Archive | Europe

Two weeks in Montenegro

After a year of studying in London (with not much adventurous travel) I was in need of a break. I wanted to go somewhere in Europe which would offer a bit of autumn sunshine,  a bit of ocean swimming, mountains, some good food, no Internet connection and a lot of hiking. Without knowing that much about Montenegro, I decided that the tiny Balkan nation (one of the newest countries in the world) was calling to me. I’d seen alluring photos of its magnificent coastline and wild mountains, and the fact that it is half the size of Wales seemed to mean that doing a road trip would entail being out of the car more than being in it.

I also felt like travelling a bit differently to my usual accommodation choices of Airbnb, guesthouses and backpackers, and decided to stay in family-run farms for the chance to meet Montenegrins and eat local food, rather than tourist fare.

Travelling with my husband, Joe, I started off the trip to Montenegro by flying to Dubrovnik in Croatia, briefly braving the cruise ship hordes in this beautiful but overpriced and overcrowded city, before picking up a rental car and driving 17km to the Montenegro border for a quick crossing and then a slow, scenic drive around the Bay of Kotor, where the views got more spectacular around every bend in the winding road as we drove through seaside villages of old stone shuttered houses and terracotta roofs and gardens full of pomegranate trees heavy with fruit. With a semicircle of steep forested mountains tumbling down to crystal clear, navy-blue sea, the bay feels a bit like a fjord or an Italian lake. I kept on thinking we were in Italy (this part of Montenegro was ruled by Venice for four centuries), but the signs in Cyrillic brought me back to the Balkans.

We ate lunch of linguine and garlicky mussels at Perast, a tiny hamlet of churches and old Venetian palazzos perched on the edge of the water, and then took a boat out to the picturesque church on Our-lady-of-the-rock Island, which was artificially created in 1452 after a stone with an image of Madonna was found. Driving on further around the bay, we stopped off at the town of Kotor, which my guidebook described as a mini-Dubrovnik. Kotor is just as photogenic as Dubrovnik, with old Venetian palaces and beautiful churches, lovely little squares and marble alleys and crumbling 9th century stone walls snaking up the steep mountainside, but it was just as tourist-packed as Dubrovnik.

The photogenic little village of Perast

Our Lady of the Rocks island, with its beautiful little church, lies just off the coast from Perast

Our Lady of the Rocks island, with its beautiful little church, lies just off the coast from Perast

The view of Kotor from its old city walls

We were glad we were staying on the rustic and (as yet) largely undeveloped Lustica Peninsula, which was far enough away from Kotor to completely escape the cruise ship tour groups. Our home for our first few days in Montenegro was the Old Mill, a family farm with the most incredible sweeping views over olive groves to the curving bay beyond. Our host, Jovan Stojkovic, who lives with his parents and grandmother, explained that the farm has been in his family for four hundred years, producing olives, wine, goat’s cheese, fruit and rakija – the Montenegrin brandy that we were soon to discover is the equivalent of tea in England.

Sitting under vines heavy with grapes and kiwi fruit, we had our first of many farm-to-table experiences in Montenegro over the next few days, as we drank homemade red wine and cherry rakija and devoured feasts of eggs from their chickens, veggies – tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, aubergines, potatoes – from their garden, goat’s cheese from their forest-foraging goats and olives and olive oil from their groves. After living in London for a year and feeling quite cut off from seasonal produce, with the year-round availability of fruits and vegetables from around the world, I felt a comforting sense of connecting to a place by eating truly homegrown food, some of which had been in the soil that day.

We spent the next few days exploring the Lustica Peninsula by car, driving on tiny quiet roads past sleepy little villages, cypresses and groves of olive trees so old and gnarled that they looked like twisted kitka bread to get to tucked away beaches, like Zanijice with its curve of pebbles and family vibe, Miriste with a lovely restaurant right over the water, and our favourite, Uvala Veslo, which didn’t have a beach (or loungers or restaurants or many people) but instead there were cliffs for jumping off into the turquoise sea. My favourite little village was Rose (pronounced like the wine), a tiny collection of slightly dilapidated old stone villas along a sunny seafront, with just one restaurant, which felt like the kind of place where you’d plan to do a writer’s retreat for a few months and then end up spending all your time swimming, napping and drinking wine.

