Iceland, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, & Italy 2012-13

As most of you know, I'm safely in London now, so I've got a chance to give the promised big update on my trip through Iceland, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Italy with my buddy Alex.  Read as much as you like -- I'm not going to claim this is a short e-mail.  But because it was an eventful trip, because I didn't give detailed updates along the way, and because I think Dad wants a detailed e-mail, here goes:

Iceland:

Alex and I planned to meet at Keflavik airport in Iceland, because he'd be flying in from New York and I'd be flying in from DC.  We managed to find some well-timed flights, and everything went according to plan.  The planes landed nine minutes apart and we even had the same baggage carousel:

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We then picked up our rental car and drove into Reykjavik.  I'd read good things online about a breakfast place called Grái Kötturinn ("The Grey Cat") so we grabbed the below healthy day-starter and then walked around Reykjavik a bit.  It was morning there, but the sun wasn't gonna rise until 11:30AM, and the hotel said check-in wasn't until 2PM.

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We had booked tickets on a whale-watching boat in the early-afternoon, so we boarded that boat.  The boat company provided these sort of thermal one-piece jacket/pants that help make the standing outside on a boat in Iceland in the middle of Winter more tolerable, but for some reason Alex didn't wear one and he's since said that's the coldest he has ever been in his life.  We didn't manage to see any whales, but we weren't really expecting to, and we did see some cool white-beaked dolphins.  

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After the whale-watching trip, we grabbed some awesome lobster soup in a place called Saegreifinn.

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By that point, jet-lag and/or travel-fatigue had set in so we took powe-rnaps in the hotel room and then rallied for dinner.  This was December 23rd, and a lot of good restaurants were gonna be closed for the next two nights, so we tried to eat somewhere cool that night and sample some local food.  We went to a trendy place called Grillmarkaðurinn and it didn't disappoint.  We started out with minke whale, reindeer, and puffin sliders:

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Our shared verdict was that minke whale was only okay, the reindeer was better, and the puffin was really good.  Then I got some reindeer, duck, and maybe lamb for the main course:

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And it was all followed by this insane dessert selection:

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Basically, we had a pretty great eating experience in a country that has famously challenging cuisine.

The next day, Christmas eve, we drove out of Reykjavik to tour The Golden Circle, an informal route of interesting natural wonders that swarms of Japanese tourists flock to in buses, but we did on our own time in our own car.  As usual, avoiding tour groups like the plague that they are was the right decision.  Our first stop was Gullfoss, a really impressive waterfall whose scale I've had trouble really capturing in pictures.  It's huge:

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Because we weren't on a bus, we had the freedom to stop and check out these Icelandic horses we spotted along the road, which have slightly different head-shapes from the horses which we're used to, and I think are really striking.

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We then continued along our Golden Circle route to Geysir, a geyser that spews water every couple of minutes but was also hard for me to effectively capture on camera.

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We grabbed lunch at a cafeteria by Geysir, and had this tasty soda, which, despite the "Appel" in it's name and it's "Limonadi" description, is orange soda.

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We then continued on to the last stop on the Golden Circle, Þingvellir ("Þ" is basically pronounced like "th"), the site of a parliament which was held there from 930AD until 1789 (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Þingvellir).  Today, it's just another really pretty place:

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The sun set around 3:30PM, and we'd crammed what we needed to do into the day, so we returned to Reykjavik.  At night we drove back out of Reykjavik to try to spot the Northern Lights but didn't spot them.  Still it was fun to drive around some random Icelandic villages and see the Atlantic Ocean from Iceland's southern coast.

 Alex standing by the ocean, after we drove our car onto a beach.

Alex standing by the ocean, after we drove our car onto a beach.

The next day, our final full day in Iceland, we were heading for The Blue Lagoon.  Rather than take the main road, we took a backroad that was sometimes just gravel, and saw some beautiful, spartan landscapes along the way.  We also found some other hot springs.

