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Three Reasons Why Road Tripping is the Best Way to See Iceland

southern iceland dani car

Visiting Iceland was a travel dream come true for me, and as soon as my friend and I had bought our plane tickets, we started looking into planning the logistics of the trip. Which places did we want to see? How would we get there? And where would we stay? It quickly became clear that the places we were most excited about were quite far from one another: The Golden Circle with its geysers and breathtaking waterfalls, the extraordinary Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in the south, the fjords on the east coast, the lava fields in the north, and Snæfellsnes peninsula with its active volcano in the west of the country.jokulsarlon glacier lagoon ice beach - CopyOnce we started researching the practicalities, we quickly came to realize that the best way to see Iceland would be by car.

So why is road tripping the best way to see Iceland? Let me explain:iceland river1

1 The Ring Road

The Ring Road is a 828 mile (1332 km) long road that encircles the entire island, and driving it is the most convenient way to see as much of Iceland as possible. Not only does the Ring Road go around the entire country, but it also lets you see all of the things that you’d want to see on a trip to Iceland: geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, waterfalls, lava fields, Icelandic horses, hot springs, and of course, the dramatic landscapes Iceland is famous for.iceland skogafoss waterfallYou can drive the entire circle of the Ring Road in seven days, but ideally you should allow yourself ten days to be able to include detours to the Golden Circle (a 190 miles/300 km route off of the Ring Road that is famous for its massive waterfalls, geyser fields and Kerið volcanic crater) and Snæfellsnes peninsula in Western Iceland.southern iceland fjord & mountainsWe ran out of time for the latter because we only had eight days, and we also didn’t have time for a glacier hike or for a whale watching boat trip which I would’ve liked to do in Husavik, the main whale watching spot.icelandic scenery

2 The Journey is the Destination

It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey to get there.” There couldn’t be a more fitting quote for Iceland, where it is impossible to get bored on a road trip. The scenery is utterly fascinating, not matter where you are, and it changes so frequently that it often feels like you’re on a different island altogether.icelandic moonscape6We were so grateful that having the car allowed us to stop wherever we wanted – and we must have pulled over at least half a dozen times every single day, just to snap some pictures. This freedom alone was worth every single penny we spent on the car rental. In addition, it also enabled us to change our route on a whim whenever we felt like it. While we had a rough route mapped out, we ended up adding a few additional places to our journey, something we were only able to do because we had the car. Car rentals in Iceland are very reasonable, by the way – at EasyTerra Car Rental, a small car starts at €30 per day, and a medium-size car around €40 per day, including excess cover and unlimited mileage.icelandic horses

3 Traveling Iceland Without a Car is Not Easy

The most important reason why we opted to rent a car was that it turned out traveling around Iceland without a car is quite difficult. Yes, there is public transportation, but the buses that connect the towns around the island don’t run very often, so you always have to plan around the bus schedule, and sometimes there are only two buses a day. If you only have one week to explore Iceland, you don’t want to waste your time waiting for the bus.dimmuborgir iceland volcanic rocks daniAnother option would have been to join an organized tour, but that would have taken away from the flexibility of stopping wherever we wanted to, as mentioned in #2. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on the chance to stop whenever we felt like it, including scenic lunches and an impromptu beach stop in search of puffins (which sadly, we didn’t see).iceland dani photographingAn organized tour is great because you don’t have to plan anything and you know everything is taken care of, but it doesn’t give you the chance for these spontaneous stops. Even when we drove the Golden Circle, a route that most visitors do as an organized day trip from Reykjavik, we added a couple of extra stops, and not only that – we were also able to start at what is the last stop for the tour groups, which means we avoided big crowds completely.iceland sheep

Tips for Driving in Iceland

If you’re still unsure about driving in Iceland, take these things into consideration:

    • Write down all of the places you’d like to see while in Iceland and how much it will cost you to get to each one with an organized tour. You’ll quickly realize that the cost of a rental car is actually not more expensive than a tour.
    • Driving in Iceland is easy in the summer months, but it can be challenging in the winter months. The roads only have two lanes (one in each direction) but the traffic is not bad – especially if you go during shoulder season.

southern iceland mountain road

  • I shared my tips for driving in Iceland in this article, including thoughts on 4WD vs. a regular car, the best app to use, GPS and maps, and other things you should know.
  • There are plenty of car rental companies in Iceland, for example EasyTerra, but make sure to book your rental car in advance, because during high season, car rental companies have run out of cars in recent years, and you don’t want to be left stranded without a vehicle.

myvatn geothermal fields iceland

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The D-Day Beaches of Normandy: Combining History and Natural Beauty in Western France

France

The D-Day beaches are one of the most popular day trips from Paris, especially for Americans, Brits and Canadians whose parents or grandparents fought the Germans in World War II.

The historic significance of these beaches hasn’t lessened, even nearly 80 years after Operation Overload, which was the invasion of Western Europe by the Allied Nations on 6 June 1944. On that day, over 135,000 troops landed in Normandy, unifying against the Germans. The Allied Nations (Britain, Canada and the U.S.) were each allocated a number of beaches to invade, which were codenamed:

  • Utah Beach (U.S.)
  • Omaha Beach (U.S.)
  • Juno Beach (Canada)
  • Gold Beach (Britain)
  • Sword Beach (Britain)

When visiting the Normandy coast these days, it’s almost inconceivable that one of the most important and magnificent operations against the Germans happened here, an accomplishment that would later lead to the successful victory against Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Today, you’ll pass by rolling hills, quaint little seaside towns, surrounded by lush green farmland and cattle fields. The beaches themselves are beautiful and tranquil, and it is hard to imagine that thousands of soldiers lost their lives here.

