Friday, October 6, 2017

Iceland — Part 1

Blue Lagoon and silica masks.Our flight to Iceland was on Monday, July 20th. Originally we planned on taking a taxi to the airport from Oslo, but after talking to our hotel’s staff we realized that taking a bus is a much cheaper and more convenient option. There is a FlyBus stop right in front of the hotel, and buses leave for the airport every 15 minutes or so. We saved some cash for the tickets, but apparently paying by credit card was an option as well. We only had to buy two tickets since children were free of charge, plus we got a discount for staying at Radisson Blu hotel. It probably took us 15 minutes longer to travel by bus, but we did not have to wait for the taxi to come to the hotel, so we pretty much have not lost any time.

Hilton Nordica.After a quick check in at the airport, we still had some time for lunch. We ended up eating burgers and drinking Hoppy Blond beers (adults only). The lunch was expensive as all the food in Norway, but it did not feel like there was an airport premium. We had some Norwegian coins left, and Arosha decided to use them as souvenirs. The cool thing about 1 and 5 Norwegian Krones is that the coins have a hole in the middle. When we got home, the children made necklaces and bracelets using krones for themselves and their friends. They were a big hit.

Our Fiat.The flight to Keflavik was relatively short and uneventful. We did have a bit of an issue locating our car rental company representative who was supposed to pick us up at the airport. Danya had to call them and was told that the staff member will be at the airport shortly and we have to look for him walking with the company’s sign. We waited for about 20 minutes after that, which was a little annoying. There were other people who were waiting for the same company, but luckily we were all able to fit into the company’s van. The driver turned out to be Russian by the way.

Our room.We got our car without any hiccups. It was a dark blue Fiat. We paid for the full insurance, but a few things were not covered, such as doors torn off by the wind, or damage done by driving on certain prohibited gravel roads. The wind part was really surprising to me, but I suppose Iceland is really windy. So we made sure to open the doors with caution and to not leave them open. Also, there was a sandstorm in the area, so not buying a full insurance was too risky.

Sun Voyager.After approximately an hour long drive we got to Hilton Reykjavik Nordica Hotel. When we were booking our stay, the biggest room that we could find was a room with two twin size beds. However, knowing how accommodating Hilton usually is to its Diamond members, Daniel called the hotel before making a reservation and inquired if it will be possible to get a roll-away bed and a crib into the room. He was told that they normally don’t do that, but they will for us. When we arrived at the hotel, the receptionist did not know about the roll-away bed situation and he said that the room that we have booked will not fit it. However, after Daniel explained our booking circumstances to him, he upgraded us to a much bigger room in which all the beds fit perfectly. We also got a higher floor — 5th instead of 2nd. Since he had to make some changes, we had to wait for about 20 minutes. The receptionist went out of his way to make us feel welcome and gave us two sets of drink vouchers, which was very nice of him.

Sun Voyager and Arosha's sneeze -- the only pictures we have.Everyone was tired and hungry, so we’ve decided to eat at the hotel’s restaurant VOX. It was pricey, but it had a Michellin star rating, so it was supposed to be top notch. I ordered salmon for myself and for the children — they shared one adult portion, and Danya got fish and chips, which at $35 were the most expensive fish and chips that he ever ate. The food was good, but not as spectacular as I was hoping.

Shore line.The next day we had Blue Lagoon reservation at 18:00, so we did not want to drive anywhere far in the first half of the day in order not to be stressed about making it to the lagoon in time. Exploring Reykjavik seemed like a perfect thing to do.

Building stone towers.After breakfast we got into our car and drove for about 15 minutes to the city center. We parked close to the waterfront, payed a very reasonable parking fee and schlepped to see Solfar, or Sun Voyager, metal boat sculpture. It is one of Reykjavik’s landmarks, so naturally there were plenty of people around it taking pictures. We participated in this activity as well. By the way, I’ve noticed that there are different parking zones with very different pricing. If we were to park next to the statue instead of parking across the street, we would have payed 3-4 times more for the meter.

Concert Hall.Next point of interest was Harpa concert hall located nearby. We took a walk down the waterfront promenade — Danya and I used the paved path, but the children preferred to run and jump on boulders next to the water. They spotted spiders and their webs from time to time and were really excited about those. The sea, the skies, the shore looked sort of milky grey and very serene. Reykjavik on that day elicited a peaceful feeling in me, like I was suspended in a big, soft, melancholic and dreamy cloud.