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Eventually, we hit the town of Grindavik, which I remembered the Blue Lagoon was supposed to be near, and managed to wing it and find the Blue Lagoon by ourselves.  It's a total tourist trap, but there are doubtless fewer tourists in the winter months, and it's worth going to.  The mud really does make your skin feel great.  Not a bad way to spend Christmas day:

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 Alex's well-balanced diet.

Alex's well-balanced diet.

After two or three hours, we left the blue lagoon and headed back for Reykjavik.  Along the road, Alex spotted some weird structures and volunteered the idea that they might be drying fish.  He turned out to be right and we had stumbled upon a huge complex of fish drying in a farm-field:

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He thought it smelled bad, but I thought it was sort of a good fishy smell.  

The next day we had to get up around 4:30AM to catch a flight for Munich….

Germany:

We had only one night in Munich (and Germany), but we made the most of it.  We took the train from the airport into the city; checked-in to the hotel; and found a non-tourist-trap bierhalle to grab lunch.  Alex got to try his first authentic German food:

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And the weissebier was reaaaaallly good:

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We went back to the hotel to rest for a bit and then went to another non-tourist-trap bierhalle for dinner.  Screw the Hofbräuhaus.  

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The next day we went to the train station to pick up our rental car.  We spent quite a long time trying to find the SIXT office, however, due in part to this incomprehensible creation.  Place your bets now as to where the office is in relation to this three-arrowed monstrosity:

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Eventually, however, we found the office; picked up the car; packed it with our stuff; and headed for the only truly somber part of the trip, Dachau Concentration Camp.  It's worth going to:

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Austria:

Tonally-inappropriate but geographically-convenient, our next pitstop was Fucking, Austria.  You only go there for the picture and a sophomoric laugh, but it is a good picture and a good sophomoric laugh (and it forces you onto some more scenic routes than the autobahn):

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After Fucking, Austria, we drove on to Salzburg.  (Note the importance of adding "Austria" to that sentence for clarity.)

Salzburg was very pretty:

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We went to a Zipfer Bierhalle, near the university, and had some more delicious beers:

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For dinner that night, we went to a tourist-trap bierhalle, Sternbräu, mostly because we were too lazy to walk around anymore looking for a suitable place.  We decided that as long as we were there, we'd have some Sternbräu beer.  Sternbräu was out of Sternbräu beer.  There are no words.

Liechtenstein:

The next day we drove on to Zürich via Vaduz, Liechtenstein, pretty much purely so Alex could say he'd been to Liechtenstein.  We walked around Vaduz for about a half hour.  Not much to see though:

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Switzerland:

Eventually, we got to Zürich; checked-in to the hotel; and had an awesome dinner at Zeughauskeller:

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 Lake Perch and rösti.

Lake Perch and rösti.

 The most amazing apple pie I've ever had.

The most amazing apple pie I've ever had.

We had two nights in Zürich, so the next day we decided to do a day trip route from Zürich to Luzern to Interlaken to Bern and back to Zürich.  Luzern was gorgeous:

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Interlaken wasn't great but driving there through the mountains provided some nice vistas:

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After lunch in Interlaken, we went to Bern, which was pretty.  It wasn't fun driving in and out of it though because of the criss-crossing trams.

 A fountain in Bern.

A fountain in Bern.

Then we returned to Zürich and grabbed some good food.

The next day we left Zürich for good to drive south through the mountains.  We first drove to Glarus and then on to Elm, which was snow-covered at this time of year:

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After Elm, we turned around and drove back to the autobahn; drove to Chur for lunch; and then on towards Disentis.  At Rhäzüns we saw a ski gondala and decided to pull over and see where it went:

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At the top of the mountain, we found Feldis, a gorgeous and proper Romansch-speaking town:

 Lots of the buildings had Romansch written on them.

Lots of the buildings had Romansch written on them.

 The view from Feldis.

The view from Feldis.