However, you cannot escape the memories of D-Day when visiting this part of France – war memorials and monuments mark where the Allies landed, there are remains of bunkers and gun emplacements left by the Germans, and most importantly, there is the Normandy American Cemetery, where 9,387 American soldiers are buried.

If you are visiting to honor family members who fought or lost their lives there, you may want to try to visit on 6 June, when a number of D-Day anniversary memorials are held.

The easiest way to visit the area is with a tour, which usually includes all the beaches plus the Memorial Church in Caen (see below for details). Here is an overview of the main sights you shouldn’t miss when visiting the D-Day beaches, including all five beaches, which still carry the names given by the Allies in preparation of the operation.

The Caen Memorial

The Caen Memorial is the best place to start your tour of the D-Day beaches. The museum was recently renovated, and in addition to detailed information on D-Day and World War II, it has plenty of material on The Battle Of Normandy, The Cold War and the search for peace.

Utah Beach

The museum at this beach, the Utah Beach Landing Museum, is housed in the remains of a German bunker. Many say that this is the best D-Day museum in the area. In the nearby village of Sainte-Mère-Eglise is the Airborne Museum, which details the aerial operations.

Arromanches Mulberry

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe Du Hoc is the highest point between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, with a 100 feet (30 meter) cliff overlooking the English Channel. The German army had fortified this area with gun pits, bunkers, artillery and concrete casemates. Pointe du Hoc was captured by 225 U.S. rangers on D-Day after scaling the cliffs, and has become a symbol of courage of the American troops. It is one of the most significant memorials along the D-Day coast.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach was the stretch of beach with the most intense battles. Memorials and statues line the beach.

This is probably where you will be spending the most time of all beaches. The American Cemetery is located right above the beach, and there are two museums: the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum, which showcases personal items of soldiers, weapons and uniforms, and the Omaha D-Day Museum which details the landing on Omaha Beach.

The Gun Battery in Longues-sur-Mer between Omaha Beach and Gold Beach has a number of bunkers which were Hitler’s most important points of defense.

Gold Beach

The Gold Beach invasion was led by the British, and the most important museum here is the America Gold Beach Museum and exhibits details of the landing here as well as the three-engine Fokker America’s first airmail flight from the United States to France.

Arromanches 14

Juno Beach

Juno Beach, where the invasion was under Canada’s lead, has the Juno Beach Centre, which outlines the significant role Canada played in the D-Day invasion. Nearby Bény-sur-Mer is home to the Canadian cemetery.

Sword Beach

Sword Beach is the easternmost of the five D-Day beaches. The operation here happened under British leadership, and there is a museum, the Merville Gun Battery, which details the British Airborne Operations.

The nearby Ranville War cemetery is home to 2,235 graves, most of which belong to the 6th Airborne Division.

The American Cemetery

The American Cemetery is one of the largest American war cemeteries and was the first one on European soil established during World War II. With 9,387 lives lost on D-Day and the consequent ensuing operations, it makes visitors realize the magnitude and true scale of this operation and the lives lost during it.

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

How to visit the D Day beaches from Paris

Paris City Vision offers a guided tour of the D-Day beaches from Paris. The trip includes, in addition to the beaches, the Caen Memorial Church, the memorial service, and a delicious lunch. You’ll leave Paris at 7am and will return around 9pm. The advantage of taking a tour is not only that it’ll bring you to all places of interest, but it also includes a knowledgeable guide who will provide background information and historical details.

You can also visit the beaches via public transportation – take the train from Paris to Caen and then hop on the local bus that connects the beaches, but be aware that buses aren’t running very often and trying to fit in all beaches, the Memorial and the American cemetery in one day would be quite a challenge.

Photo credit: All photos used via Flickr’s Creative Commons Licensing. (1) Arromanches Mulberry by Archangel12; (2) Arromanches 14 by Barry Skeates; (3) Normandy American Cemtery by Larry Uren

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Five Epic European Road Trips

southern iceland dani car

Everybody loves a good road trip, and Europe has more scenic roads than you could cover in a lifetime. Majestic castles in Austria, half-timbered houses in Germany, rolling green hills in England, Alpine landscapes in Switzerland, majestic fjords in Norway, and vineyards lining the country roads as you are driving in France – these are just some of the things that lift my heart and keeps me driving.

If I had to pick just five, this would be the list of my favorite road tips in Europe:fiat 500 & san gimignano

1. The Amalfi Coast | Italy

The Amalfi coast in the south of Italy is the country’s most beautiful stretch of coastline, where quaint terraced villages are spread through the hillsides stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea are around every corner. The coast route follows the shoreline from Sorrento in the north to Salerno in the south. Your hearts will pound as you hug the road past steep cliffs, and soar when you pass the many vineyards where you may wish to stop and spend a few days. The four main towns on the Amalfi Coast are Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Ravello, and stops in all of them are essential!

Best time for a road trip: March to May, when Spring is in full bloom and the summer tourist season has not yet begun.
Recommended number of days: 2 to 4 days
Level of difficulty: It is a beautiful drive, but challenging. Drivers should be confident on winding, narrow roads.