Streets of Reykjavik.When we reached tall glass building of concert hall, Danya went to take some pictures of it, and I stayed by the water with the children, who really wanted to build some stone sculptures. There were plenty of such sculptures already in place, so naturally they wanted to add a few of their own. It was fun to watch them busy at it and I wish we had something similar close to our home.

Hallgrimskirkja.After this we went to see Hallgrimskirkja — a modern church, which also happens to be the tallest church in Iceland. Luckily for me, Danya is so good with maps and finding his way in new places. I think I would have struggled so much if I had to locate all the landmarks by myself. Anyhow, the church looked fine, but it did not leave any special impression on me.

Shore.We walked through the streets of Reykjavik for a little while, visited some souvenir and clothing stores and started looking for a nice lunch spot. I have to say that prices in Iceland are very steep. Three t-shirts from the souvenir store cost us $100, and we did not buy any of those nice looking wool sweaters because they were $200-400 each. I did get a hat and a pair of really warm gloves for myself though (we got a bunch of hats for the kids in Norway) at a very reasonable price.

Soups for lunch.We ended up eating soups in bread bowls for lunch. We got lucky getting seats in the little restaurant, Svarta Kaffid, that was serving them. We got the last available table, and by the time we were leaving the waiting line was impressively big. Danya found this place on TripAdvisor, where it had an excellent rating. The restaurant only served two types of soup — vegetarian curry and Hungarian meat stew. Arosha and I got curries, and Danya and Anюta got stews. Everyone except Anюta liked their soups — me and Danya shared for variety as we often do. The price per soup bowl was $18.

Streets  of Reykjavik.After lunch we walked around the shopping streets of Reyjkyavik for a little while longer and headed back to the hotel for quick rest before heading out to much anticipated Blue Lagoon.

Streets  of Reykjavik.We arrived at the lagoon 15 minutes ahead of time, but got in without any queues or delays. This time of year it does not really get dark in Iceland. It gets a little darker for a few hours when the sun goes down, but never gets pitch black. I have to say that it presented certain difficulty for us at bed time, especially in the beginning of our vacation in Norway, but as far our lagoon experience went, we enjoyed the day lighting conditions in the evening hours.

Entrance to Blue Lagoon.By the rules of Blue Lagoon all guests are required to take a full body shower without any clothes on. Naturally, there were separate gender specific showers, so Danya and I got one kid each to shower and to change. The staff recommended to amply use hair conditioner and leave it in to minimize the effects of silica, which apparently makes hair all dry and unmanageable. We did just that. Luckily, individual showers had doors, so people could minimize being naked in front of strangers. Some people felt perfectly fine being naked in the crowd though. I think it’s probably more of a cultural than individual thing.

Path to Blue Lagoon.Anyhow, when we finally got outside, we jumped into the water right away since the air itself was freezing. Oh boy, it was pleasant! The water was so hot indeed, that at some point the children got a little overheated and jumped out for a few minutes to cool off. The water was milky white in color and it was 98-104 F in temperature. The temperature varied in different places, so we would feel it change from hotter to less hot spots and back up as we walked around the lagoon. The children got free floaters to wear, which was nice. There were steam and dry saunas available — we checked them out, but did not stay in either one for long.

Blue Lagoon.There were also free silica mud masks included in entrance fee, so Danya and I tried them on. We were offered by Blue Lagoon employees, who were sitting on the raft in the water, to have our picture taken on their iPad and get it e-mailed to us. We happily agreed. Oddly, many people who see those pictures think that our mud masks are a thick layer of sunblock. I don’t remember by now if my skin got smoother after the mask, but it probably did as it does after all similar products.

Streets  of Reykjavik.I was surprised to learn that this lagoon was man-made and is fed by water from the geothermal power plant. But on the other hand, the plant just uses the natural occurrence to produce electricity and then re-uses the water for the lagoon, so in a way it is not truly man-made after all. The water is rich in minerals by the way and supposedly is very good for the skin, especially psoriasis. I think that one visit certainly does nothing to improved any skin condition, but it’s pleasant to know that you’re bathing in something health-promoting.

Executive Lounge.We spent close to three hours soaking in the wondrous Blue Lagoon. The whole family really enjoyed it and was sad to leave this unusual place.