Back down again in Rhäzüns, we walked a path to Sogn Gieri a church "first mentioned around 960" and "regarded as Switzerland's richest example of a fully painted church interior of the Middle Ages" (source: http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=de&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.kulturraumviamala.ch%2Fde%2Fobjekte%2F%3Fn%3Dkirche%2520sogn%2520gieri%26g%3D31%26s%3D27&act=url).  It's probably the coolest church I've ever been to and seems completely untouched.  Alex and I were the only people there, so it was fairly affecting to come upon the hilltop church around dusk and feel transported back to a time it was more relevant.  The frescoes on the wall were gorgeous, not behind any glass or guardrails (because people apparently don't visit this place much).  It's easily worth the trip to Rhäzüns to see Sogn Gieri.

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After Rhäzüns, we headed west into the mountains and eventually came to the Hotel La Val in Rueras.  All the restaurants were very expensive, catering to rich skiers, but we eventually found a cheap pizza/kebab place in a neighboring town and met a friendly drunk man who we sort of communicated with with Italian and French.  

 Sign at the Hotel La Val, which I think must mean something like, "Ensure that you defend Romansch as your native language."

Sign at the Hotel La Val, which I think must mean something like, "Ensure that you defend Romansch as your native language."

 Fireside sitting area at the Hotel La Val.

Fireside sitting area at the Hotel La Val.

Italy:

Our car was booked only until 11AM the next morning, and we had to return it in Lugano, so we got up early and drove.  A significant chunk of the road between Rueras and Andermatt (a more direct route to Lugano) was closed for the Winter, so we backtracked to Bonaduz and went south from there.  Got the car back by around 11:05AM, even after stopping for gas, and it turned out not to matter what time we'd returned it because the Sixt guy just told us to drop it in a keybox anyway.

Lugano was predictably pretty:

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It was New Year's Eve so we went to the Piazza della Riforma for the festivities and saw a funny fat emcee in pink spandex and a terrible Italian-speaking hip-hop group:

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The next day we caught the Malpensa Express bus to Malpensa Airport in Milan, and flew a quick EasyJet flight down to Bari, where a lot of Alex's family lives and Alex's Dad has an apartment.  We grabbed dinner and went to sleep.

 Drycleaners in Bari, offering "irony and wash."

Drycleaners in Bari, offering "irony and wash."

The day after that we drove with Alex's Mom and Dad to his Dad's cousin Chicho's house in nearby Gioia del Colle.  I'd met Chicho the last time I visited Bari, and he and his girlfriend, Paula, were super nice.  His new house was pretty too:

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They take grilling seriously in Puglia, and Chicho had two big outdoor grills and a huge outdoor pizza oven.  For a light lunch, we had home-made-quiche, olive-oil-marinated mushrooms, two or three kinds of peppers, pasta, grilled sausages, and steak, followed by home-made limoncello, espresso and cookies:

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After lunch, Chicho drove us to a factory he owns that produces various CNC-machined parts, from obscure stuff to Ford Focus transmissions.  They also assemble electric wind-turbines.  Chicho also owns a bunch of solar farms in Italy.

Because we hadn't eaten enough, we went to dinner at a restaurant called "Ai 2 Giotonni" ("The Two Fatasses"), with the president of Bari Polytechnic, where Alex's Dad Roberto is a professor.  It Italy, table-size is not allowed to limit the amount of food you eat, and they have small tables to wheel up and extend your capacity.  "Ai 2 Giotonni" was apparently one of the best restaurants in town, and they wanted to suck up to the university president, so they gave us like fifteen antipasti, followed by steak, followed by a million other desserts.  It was all delicious:

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The next day Alex's dad drove us and his Mom to Trani, a major trade center during the crusades, that reminded me of Alexandria in Egypt:

 Castello Svevo.

Castello Svevo.

 Cattedrale di Trani.

Cattedrale di Trani.

 Cattedrale di Trani.

Cattedrale di Trani.

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Finally, the next day, I left Bari and hopped a RyanAir flight to London.

 The view from Alex's Dad's apartment.

The view from Alex's Dad's apartment.

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Overall, I'd day the best bits of the trip were in Iceland and Romansch-speaking Switzerland (and in Bari, though less for tourism and more for Alex's really nice family).  I'll send details from London to come as eventful things happen.  I'm here until May 16th.