Cinque Terre coast1

2. The Highlands | Scotland

Scotland’s Highlands are unlike anywhere in the world and a Highland road trip covers some of the most spectacular places in the UK. I recommend a loop, starting your trip in Glasgow and finishing in Edinburgh, heading north through the mountains and locks that make the Highlands so famous, and then heading back down to the Scottish capital. Start in Glasgow and head to Loch Lomond before continuing north to the small outpost of Fort William from there. Here you can hike the mighty Ben Nevis, the highest mountain of the British Isles, or head west towards Mallaig with a stop at the picturesque Loch Shiel. From Mallaig, take the car ferry over to the Isle of Skye, and head back to the mainland via the Skye Bridge. Fro here it is a short drive to fairytale-esque Eileen Donan Castle.eileen donan castle scotlandDepending on how much time you have left, I recommend driving further north to the fishing town of Ullapool and the little village of Lochinver, with its white-sand beaches. Otherwise drive straight east towards Fort Augustus, which is the perfect base to explore Loch Ness. Drive along the Loch to the quaint town of Inverness and take the scenic route via Pitlochry to Edinburgh, and you will see most of the iconic Scottish landmarks like the Lochs, Whiskey distilleries and Highland cows.

Best time for a road trip: April – September
Recommended number of days: 5 to 7 days
Level of difficulty: Roads are narrow and driving is on the left – drivers should be experienced and confident.

Scotland highlands sheep

3. The Romantic Road | Germany

The Romantic Road in the south of Germany offers some of the most stunning scenery of the country. Driving from Würzburg to the foothills of the Alps near Neuschwanstein Castle, you will pass sweeping views, ancient cathedrals and castles, castles, castles. You will drive through the pretty Tauber Valley before you arrive in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which dates back to the 13th century with medieval streets and thick city walls – doubtlessly the pearl of the Romantic Road! Other highlights include the gorgeous town of Nördlingen, Augsburg with its stunning cathedral, Hohenschwangau with its jaw-droppingly beautiful Neuschwanstein Castle and Hohenschwangau Castle and the nearby historic town of Füssen. If you have more time, you can drive up to Munich from here and end your road trip in one of Germany’s most traditional cities. Don’t forget to pack your lederhosen!

Best time for a road trip: Spring or summer, but fall is also a beautiful time to visit.
Recommended number of days: 5 to 7 days
Level of difficulty: The road is fairly easy to navigate, though it can get narrow at times.

road to the bavarian alps

4. France beyond Paris | France

This road trip is the ideal way to combine a trip to Paris with an additional few days to explore the idyllic French countryside. I would recommend starting in Paris and driving through Chartres, Le Mans, Rennes, Caen, Rouen and then circling back to Paris. Just outside of the city, stop in Versailles to see Napoleon’s remarkable palace, and then move on to Chartres, home to a UNESCO World Heritage cathedral, before exploring Renne, which still has plenty of well-maintained wood-edifice buildings typical for that area of France. North of Rennes is the spectacular Le Mont-St.-Michel, a rocky island set in the English Channel, just off the coast, that is almost entirely inhabited by the medieval Benedictine Abbey and church – not to be missed! Rouen is home to the extraordinary cathedral made famous by Monet’s painting, and makes for a fabulous last stop on this French road trip.

Best time for a road trip: Between April and October
Recommended number of days:4 to 5
Level of difficulty: All roads on this trip are easy to navigate.

paris chez marie cafe

5. Dublin – Kilkenny – Cork – Galway | Southern Ireland

Southern Ireland has some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, especially along the coast. Our Southern Ireland road trip starts in Dublin and brings you to Kilkenny, Cork, Limerick and Galway, and ends back in Dublin. This road trip is the perfect way to get to know the culture, landscape and history of Ireland, passing impressive castles as well as picturesque Irish villages. Some of the highlights of this road trip are County Kerry, which has a rugged coastline and tall mountains, and is especially famous for the Ring of Kerry, a circular road that follows a trace of coastline of mountainous fingers jutting out into the ocean. The infamous Cliffs of Moher, which tower 700 feet above the ocean, are another highlight of this trip.

Best time for a road trip: Between March and October
Recommended number of days: 5 to 7 days
Level of difficulty: Left side driving and narrow roads. Not for novices.

Cliffs & cottages

 

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Summer in the Algarve – Top Tips on Avoiding the Crowds

costa caparica beach portugal

Portugal has it all. Warm sunny weather, beautiful scenery, gorgeous coast and bags of culture. The only problem is – everyone else knows this too! Meaning that come summer, places like the Algarve can be extremely overpopulated with tourists. Something that can be extremely off-putting to other travellers.

However, you shouldn’t let a few tourists keep you from experiencing one of Europe’s most treasured holiday destinations. With just a few clever tricks, I promise that you’ll be able to get the most out of your Algarve holiday without getting trampled on by stampedes of holiday-goers.

The Algarve itself is popular due to two main reasons – every year it experiences over 300 days of sunshine and yet it’s still an incredibly affordable destination with numerous budget flights. Then there’s the fact the region is famed for its long, clean beaches that are considered some of the safest in the world. It’s little wonder that couples and families flock to the Algarve every year.

To avoid the crowds, I recommend avoiding the big hotels that occupy the central Algarve. Yes, the amazing hospitality, swimming pools and affordable hotel bills are very tempting. But that means everyone else will book too! For more privacy, I suggest booking your own villa or apartment. Many of these private holiday homes have their own swimming pools meaning you won’t have to share with other tourists, plus you can avoid the hectic morning buffets in favour of exploring the local food markets and attempting to make some Portuguese dishes yourself.