We arrived at the hotel totally wiped out, so dining in VOX was the easiest option again. Anюta got really cranky after falling asleep in the car, and she barely ate anything. In addition, she lost her favorite toy bear somewhere on the way from the car to the hotel room and we could not find it no matter how much we looked. It was very sad since she adored that bear so much. Arosha got it for her on Valentine’s day sale at school and she was absolutely in love with it for the longest time. For the record, the bear’s name was “Кленовый Сироп и Небо” and now he lives in Iceland. Oh, and Arosha only had $2 for that sale and he spent them all on the gift for Anna and nothing on himself. Just a side note.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Day Trip To Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa.When we were planning our trip we couldn’t make up our mind whether we should rent a car and drive or if we should stick to trains as it has worked so well for us in Japan. After thinking and thinking we decided to go ahead and get the driver’s license anyhow and possibly try to rent a car for a single day, but traveling by trains seemed like an easier and less stressful thing to deal with and that’s what we did1. We ended up not visiting any small towns, but it was the right decision for the first trip.

Tuscany.We moved from city to city by rail via bullet trains. We used public transpiration around those cities and that was definitely the right thing to do. Even though city centers are quite busy and streets are tiny that wasn’t the scary part of driving. The scary part was the fact that there are some no driving zones even though roads lead there and tourists tend to drive into those parts and get fined. Plus who wants to deal with looking for parking on vacation?

The streets of Pisa.But having a European driver’s license in hand we figured that visiting Pisa would be a great time to try renting a car for a day. We were staying in Florence for 3 nights and Pisa is only 60 miles away. We weren’t quite sure if we’ll want to spend the day outside of Florence or if we’ll want to spend that day in Florence itself. However several things tipped the scale towards a drive to Pisa.

The streets of Pisa.First we arrived to Florence pretty early on Sunday. Somehow we budgeted the whole day for the train ride, but since the ride wasn’t all that long we ended up going to downtown area on that very day and saw a good portion of what we wanted to see — Duomo. We also did our climb to the top and took a good set of pictures. Our second objective in Florence was Uffizi Gallery and it was closed on Monday — we had Tuesday for that. Third is the fact that Pisa Tower is a very famous place and being so close to it and not seeing it would not make sense. And fourth was simply the fact that we wanted to get some out-of-the-country car renting experience under our belt.

In our Fiat on our way to Pisa.Before the trip I looked for car rental places, but all of them were near the central train station close to downtown or the airport. Neither one seemed exactly convenient, but I made a reservation near the train station, thinking that we’ll be spending time in the center of the city anyhow. On Monday morning we couldn’t really decide whether we still should do it. Driving out of the center is one thing, but not knowing where to drive is a whole other matter. Instead we went down to the reception desk of our hotel and asked if there were any rental places around. Turned out that Eurocar Rental was 5 minute walk away.

Our Fiat Panda.That’s where we went. Slowly moving guy, by American standards at least, said that they did have cars and their rates were very comparable to the rates that we got online for downtown rental. We also decided to include a GPS unit and all possible insurances that they were offering in addition to the mandatory theft insurance — none of my credit cards were offering insurance to cars rented in Italy and neither did my own car policy. The total for the day came out to $127. There were no hidden fees that and no problems whatsoever.

Central Pisa.One funny moment or maybe a silly moment for us was that we decided to boast how cheap the gas is for us in the U.S. and how we can easily afford to drive big, V8 powered cars to which the guy gave us a sobering reply: “Our medicine is free. My kids will go to college for free.” And something else along these lines. In his words it’s nice to be middle class in Italy, but if you want to be rich you have much more chances of making it in U.S. I personally will take my chances. All other countries are fun, but there is no place like home and New York is it.

Our Panda.Now that was a long introduction. At this point we finally got into our Fiat Panda which sported a 1.2 litter engine at the most, but which was unexpectedly roomy. The car came with a manual transmission. Luckily for me I had a pretty lengthy manual transmission experiment running during my younger days, so I had no problems driving a stick. All the traffic was also no big deal after New York. And with the help from our GPS unit we were soon speeding away from Florence and on our way to Pisa via autostrada A11.

Pisa.Weather-wise the day was less than stellar, no put intended. It was the only day when it actually rained throughout all of our trip. But it worked out OK for us. It only rained while we were driving and when we arrived to our destination the rain stopped. Rain was one of the reasons why we took a big highway straight to Pisa instead of small back roads. Another reason was the fact that we sill weren’t too sure of our navigational abilities, so we took the surest route. We hoped that on our way back we’ll take some smaller road and hopefully will get to stop in some small towns. Alas, that’s not how it worked out.