The view over the groves of fig and olive trees at the Old Mill

Our favourite swimming spot on the Lustica Peninsula: the rugged cliffs of Uvala Veslo

The lovely but busy Zanijice Beach

Leaving the Lustica Peninsula behind (and having one last cherry rakija with Jovan as we left), we drove south down the coast, passing through flashy Budva, with its high-rise holiday apartments and casinos and packed beaches, feeling glad that we’d had our Montenegrin coastal stay on the low-key peninsula instead. We stopped for a swim at the lovely Sveti Stefan beach, and had lunch up the hill at Pastrovica Dvori, where we picked grapes off the vines hanging above us, and ate grilled fish and olives and vegetables from their terraced garden. A bit further down the coast we turned inland followed a winding road (Montenegro is all about winding roads – and nerves of steel to battle the drivers who take the corners at considerable speed) up a mountain and down the other side, where it felt like we were miles away from the developed coast, to get to Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans.

A short way away from the lake and from the surprisingly busy village of Virpazar was our next farmstay, Skadar Lake Đurišić Family Estate. Our host Marko Đurišić welcomed us to his family home, telling us how they’d owned it and grown wine there for the past 500 years. His parents were smoking fish that they’d caught in the lake while Marko showed us around the garden, with its 30-year-old vranac vines (Marko makes his own wine in a vat in the garage), fruit trees and veggie patch – watched over by the sweet honey-coloured dogs Fluffy and Hector.

We had just one day to explore the area. Following a breakfast of priganice (fried fritters) with cheese, cucumber, tomato, ajvar (a piquant red pepper paste), honey and jam, we found a perfect lake beach on Marko’s suggestion, and wandered around the atmospheric hamlet of Lekovici, which was partly abandoned during the 1979 earthquake: crumbling buildings overgrown with fig trees, and a few houses left exactly as they were inhabited as the earthquake struck, with crockery still on the table, like a scene from Chernobyl. Marko took us out on an afternoon boat cruise on the vast mountain-fringed lake, navigating us through channels of water lilies and pointing out monasteries (there are over 300 around the lake, one of which is inhabited by just one grumpy monk who hates tourists and only lets you visit if he likes the look of you) and black cormorants. Marko studied politics and was a fount of knowledge about Montenegrin and Balkan history and politics. As we cruised around the lake, he told us about the break up of Yugoslavia, the complexities of determining national identity in the Balkans and the warrior culture of Montenegro, tying history in with stories of his own family. By the time we’d eaten a dinner feast prepared by Marko’s mother of smoked trout and marinated carp from the lake, potatoes, grilled aubergine and pepper, ajvar, feta and stewed aubergine and onion and pepper washed down with homemade wine, we felt completely at home and wished we’d planned to stay longer.

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

Super host (and boatman) Marko Durisic

Super host (and boatman) Marko Durisic

Hanging out in the hammock under the vranac vines at Marko’s house

Breakfast of priganice (fried fritters), tomatoes, cucumber, ajvar, cheese, honey, hazelnut spread and jam

The road beckoned on: our next drive took us through the dramatic Moraca Canyon, with steep cliffs plunging into the river far below, past the Morača Monastery, where the church frescoes were intricate and fascinating, and the smell of honey lingered in the air from the monks’ buzzing beehives, and through the capital of Podgorica, which had some startlingly unusual sci-fi like architecture. We stopped off in the alpine-ish town of Kolasin (where I felt tempted to pick the pink apples having heavy on all the trees) to stock up on snacks for our hiking days ahead, and then took a rather white knucklely narrow road that switchbacked its way up and down a mountain – amazing views and beautiful villages where everyone seemed to be chopping wood for the fast approaching winter but some stressful driving trying to get past timber trucks – as we headed northeast towards the Prokletije Mountains, which border Albania and Kosovo.