When it comes to beaches, both the south and central Algarve with beaches like Praia da Falesia are particularly busy due to all the facilities they provide. This beach resort has water sports, golf and even tennis for all ages, making it very popular with families.

For a quiet day on the beach opt for an area that has been less developed for tourists such as Praia Verde in the Eastern Algarve. Without a golf course or water park in sight, this lovely beach is surrounded by a dense pine forest and is home to an array of local birds and other wildlife to spot. There’s even a small boutique hotel hidden away in the forest called the Praia Verde Boutique Hotel. With just 40 suites, modern design and a delicious restaurant that offers seasonal dishes, there’s no doubt that this area will give you a taste of authentic Algarve life.

When it comes to eating out, the most popular restaurants are the western ones. Simply because they’ve been built to suit the tastes of the thousands of tourists who visit each year. Instead, beat the crowds and experience some of the delicious Portuguese cuisine. After-all, you can’t visit a country without trying its famous dishes.

For a taste of the best, the Michelin-starred São Gabriel is a must-visit. The chef, accomplished local-born Leonel Pereira, undoubtedly creates some of the Algarve’s greatest dishes. Of course, being Michelin-starred the restaurant can be on the pricey side, however, there’s likely to be a tasting menu that will give the most for your money and offers a great experience.

If you’ve got a sweeter tooth, Restaurant L14, which is tucked away in the Salgados Dunas Suites hotel in Albufeira, won the Best Dessert 2015 award for its almond and fig dish. The restaurant offers a fusion of local and international foods, so it’s a great choice if you’re new to the cuisine.

All-in-all, it’s very possible to avoid the tourists in the Algarve, you just need to venture further afield from the popular resorts. If you do, you’ll quite possibly regard the Algarve as one of your top holiday destinations.

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Walking through Italy: Highlights from the Via Amerina, Part II

historic via amerina

…continued from Walking Through Italy: Highlights From The Via Amerina, Part I

After the first big leg of the hike along the Via Amerina, from Castel dell’Aquila to Amelia, and a good night’s sleep (we were all so tired that we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow), and a typical Italian breakfast (a cappuccino and a sweet pastry), we started the walk to our next destination: Orte, around 10 miles (17 kilometers) south of Amelia.umbria breakfastLike the day before, we traversed vineyards and fields, huffing and puffing as we climbed the hills. On this part of the Via, we also passed an open-air chapel, a reminder that we weren’t just on a random hike through the countryside, but on a pilgrimage.via amerina church

Orte: Another Enchanting Medieval Hilltop Town

The last part of the hike was the most challenging: We could see Orte majestically crowning the top of a tuff cliff front of us, and with a lot of moaning, our legs eventually carried us up the hill, reaching our first stop in the Latium region.orte medieval welcomeWe entered another stunning medieval town through one of several massive stone gates, hundreds of years old, and rested at the town square for a while, watching another flag-twirling performance, before we explored Orte’s well-preserved ‘underground’.orte lazioBecause the town sits on top of a cliff, the Romans built many tunnels, caverns and cisterns underneath the city, some of which can be visited with a tour guide.orte undergroundOrte is not just worth a visit for its underground relics though – the town itself is stunning. Just like with medieval churches, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of wandering through medieval towns, marvel at the imposing stone buildings, follow the narrow lanes to see where they lead me, and imagining what life must have been like here in medieval times. It seems like not much has changed since then, at least on the outside.OrteOnly five miles south of Orte, we passed through Vasanello, another quaint medieval town with a small castle and a beautiful 13th century Romanesque bell tower, which was built with stones that were taken from the Via Amerina.Vasanello Italy1Another highlight of the Via was the leg between Morticelli, where we passed a small necropolis, the Necropoli di Morticelli, where tombs have been carved into the tuff, and Corchiano, where we traversed the Forre di Corchiano, a narrow gorge that follows the Rio Fratta.forre di corchiano italyOn that stretch of the path, we passed a beautiful arched Roman Bridge which was still intact, and several caves with Byzantine graves and tombs. The scenery here is completely different from what we’d seen in Umbria.via amerina bridge

The Natural Monuments Of Latium

Instead of rolling hills, we were walking through thick forest, and we learned that the Forre Di Corchiano is part of the WWF L’Oasi di Pian Sant’Angelo, a 254-hectare large natural monument, rewarded this title thanks to its outstanding natural beauty and unique archeological finds.via amerina daniWe left the Via for a quick visit to Civita Castellana, about 4 miles (6 kilometers) east of Falerii Novi, a town also founded by the Falisci, who called it Falerii. Civita Castellana is worth a visit not only for its charming town center, but for its attractive Cathedral, also known as Il Duomo, which has some remarkable geometrical floor mosaics and which has a unique Cosmatesque façade (signed and dated in gold mosaic tiles, dating back to 1210), and Forte Sangallo, the fortress, which was built by Pope Alexander VI. The fortress houses an Etruscan Museum with a considerable collection.civita castellana duomo inside1After spending the night in Civita Castellana, we continued our walk southwards the next morning – 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) to the town of Nepi.via amerinaWe started the day on a particularly lovely section of the route, which led us through hazelnut orchards, the ground filled with hazelnuts that were going to be used for one of Ferrero’s irresistible hazelnut chocolate creations, until we reached the ruins of the walled settlement of Falerii Novi.via amerina hazelnutsCreated by the Romans, the stone entrance gate of Falerii Novi is still intact, and the striking church of Santa Maria of Falerii is still in great condition next to the ruins of Falerii Novi.Falerii Novi Gate and Faleria Church

