSeeing that this June the parade marched down Surf Avenue and the Coney Island Boardwalk for the 32nd time, it seems like Coney Island’s artsy residents have made this celebration a fix institution in their annual event itineraries.
coney island mermaid parade 2014 guysBut not only Brooklynites – over the years, the parade has evolved in much more than a little local festivity, with participants and spectators arriving from neighboring states and far away neighborhoods like the Upper West Side (which feels like it’s a journey from another country, let me tell you.)

golden girl coney island mermaid parade 2014The best thing about the parade is that literally anybody can register to march in it – you don’t need a group or a float, you can just walk by yourself, as long as you have a costume. And oh boy, do people get into their dresses!! Understandably so, because there are several categories for best costume prizes.

coney island mermaid parade whacky costumesBecause anyone can participate, the Mermaid Parade has grown to over 1,500 people marching, making it the largest art parade in the U.S.

coney island mermaid parade mermaidsconey island mermaid parade 2014 sailorconey island mermaid parade mermaid costumesWhile the overall theme of the sea and its inhabitants was prevalent, I noticed that many people also just dressed up in a random costume of their choice.

coney island mermaid parade 2014 marilynconey island mermaid parade CostumesThat’s why there were Transformers…

coney island mermaid parade 2014 transformerZombie-Mermaids…

coney island mermaid parade walking dead…and some costumes I wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be…
coney island mermaid parade 2014  doggieSee that little dog above? There were actually quite a few dogs in the parade:
coney island mermaid parade dogsAnd I spotted several parrots.
coney island mermaid parade 2014 parrotEven the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, joined the parade with his wife and children, and so did Uncle Sam!

Coney Island Mermaid Parade Mayor and Uncle SamThat was another aspect I really liked: lots of families with children were walking in the parade. Knowing how much fun I had dressing up as a kid, I can only imagine how cool it must be for them to actually be in the parade. Right away, I began to hatch a plot to get my little nieces over here one year – no doubt that they’d have a blast walking in the parade dressed up as mermaids.

coney island mermaid parade 2014 little girlsI love how much detail most people put into their dresses – some people spend months tailoring their handmade and self-designed costumes.

coney island mermaid parade 2014 girlsThe mermaid in pink pictured below (on the left) took the prize for ‘Best Mermaid Costume’!
coney island mermaid parade floatsWhile there were some family-friendly costumes, I also saw quite a few provocative costumes.

Coney Island Mermaid Parade Butt*Attention.. the following photos are rated R*

coney island mermaid parade 2014 boobsI loved the eclectic mix of people in the parade – seniors, families, young lovers, queer couples,… and everyone was having a great time.
coney island mermaid parade topless girlsI learned that it is legal for women to walk around topless in the state of New York.
coney island mermaid parade topless mermaidsSo why not embrace our natural beauty 🙂coney island mermaid parade 2014 topless mermaids1coney island mermaid parade 2014 topless lady*If you’re planning to visit New York City next summer, mark 20 June in your calendar – that’s when the next Mermaid Parade takes place!*

Tips for attending the Mermaid Parade:

Don’t forget water, sun screen and your camera! Especially sun screen because there is barely any shade.

coney island mermaid parade 2014 coupleDon’t come hungry. I made the mistake of not eating before heading down there and had to put up with the sub-par fast food options around there (if you love Hot Dogs though, make sure to try one of Nathan’s world famous hot dogs!)

I wish I would have dressed up for the parade! Many of the spectators were also wearing costumes

Come early to get a good spot. It took us about 90 minutes to get from Midtown Manhattan down to Coney Island. The parade started at 1pm this year, and we arrived about half an hour before it started – and snagged about the last two first-row places along the parade route.

coney island mermaid parade BoardwalkThe next time I go, I’ll watch the parade on the boardwalk – I just feel like it is a prettier backdrop for it than Surf Ave.

Check the official website for the detailed route and starting time.

Bring a towel and stay at the beach for a couple of hours after the parade. We loved the festive vibe and had a blast sunbathing with all the mermaids and other participants.

dani at the beach

Which one is your favorite costume? Share in the comments below!

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