The Prokletije (“accursed”) Mountains are among the least explored mountains in all of Europe, and we certainly felt like we were way off the beaten track after we paid a euro at the national park entrance and then bounced our way up a rocky road through a dense and dark conifer forest to reach our mountain hut – with not another car or tourist in sight. The forest suddenly opened up to a clearing with a two wooden bungalows and two A-frame cabins looking out over a deep valley view. Ermina Redzemetovic was our host at Bungalows in Prokletije, and she greeted us with tea made with fresh herbs and a bowl of Turkish delight. Ermina didn’t speak any English and our Montenegrin was non-existent, so over the next three days, with the help of the phrase translation at the back of my guidebook, we found out that Ermina had taken over this disused katun (traditional shepherd’s mountain hut) from her husband’s family and had turned it into tourist accommodation. While her husband worked in Plav – the village at the foot of the mountain – Ermina stayed up in the 1700-metre-high katun with her two cows and a couple of chickens, making cheese and hosting guests. She told us that many katuns have been abandoned as families have emigrated to places like the US, and this was her project to revive this one, placed in such a scenic spot.

It was mid-September – the end of the season – and a week after we left Ermina would move herself and her animals down the mountain to Plav before the heavy snows started in October. The weather was already turning, and we were a bit underprepared clothing wise for subzero nights and days where the temperature didn’t rise much above 5 degrees. In our beanies and jackets, we felt a million miles away from the coast, which was only a few hours’ drive, where we’d swum in the sea. The benefit of being in an area that hasn’t been developed much for tourism yet – and at the end of the season – was that there was no one else around at all. We were Ermina’s only guests for the four days, and on our day hike from the bungalow up to Lake Hrid and beyond, we didn’t even hear a distant human sound, let alone see another hiker. It felt like a special treat to be in such a beautiful place, in eerily quiet forests and at the mist-wreathed lake, all on our own, despite having frozen fingers from picking wild blueberries as we hiked.

Our best day was spent on the other side of Prokletije National Park (about an hour’s drive away) in the Grebaje Valley. We parked the car just beyond the park entrance and embarked on a two-hour relentlessly uphill hike through a still, silent beech forest and then over a grassy cirque with the old ruins of a katun, up to the peak of Volusnica, where we had a truly staggering view of the Karanfili massif: dramatic jagged peaks still dotted with patches of snow from the previous winter. We couldn’t have asked for a better lunch spot to tuck into the pancakes with homemade strawberry jam and cheese that Ermina had made us as a packed lunch. We hiked on, over a narrow ridge covered in wild blueberry bushes, till the top of Taljanka (at 2057m), where we could put one foot in Albania and the other in Montenegro. On this whole day-long hike we only passed two other hikers and three wild horses.

After days of hiking in the cold and misty drizzle, it was a treat to get back to Ermina’s delicious hearty cooking: huge hunks of homemade bread, potato stew, bean soup, cheese and squash pita (pie), savoury polenta cake and roasted peppers – all made in her wood-fired oven. We consumed dairy in all its forms, all milked by hand by her and fermented in her bungalow – warm glasses of milk, kaymak (salty clotted cream), kiselo mljeko (a sour milk drink on the verge of becoming yoghurt) and, of course, slabs of her moreish salty white cheese. We quickly learnt the Montenegrin word for “eat up” (uzmi), as Ermina, like a very temporary surrogate mother, seemed to want us to eat enormous quantities of food, probably to fatten us up for the coming winter.