The Original Via Amerina: Walking on a Roman Road

After that, we continued our hike on one of the best known parts of the Via Amerina: Cavo degli Zucchi, a stretch of the road that is flanked by a series of tombs which are carved directly out of the tall tuff cliff.historica via amerina italyThis part of the road has been excavated over the past 30+ years, uncovering the original basalt rocks that were put down by the Romans to pave the road. The exposed road is so well preserved that you can even see imprints from the wagons that were rolling down the Via Amerina hundreds of years ago.via amerina Necropoli dei Tre PontiThe cliffs that line the road for about 1.3 miles (2 kilometers) house 196 graves between Cavo degli Zucchi and Cava Foce Tre Ponti (also known as Necropoli dei Tre Ponti). This area is known to be inhabited by the Falisci, an ethnic group said to have been of Greek origin, who also inhabited Falerii and Falerii Novi.via amerina Necropoli dei Tre PontiBefore reaching Nepi, we stopped at Castel Sant’Elia, a small town that sits on the ridge of the Suppetonia Valley, a gorge that winds between Civita Castellana and Nepi, up to 656 feet (200 meters) deep and 2,300 feet (700 meters) wide. The Basilica, a medieval church built into the cliff over an ancient temple of Diana, features several mosaics and frescoes that are worth peeking inside for.italy st elia church mosaicsWe made our way up the mountain to the top of the cliff, where we found an old monastery, the Sanctuary of Santa Maria ad Rupes, which houses the Shrine of St Maria ‘ad Rupes’. The shrine is connected to the surface by a tunnel by 144 steps carved by hand by a local hermit, an endeavor that took him 14 years to finish.italy st elia monastery and suppetonia valley

Catacombs and a Fortress in Nepi

And then we arrived in Nepi, another small medieval town with cobblestone streets and a 12th century cathedral, where there were two other sights worth stopping for, the first being Castello Borgia. We were able to climb to the top of one of the circular towers of this 16th century fortress, an effort that was rewarded with breathtaking views over the city and the surrounding countryside, including the Monte Sorrate mountain ridge.nepi view italyThe other unmissable sight in Nepi is the Santa Savinilla Catacombs, an underground cemetery that dates back to the 5th century. The excavated graves are exceptionally well preserved, some of them still housing the bones and skulls of the deceased.nepi catacombsI’ve seen a number of catacombs throughout Europe, but Santa Savinilla, albeit small, was among the most impressive underground graveyards I have been to.

Calcata: Italy’s Most Artsy Village

After our afternoon in Nepi, we ventured off the path, away from the Via, and made a little detour to Calcata, another small hilltop village that is close enough to Rome to visit on a day trip, reminding us that we were not far from our final destination now.calcata italyI fell in love with the village the minute it came into sight: a tiny fortified settlement perched atop a stump of volcanic rock, a small castle jutting out of the stone roofs of the medieval houses, surrounded by lush green forest on all sides.Calcata LaziumCalcata almost ended up as a ghost town when the Italian government declared the village as unsafe in the 1930s, saying the cliffs it was sitting on were crumbling. The majority of the people who lived in Calcata moved half a mile up the road, where they built a new town, Calcata Nuova, which left the village nearly deserted.calcata italyIn the 60s and 70s artists and hippies discovered the little village, drawn by the mythical energy that supposedly emanates from the volcanic stump it sits on, but also by the fairy-tale like feel and the enchanting atmosphere in the village with its crooked streets and maze of cobblestone alleyways.calcata italyToday, the village is home to over 100 artists, New Age types who are selling jewelry, display their paintings and sculptures in little galleries, and run charming little tea and coffee shops. Calcata gets overrun by day trippers from Rome and other nearby towns, especially on weekends, and it is easy to see why – I could’ve wandered the little streets for hours, visiting all the tiny galleries, gorging on homemade cakes while enjoying the views over the surrounding countryside. If I were to go back to Calcata, I would stay in one of the stone houses right in town for a couple of nights, or even take up a month-long artists’ residency.Calcata Italy LaziumThis detour left me feel invigorated, feeding me enough energy for the last part of the trek. Sadly, due to time constraints, I didn’t get to walk the entire last part from Nepi to Rome via Campagno di Roma (17km) and La Storta (20km from Campagno di Roma), with a final 12.5 mile (20 kilometers) day that eventually brings you to Rome and Piazza St Pietro (St Peter’s Square).via francigena hikers

The Final Stretch to Rome

Instead, we started at the trail head for the alternative route which leads through the Insugherata Nature Park. Walking this way means you are not following the traffic-heavy Via Cassia, which meets the Via Amerina on its final stretch to Rome, alternatively walking through beautiful nature for 4 miles (6 kilometers) right into Rome, where the path rejoins the original route near Piazza Igea.via francigenaThe entire walk is 8.7 miles (14 kilometers) and was very pleasant – I preferred walking through the park rather than following the road, especially because I knew we would be walking through the busy streets of Rome later on.historic via amerina italy

The Papal Audience in St Peter’s Square

Getting a first glimpse of St Peter’s Cathedral from Monte Mario was spectacular – at last seeing that the end was near, and that we had nearly reached our final destination.rome viewMost pilgrims plan their arrival in Rome for a Tuesday so that they can attend the papal audience that is held in St Peter’s Square every Wednesday. Even as a non-religious person, I couldn’t deny the special aura in the square, filled with thousands of pilgrims from all over the world who were listening to the Pope’s speech and receiving his apostolic blessing.rome papal audienceNo matter if you are Catholic or not, ending a walk through Italy at the papal audience makes it feel even more extraordinary: you have done something that only very few people do. Going to Rome? Easy. But walking to Rome? An exceptional achievement.rome castell st angelo