Parking meter and street signs.It took us an hour to get to Pisa. We spotted the tower from quite a bit away and soon after easily found parking fairly close to the central district of the city. There was a ton of elaborate signs explaining the parking rules, but in the end it came out to operating a very similar in use parking machine that New York City is covered in. We dropped the coins in, it spat a printed ticket out that goes behind the windshield. The restricted traffic zone was also very clearly marked, so I don’t think there really was a danger of us crossing into it accidentally.

Restricted traffic zone.We left our car and went on a hiking tour around Pisa. The town itself was somewhat of a cross between Florence and Rome architecture-wise, although the number of tourist was noticeably smaller than that of the other two cities. And beside the tower and central cathedral there really wasn’t much to do as far as our itinerary went. Even though the city itself has numerous other historic churches we decided to limit our whole Italian trip to the most famous locations in order to avoid a complete mess of memories at the end of our vacation.

Central Cathedral and Tower of Pisa.The famous tower itself is indeed a sight to behold. I knew the tower was leaning, I didn’t realize how much. It really stands at freakishly steep angle. In fact the angle was so freakish that we decided to forgo the climbing to the top tour — our only such omission during the whole trip. We took a good number of pictures, although I ran into another problem here. While all the normal towers on my pictures were falling down because of wide-angle distortion, this one was actually coming out straight. Quite ironic. As a result I don’t really have any pictures that I’m proud of from this particular place.

Mediterranean Sea coast.We walked about around the central area, took some more pictures of the main cathedral and headed back to our car. Our next objective was try to head up north along the coast of Mediterranean Sea as far as the day (sun) would allow. We actually wanted to get all the way to Manarola for its picturesque views and it was only 60 miles away, but there just wasn’t enough time. The sun was getting close to horizon by the time we were only half way there. So we stopped in one of the coastal resort towns — Marina di Pietrasanta — and took a nice walk along some pier and watched the sun set over the water. The town itself was virtually deserted, but it probably is bustling with activity during the summer months.

View from the pier.At this point we got back into our car and headed back to Firenze. Since it was dark out already we ended up not stopping or taking detours towards any of the small towns, even though we took a different road back. When we were getting closer to Florence I went into some panic mode — I know, so unusual — thinking that we won’t find the rental place, our hotel or any gas stations to fill the car up at. I really wanted to return the car this day and not have to wait until morning and worry about this chore the next day.

Resort town of Marina di Pietrasanta.“Strangely enough” there was no problem finding anything, although gas bill came out quite high even on 1.2 litter engine. We turned the car in and were back at our hotel room at around 7pm. Now I could truly relax and reflect on the experience of this fun and unique day. We decided not to take a bus to the center of the city and went to local restaurant for dinner on a recommendation of our hotel staff. We walked through the modern yet quite neighborhood of residential Florence, ate our dinner and drank our wine at Mi Amor restaurant, and were asleep soon after getting back to our cozy room of our Hilton Garden Inn.

  1. We did the math and buying a pass like we did in Japan didn’t make financial sense. In Japan the reservations were included in the price of the pass. In Italy reservations are mandatory and are not included in the price. []

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Our Rental Car

Trip OdometerWe just returned our car to Avis. It’s kind of sad to have this trip coming to an end. This car served us well. Our trip came out to 2,108 miles or 3,392 kilometers.

Buick LucerneIt’s funny how we got the car. I reserved a full size car, but when we got there I was told that the only full size car they had for out of state driving was a Hyundai. I was hoping for an Impala or a Charger. Not a Hyundai. So I went to check out all other rental companies (and there were a lot). Most of them just didn’t allow one way drives from Albuquerque to Salt Lake City. The only other one that did quoted us $1,100, when Avis was giving us $700.

So we figured Hyundai it is. When I got back to the counter they managed to rent out the Hyundai and now the only car they had was Buick Lucerne. Premium car for the price or regular. Needless to say I was very happy. Everyone really liked the car too. My mom kept calling it a Beautick by accident too, which is funny.

Anyhow, right now we’re going for the last walk of Salt Lake City and then we’re going home.

Update: The flight from Salt Lake City to New York was 2,037 miles. O.o Our drive was longer then our flight. shock
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