Moraca Monastery, Montenegro

Morača Monastery

Bungalows Prokletjie National Park, Montenegro

Bungalows Prokletjie National Park, Montenegro

Lake Hrid, Prokletjie National Park

A hike to Lake Hrid (and confusing map situation)

Hiking Grebaje valley, Prokletjie National Park

The start of the hike up Volusnica

View of Karanfili Massif, Prokletjie

The staggering view of the Karanfili massif from the top of Volusnica

Hiking Prokletjie National Park

Hiking Prokletjie National Park

Montenegro food

A packed hiking lunch of Ermina’s delicious cheese and squash pie with roasted peppers and more homemade cheese

We said our goodbyes to Ermina on a sunny but crisp day, when ground was dusted with frost, and drove down the mountain and northwest to Biogradska Gora National Park, for a short ramble in the forest. Biogradska is one of the last three remaining large virgin forests in Europe (that fact alone is hard for me to get my head around) and many of its trees are over 500 years old. I wished we’d had longer to do some multi-day hikes in this beautiful forest, but that’s for the next trip.   

We thought Ermina’s place was going to be the most scenic of our farmstays, but the next one was serious competition. Not too far from the national park, we turned off the main road onto a tiny road that led us through the very pretty Lipovo village, whose inhabitants on a Saturday afternoon were all raking, picking and chopping wood. On the edge of the village we found Dulovic Farm, where the whole family was hard at work in their field of vegetables when we arrived. The farm – a large old stone house, a small wooden hut as the kitchen and a barn of cows and pigs – was in an idyllic spot in a green valley surrounded on three sides by soaring forested mountains. Gordana, the family matriarch, after spending the day tending to the farm, managed to whip up a lavish feast for us of home baked bread, bean and vegetable stew, spinach and cheese burek (a dense pie), pickles and a big plate of lisnati cheese, the special cheese made only in that area. Gordana explained via her daughter, who spoke fluent English, that absolutely everything was from their farm, including the pickles. By this point in the trip, after eating so much farm-to-table (or sometimes garden-to-table) food, I was still so impressed with the quality of Montenegrin produce, which by default was organic and seasonal.

Lake at Biogradska Gora National Park

Biogradska Gora National Park

Forest at Biogradska Gora National Park

Lake at Biogradska Gora National Park

Dulovic Farm

Dulovic Farm

Montenegro breakfast

After a breakfast of fried fish, eggs (from the truly free-range chickens running around the farm), bread, beetroot pickles, cabbage salad and lisnati, we were on our way again, this time to our last destination of Durmitor National Park, close to the Bosnian border, which nearly completed our circular journey around Montenegro. Our farmstay home, Above the Mountains Katun, was right inside the national park, in a tiny hamlet surrounded by conifer forests against a backdrop of dramatic mountains. Host Zoran Obradovic welcomed us with sweet fig rakija and coconut cakes made by his octogenarian mother, and with our now growing repertoire of Montenegrin phrases, we were able to talk about life in this beautiful spot.  

We spent a sunny, warm afternoon exploring Crna Jezero (Black Lake), which looked turquoise from some angles, and navy blue-black from other, along with dozens of other tourists, many of whom visit Durmitor on a day trip in a coach from the coast. It felt a bit overwhelming to be surrounded by selfie-snapping tourists after several days of quiet hiking and we were glad to head out on a proper hike the next day, even though the ominous clouds promised rain. We started from the car park for the Black Lake and headed up the mountain, passing glimpses of the lake’s jewel-like blue through the trees as we huffed up the incline through a conifer forest. The dramatic views came past the tree line, when we walked through a gully to reach a valley with a lonely hiking hut surrounded by soaring mountains on all sides. It wasn’t an easy hike up to the ledena pecina (ice cave), tucked away after a mountain scramble, but things were made a lot worse by the rain which suddenly started and then didn’t stop for the rest of our three-hour return hike. Sodden and frozen we returned home, to Zoran and his mother fussing over us to make us tea and cake and then warm us up with fried trout caught in the nearby Tara Canyon, cheese pita, vegetable soup, stewed potatoes, and cabbage salad – all from the garden – all washed down with several glasses of rakija.