The Walk Continues: Wandering The Streets Of Rome

Most of my fellow hikers were tired from the long days of walking and skipped sightseeing in Rome, but I love this city so much, I couldn’t leave without spending at least one day in the city.romeI wandered the streets of Trastevere, my favorite neighborhood, and revisited the majestic landmarks of the city that made such an impression on me when I came to Rome for the first time, back when I was a teenager – the Collosseum, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum and the Fontana di Trevi.rome collosseoIf you walk the Via Amerina or another pilgrims’ route and this is your first time in Rome, I recommend taking a rest day and then spending a few days exploring the city. Even though the walk is a journey in itself, your final destination is too sensational to be left out.rome gelatoI could have spent another week in Rome, but sadly I was pressed for time. I threw a coin over my left shoulder at Trevi Fountain though, the one thing I’ve done on all my visits to Rome, because legend says that throwing a coin over your shoulder into the fountain guarantees a return to Rome.rome fontana di treviSo far, it’s worked for me – I’ll be back.

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Walking through Italy: Highlights from the Via Amerina, Part I

italy umbria

It was a special moment when I was handed my pilgrim’s pass in the Papal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi – even though I am not religious. But it made it official: I would be walking along the Via Amerina, a historic pilgrim’s route, for the next six days, until we would reach Rome, the ultimate destination for a pilgrim.assisi pilgrims passport

Assisi is an important sacred place for pilgrims because St Francis, the founder of the Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of Saint Clare, the Third Order of Saint Francis and the Custody of the Holy Land, and one of the most venerated religious figures in history, was born and died here.Assisi papal basilica of saint francisSeveral pilgrims’ trails start or pass through Assisi, inspired by the life and the travels of St Francis – most famously the St Francis Way, a 340 miles (550km) pilgrimage from Florence through Assisi to Rome through Central Italy, visiting key sites from the saint’s life.via amerina umbriaThe Via Amerina may include several spiritual sites, like churches and monasteries, but of course you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the walk through the Italian countryside. Just like on the Camino De Santiago, Spain’s famous pilgrim’s route, you find people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds, and everyone is walking for a different reason. Some are at a crossroads in their life, looking for a sign of which way to take. Some are walking to process a dramatic event in their lives. Some are walking to focus on spiritual virtues, of course, and others walk simply because they enjoy walking.via amerina walkWhatever the reason, the one thing we all share is the journey. The dirt roads across the Umbrian hills, the paths along the vineyards, where vines heavy with ripe grapes are waiting to be harvested. The walk along deserted country roads, through grain fields, and through little Italian villages that barely get any tourists, save the few pilgrims that walk this ancient trail.umbria cat

The Via Amerina: An Ancient Roman Road

The Via Amerina dates back to Roman times, when it was built following the route of an ancient Etruscan trading trail. The Romans paved the entire road with big basalt rocks, some of which are still there today. Several times along the way I found myself walking on the original basalt rocks.

dani via amerinaWhat made the road so important during medieval times was the fact that it was the only route that was open between Rome and Ravenna, which was the capital of the Byzantine Empire at the time.via amerinaThe trail also has a connection to other European roads: the Via Francigena meets the Via Amerina just outside of Rome, combining the two ancient routes on their last miles to the Vatican.via francigena signAnd there are many more than just these two medieval roads – there’s a number of Roman roads that lead to Rome, all of which were important trading routes in Roman and medieval times, connecting major religious and commercial hubs, like Rome with Jerusalem. Five routes that are particularly noteworthy in Italy are the Way of St Francis, Benedict’s Path, the Via Lauretana, the aforementioned Via Francigena and Via Amerina, parts of which I walked.via amerina italyDay after day, we got up, put on our walking shoes and faced the challenge of another long and strenuous section of the path. I was surprised that we didn’t pass any other hikers, but the Via Amerina, despite its historic significance, isn’t among the most popular multi-day walking routes in Europe. The Camino, the Pilgrim Way to Canterbury or the Via Francigena, a longer version of the Via Amerina that goes from France to Rome, are much more popular.dani and dog via amerina

Italy Beyond The Major Cities

The little towns we stopped in along the way are towns that most visitors to Italy would never set foot in – towns like Nepi, Gallese or Orte aren’t places you find on your typical Italy itinerary. There’s no Florence, no Venice, no Milan. Instead, you get a glimpse into what small-town life looks like in Italy, where the food and wine in the trattorias comes right from the fields surrounding the town. Places where people know each other and stop for a chat in the town square, have a quick espresso in one of the ever-present espresso bars.Amelia wine UmbriaThat’s what I loved most about this walk, getting a deeper insight into the real Italy, the country beyond landmarks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Colosseum. This walk is a spiritual journey for pilgrims, but for me, it was a cultural and culinary pilgrimage, in search of authentic dishes of Umbria and Latium, the regions I traversed, and in search of cultural treasures that are overlooked by most guide books.umbria townThe total distance between Rome and the town of Amelia, after which the route was named (Amelia was known as Ameria in Roman times) was 59 miles (95 kilometers).
umbria sceneryJust north of Amelia, the Via converges with two other ancient routes, the Via Flaminia, which continues to the Adriatic Coast, and the Via Cassia. Eventually, the Via Flaminia was extended all the way to Rome, and with a better surface, it led to the decline of the Via Amerina, which was consequently less used.umbria via amerina fieldsHowever, the Via is now seeing a revival, and is becoming increasingly popular again with hikers and cyclists. And you don’t have to walk the entire length of it, you could also base yourself in Amelia or Civita Castellana or another town along the route, and walk sections of it.via amerina hikersBut before I tell you the practical aspects on how you can walk the Via Amerina yourself, I wanted to share some of my personal highlights along the way.dani vineyard via amerina