After dinner, sitting in the warm kitchen with Zoran and his mother and watching the local news, getting political commentary from Zoran (which involved a lot of charades-like explanations), I realised how special our Montenegro trip had been because of the incredibly welcoming and generous families we’d stayed with. We’d eaten the most delicious food wherever we’d been (and been inspired to grow our food one day when we live somewhere a bit more spacious than London), slept in cosy wooden cabins and old farmhouses in off-the-beaten-track places where you’d never find hotels and felt like we’d had more of a cultural immersion than in many places we’ve travelled to around the world. Instead of just learning the words for please and thank you, we’d learned Montenegrin phrases and untouristy vocabulary, and from English-speaking hosts like Marko, we’d got an education in Montenegrin history and politics. For half of our trip, we’d also had no Internet connectivity, giving us a rare chance to properly disconnect from the world (and work) and focus on exactly where we were, in the rugged mountains and valleys of beautiful Montenegro.

Joe enjoying rakija outside our wooden cabin at Zoran’s home

Black Lake, Crna Jezero, Durmitor National Park

Crna Jezero (Black Lake)

Hiking in Durmitor National Park

Hiking in Durmitor National Park

Finding farmstays in Montenegro

We booked our trip entirely through Meanderbug, a website that offers a range of farmstays across Montenegro, from eco-camping to mountain cabins, all at really affordable prices. All of the farmstays we stayed at offered meals (including packed lunches for hiking days) as part of the price or as an extra, and we’re glad we opted for meals with the families, because the food we ate was a big highlight of the trip. While half the hosts that we stayed with didn’t speak English, we didn’t have any communication problems as all of our meals were pre-booked and already paid for, and when we booked we left a note for hosts to tell them that we don’t eat meat (and we ended up being very well catered for with vegetarian and fish options). I loved the fact that by staying on farms, our tourist money went towards helping to support families’ incomes rather than going to big hotel companies (which there are a lot of along the Montenegrin coast). 

4

A road trip around Iceland

Road trip Iceland

I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland, but I always saw it in the same league as Antarctica: the kind of place that I’d maybe get to later in my life, when I have more money. Like Antarctica, it seemed so far away and so expensive – a place you save up to see after you’ve gone to all the other, more accessible, places on your list.

So when I read about an Icelandic budget airline launching flights between the US and Iceland just at the time that we were planning our journey from Mexico to Europe, it was like the travel gods had intervened. There was no way I could not book that $120 flight.

It seemed the only way to really see Iceland is to drive right around it on the 1332-kilometre Ring Road circling the island, which is what we did, hiring a car as we arrived and setting out with a map and layers of thermals.

Day one – Reykjavik

We started off our nine-day road trip around Iceland in a sleeting Reykjavik, where we drank beer in the Big Lebowski bar, visited the penis museum and ate the best fish and chips ever and marvelled at how Nordically cool Icelandic people are, with their woollen knitted sweaters, thick hipster beards and thriving music and arts scene in a city of just 120 000 people.

Day two – Thingvellir National Park

The next day we got up early and drove into a snowy Thingvellir National Park to go diving at Silfra, a glacial river filled with some of the purest water on the planet. We donned cumbersome dry suits and plunged into water just above freezing to dive between the continental plates, at one point touching Eurasia and North America at the same time. This definitely made the uncontrollable shivering and my almost-frozen blue lips worth it. That afternoon, we took a scenic flight in a tiny plane over the Vatnajökull ice cap to see the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (the famous one that disrupted European air traffic in 2010), which looked like a harmless white mountain, and steaming geysers surrounded by snow. From the air there were no signs of human life apart from power lines and a few hiking cabins nearly entirely covered with snow. It was a glimpse of just how wild and sparsely inhabited this island is.

Diving Silfra, Iceland
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Day three – The southeast

After driving for awhile through fairly featureless fields south of Thingvellir National Park, we suddenly started seeing the kind of epic landscapes Iceland is famous for: huge cliffs swathed in mist looming over tiny farmhouses below, the thunderous Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls dwarfing tiny tourists underneath them, white waves crashing onto the black sand beaches of Vik and then the magnificent sight of the Vatnajökull glacier from a distance (the biggest glacier outside of the polar regions) – a vast tongue of ice pouring out of the mountains. We spent the afternoon hiking with crampons on the Svínafellsjökull, an outlet glacier cut through with lines of dark clay like skeins of blue cheese mould, which looked strangely familiar. It turns out that the glacier was a location set for Interstellar and Batman Begins and it fills in for the world north of the wall in Game of Thrones.

Napping in the car with jet lag, I nearly missed the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, which in a day of spectacular sights, was a highlight. Iceland’s deepest lake collects icebergs that break off the Vatnajökull glacier. The icebergs melt at the mouth of the lagoon’s exit, and float down to the sea, about a kilometre away. In the late afternoon light the lake was magnificent. We sat on the black shoreline in silence watching the light catch on the edge of the icebergs and listening to the sounds of them bumping into one another and melting into the lake with crackles and pops.

SkogafossSarah Duff Iceland-5 Hiking Svínafellsjökull glacierJokulsarlon lagoon

Day four – Hofn

Pouring rain scuppered our hiking plans, so instead we took a slow drive to Hofn, winding our way around dramatic black cliffs. Hofn, a tiny harbourside town of 2000 people, seemed like a bustling metropolis after all the empty countryside. We bought some supermarket sushi and drove out of town to the ruins of a modern-day Viking village – the abandoned set of a Hollywood film that ran out of money. In the drizzle and biting wind, under heavy grey skies the village, set between mountains and sea, felt positively eerie, wooden shutters creaking in the wind, like an actual movie scene. In the afternoon the sky cleared up and we walked around the harbour, buffering ourselves against the wind. Hofn is famous for lobsters, so for dinner we went to the restaurant across the road from our guesthouse and tried not to look at the prices as we ordered baguettes filled with lobster tails – the best lobster I’ve ever had – and drank Vatnajökull beer made with glacial iceberg water and wild thyme that only grows in the summer months.

Sarah Duff Iceland-10Abandoned Viking village, Iceland

Day five – Hofn to Lake Mývatn

After a breakfast of creamy blueberry skyr, we headed off on the Ring Road on a sunny morning, hugging the eastern coastline as we looped around beautiful fjords and then headed up into the snowy mountains to drive north. It was 16 degrees and as we stopped for photos we could hear the sound of snow melting into the ground. For an hour or two we saw no one else and no other car as we drove through what felt like the edge of the world. Once we’d passed the town of Eglisstadir, the landscape became even wilder: high up on snow-covered volcanic plains, chocolate-brown hills were marbled with snow like white chocolate brownie mix and iced-over milky blue ponds looked like melted Hall’s cough drops.

We turned off the Ring Road and headed off a lonely country road to get to Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss, which poured down cliffs covered in snow and ice and created a thick banded rainbow in the sky. There were only a few other tourists there on a late sunny afternoon, and we all stood in silence as a chunk of ice the size of a house fell of a cliff with a resounding boom and huge spray, reminding us of the raw power of nature.

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Day six – Lake Mývatn

In what turned out to be our favourite day of the trip, we explored the lunar-like landscape around Lake Mývatn: the steaming vents and piping fumaroles of Hverir, where we stood enveloped in the warm eggy steam to dethaw from the cold wind and drove up into the hills past Krafla, a steaming geothermal power station that looked like somewhere a James Bond villain’s lair. Here the road was snowed over, so we parked the car to hike through snow that came up to our knees to a sulphurous pale duck egg-blue sulphurous pool surrounded encircled by dark yellow sand and black volcanic rocks spewing forth steam. There was no one else around for miles, and everything was surreally quiet.