Assisi: Where it all Begins

I wish we would have had more time in Assisi to also see the famous Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, which is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor Conventual and a UNESCO World Heritage site, but with a long walk ahead of us, we only got to stop briefly in Assisi, receive our pilgrims passports and visit the Papal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.assisi church

While this church might not have the stunning views of the more famous Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, what makes this church special is the fact that it is the seventh largest Christian church and it was here that the young Francis of Assisi understood his vocation and renounced the world in order to live in poverty among the poor, consequently starting the Franciscan movement.Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi

Another thing that makes the church stand out: The chiesetta (little church) of Porziuncola (Italian for “little portion”) which is the most sacred place for Franciscans. Benedictine monks gave this little church, dating from the 9th century, to St Francis.assisi PorziuncolaWhile we received our pilgrims’ passes in Assisi, the actual start of the walk for us was Castel dell’Aquila, where we left the old town through the remarkable medieval Porta Amerina and started our walk south, towards Rome.Castel dell'aquila umbria

Scenic Umbria

Umbria is a region I had only passed through on previous visits to Italy, but never really explored. I was surprised to see that its natural beauty compared very much to neighboring Tuscany, which has always been my favorite part of Italy.umbria landscape

The leg of the walk between the quaint village of Castel dell’Aquila and Amelia, just under 10 miles (15.4km) was possibly the most picturesque day of the hike, but in all honesty, I would be hard pressed picking a favorite. Italy is always just ridiculously scenic, no matter what part of the country you find yourself in.via amerina vineyard

On our walk through the hilly countryside we would see tiny sandstone villages perched on the hillsides, always with a campanile, a bell tower, sticking out.umbrian village

We walked through fields, through vineyards, we passed olive orchards and small farms. I felt like the saying ‘It is about the journey, not the destination’ never held more true than here, where every time we turned a corner, we were rewarded with new breathtaking vistas.umbria countryside

Amelia: Sweeping Views Over The Tiber Valley

Amelia, (formerly America), sits, like most towns in Umbria, on top of a hill, overlooking the surrounding Tiber Valley. A group of local flag-twirlers dressed in period costumes welcomed us with a traditional musical performance and we learn that many of Umbria’s flag-twirlers are so good that they participate in competitions around the world.amelia italyI love that all the medieval towns still have traditional contrade groups – a contrada is a district, or a ward, within an Italian city – and during medieval festivals which are usually held in the summer, members of the various contrade dress in ceremonial garb and parade through the cities.amelia flag twirlersLike most Baroque churches in Italy, Amelia’s cathedral was impressive, with intricate paintings and lots of gold. I may not be religious, but I do have an appreciation for elaborate churches that are hundreds of years old – and I never tired of walking into another house of worship on our way to Rome.amelia church insideAmelia was so delightful that I could have easily spent another day here, but the Via called, and so we marched onward instead, to Orte, around 10 miles (17 kilometers) south of Amelia.Amelia Italy Umbria

Continue here: Walking Through Italy: Highlights From The Via Amerina, Part II

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Polaroid Of The Week: A life changing day in Frankfurt

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week germany frankfurt skyscrapersThe past couple of weeks have been absolutely frantic – I’ve been to Leipzig and Frankfurt and I am on my way to Berlin as I am writing this.

All of a sudden, my whole life is turned upside down! I can finally reveal the true reason why I went to Germany: I was invited for my final interview at the General Consulate of the United States in Frankfurt in order to get my permanent residency for the U.S.! This seemingly never-ending process has been going on for the past nine months and it is done now… at last. And I can finally talk about it – I’ve hinted about it here and there, and if you’re following me on Snapchat (mariposa2711) you’ve seen me go through the entire process, but I couldn’t talk about it publicly while I was still in the process of being screened and evaluated.

I have been trying to get permanent residency in the U.S. for years, and if you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I’ve been ready to get a permanent base again for about two years. But on the U.S. visa I’ve had until now, I had to leave the country, or New York, my chosen home, every six months, making it impossible to truly settle. I admit that in light of Friday’s inauguration I have mixed feeling about officially being an immigrant now, but I am so happy that this process, which has caused me sleepless nights since May, because it was not 100 % sure that I’d really get a permanent visa, is now over. I’ll be talking about it in more detail in my monthly round-up (and another post as soon as I am truly settled, but that is going to take a few more months), which coincided with the 7th anniversary of me canceling the last lease I had. 7 years of globetrotting.. who would’ve thought that when I signed that fateful letter telling my landlord I’d be leaving London.

My next Polaroid will be coming from Israel – I was reunited with my passport, which I had to leave at the consulate, just in time to catch my plane to Tel Aviv and to run the Dead Sea Half Marathon next Sunday!

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Polaroid Of The Week: A Winter Sunrise In Germany

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week germany winter 2017

This week has been all about spending time with my family and about getting in shape – because I got a pretty last-minute opportunity to run a half marathon in Israel later this month! I’ve briefly mentioned my upcoming trip in my December Life Lately round-up, and I was already super excited for my return to Israel, but this race will make it even better. The marathon route goes along the Dead Sea – one of my favorite places in Israel – so I didn’t have to think long, even though I am admittedly not in the best shape I’ve ever been.

I didn’t run a single time during my week in Berlin, and couldn’t motivate myself to go for a run when I visited my brother for a couple of days afterwards, but now that I am back at my sister’s house I’ve taken my her dog Odie on a daily 5k (even though he’d gladly do a daily 10k) and have run two 10ks. Having Odie is my biggest motivation to run every day – I have to admit that the freezing temperatures are a huge turn-off for me but I am fighting through my reluctance to head out in the snow. The toughest run so far was a sunrise run in 13 F (-10 C) – even though the run through the quiet, snowy fields was beautiful, I’ve never run in cold weather like this – I think the coldest run so far had been 26 F (-3 C). It’s quite ironic that I am training for a desert race in freezing cold winter weather, but what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, right? 🙂

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The Top 5 Places for a Weekend Escape from London

cornwall beach england

In spite of London winning the hearts of many, its busy daily routine can get to you. As a Londoner or as a traveler, there is much more to England than London alone. But, where do you start if you’re looking for your London escape? In and around London, within the radius of an average one-hour commute, there are many places to visit on the weekend that can give leave you rejuvenated.England SunsetHere are the top 5 picks to plan your next escape from London:

1.     Oxford

Oxford has as much to offer to visitors as it has to its students. Standing tall as one of England oldest universities, there is a lot to take away from this weekend getaway. You can check out the museums, the old stone architecture of the building, which is indeed very beautiful, and visit libraries such as Bodleian. Trains for Oxford leave regularly and take about an hour from London Paddington Station. There are also plenty of shops and food stalls to explore at The Covered Market on the High Street, the oldest in all of Britain.Cambridge England

2.     Dover

Dover is one of Britain’s busiest ports and was the traditional front door to England upon entrance from continental Europe. It offers a lot to do to visitors, such as the beautiful White Chalk cliffs to spend time and clear your mind. Since Dover was a fort city, you can explore interesting military heritage and visit the beautiful Dover Castle. The best way to experience the cliffs – stay at one of the nearby campgrounds. St Margarets Bay Holiday Park is the closest to the cliffs, but there are several others along the coast. That way you get the chance to see this spectacular part of Britain’s coastline during all times of day, including sunrise, golden hour and sunset, when they are bathed in a truly stunning light. And speaking of camping – if you’re looking to step up your camping gear game this year, why not try something different in the camping bed market. Britain’s got so many beautiful campsites – why not use the long Holiday weekends for more countryside getaways?White Cliffs Of Dover

3.     Bath

If you are a fan of ancient buildings and architecture, especially of the Roman era, Bath is one place you absolutely must experience. The site is home to the most magnificent ruins left in England thousands of years ago, offering plenty of learning opportunities about ancient Roman Britain. Trains from Paddington take about and hour and a half to transport you to the classic Georgian Architecture era sites.Bath England

4.     East Grinstead

If castles and roman architecture aren’t your thing, and you want to find some peace and quiet in one of the smaller towns around London instead, consider escaping to East Grinstead in West Sussex, which is 58 minutes away from London. With only 25,000 inhabitants, it is bound to be the perfect peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of London. For more small town escapes, check out this list of 20 places around London you can consider moving to.Canterbury

5.     Canterbury

Canterbury flaunts the beauty of churches with its thousand year old cathedrals. It is also the spiritual base of the Church of England, and the city offers not just divine freedom, but many other things to calm your mind such as restaurants, art museums and galleries to explore.Canterbury England

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Polaroid Of The Week: Happy New Year from Berlin

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week germany berlin TV Tower

Happy New Year from Berlin!

My first Polaroid of 2017 is coming to you from Germany’s capital where I escaped to after spending the Holidays with my family. While I came to Berlin mainly to get some work done and catch up with friends, I managed to fit in quite a few fun activities – like visiting several of the city’s amazing Christmas markets, which I hadn’t done in over ten years. I have to admit that it felt a bit awkward at first in light of the recent terror attack, but I decided to adapt the ‘We won’t let terrorists ruin this joyful time of year for us’ attitude that the Berliners showed, who kept flocking to the Christmas markets.

Other than Christmas markets, I went on a bar crawl in Kreuzberg and took a friend who passed through town to the observation deck of the Park Inn hotel for a panoramic view of Berlin, climbed the 285 steps of the spiral staircase to the top of the Victory Column and revisited the East Side Gallery, the longest still standing piece of the Berlin Wall which has been painted with murals by international artists. Note to self: Leave open air viewing platforms for summer visits to Berlin – the biting cold winter air up on top of both structures was brutal.

And of course I did all week long what I do best in Berlin: eat my way around town. I went to some of my favorite restaurants (Azzam for Lebanese, Anna Blume for cake, The Barn for coffee, Hamy Cafe for Vietnamese food) and tried some places I’d been wanting to eat at for a while, like the excellent Alsancak Simit Sarayi for a Turkish breakfast, Vagabund Brauerei for craft beer and Zweistrom to try their Makali (a Lebanese sandwich with fried carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, pickles & tahini sauce).

While I am still not a fan of the freezing temperatures in Berlin at this time of year and the fact that it gets dark at 4pm, it felt amazing to be back in one of my favorite cities in the world, even for such a short time, and ring in the New Year here. Bring it on, 2017!

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