After lunch at Vogafjos Cowshed-Café, where you can watch cows being milked for the cheese on the farmhouse platter with smoked Arctic char and cake-like geyser bread baked in geothermal geysers, we hiked up the near-symmetrical Hverfell crater and explored the volcanic pillars of Dimmuborgir, which is supposedly home to trolls. A day of hiking called for a relaxing soak in the Mývatn Nature Baths, a natural open-air ice-blue hot pool with views down to the lake far below. The sun was only starting to set at 8.30pm, the outside air temperature was 8 degrees, and in the pool it was a toasty 37 degrees. I thought that was the most perfect way to end a great day, but then at midnight we spotted a flash of green outside our window. We hurriedly got dressed and drove our car out to an empty road, where we were treated to an hour’s lightshow: the Northern Lights dancing across the sky. It was eerie and magical and just as spectacular as I’d thought it would be.

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Day seven – Lake Mývatn to Snaefellsness

A long and not very scenic whole-day drive brought us from Lake Mývatn past Iceland’s second biggest city, Akureyi, and right across the north west of the island to a sliver of land like a finger pointing west – the Snaefellsness Peninsula, where we checked into the incredibly romantic Hotel Búðir – the kind of place you’d want to be snowed into, which is next to a striking black church (one of the more unique places to get married in, if you’re ever looking for a destination wedding location).

Budir Church, iceland

Day eight – Snaefellsness Peninsula

On the coldest day of our trip, when the wind chill brought the temperature below freezing, we decided to do a horse ride. We’d been eyeing up Iceland’s beautiful horses, with their long blonde manes and thick furry coats, the whole way through the road trip, and wanting to ride some. In between bouts of hail and sleet we saddled up and froze our fingers riding horses (who seemed totally nonchalant about the weather) to the beach. It took much hand warming on our heater back at the hotel, as well as several cups of tea and some whisky to dethaw.

Icelandic horse on a road trip around Iceland

Day nine – Keflavik Airport 

We drove back to the airport, stopping off for a quick soak in the silica-infused waters of the Blue Lagoon surrounded by black volcanic rocks, wishing we had another month to explore Iceland.

I’d come to Iceland with high expectations, and fell in love with Icelandic culture and the raw, wild beauty of the dramatically diverse island. After nine days I felt like I’d only had a small taste of what Iceland has to offer, and can’t wait to be back – my plan is to visit Iceland in every season.

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Planning a road trip around Iceland

Iceland is more accessible than you think (many budget airlines fly from Europe to Reykjavik in a few hours, and Wow Air flies from the US for under $200), but it’s just as expensive as you’ve heard.

However, you can save money by travelling outside of the peak summer months of June, July and August. Most hotels and car rental places drop their prices dramatically for the other nine months of the year. We travelled in April, which is early spring, and while it was cold, it was a great time to travel – nothing was busy and we paid low season rates. If you travel in the off-season you don’t need to book your accommodation ahead of time, so you can just drive around the Ring Road and decide where to stay each night as you go along.

You don’t need a 4×4 to drive the Ring Road, even in winter, but you do need one if you’re planning on exploring the highlands (which you can only do in summer). Renting a car is expensive in Iceland, but we found the cheapest option – a company called SAD cars, which has older, slightly scruffy cars in their fleet. Our car had quite a few dents and scratches but we had no problems with it at all.

Where to stay on a road trip around Iceland

Reyjkavik – Loft Hostel

One of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, Loft Hostel has a stylish Nordic-minimalist look, really amazing breakfasts, a bar serving Icelandic craft brews on Reykjavik’s main street, close to bars and restaurants.

Near Thingvellir National Park – Hotel Ranga

Warm and cosy with friendly staff, a wooden cabin exterior, outdoor hot tubs and themed rooms (the traditional Japanese inn was my favourite) Hotel Ranga is surrounded by fields and only a few houses, which makes it a perfect spot to see the Northern Lights. The restaurant serves up gourmet food with Icelandic produces – wild mushroom soup with pickled wild mushrooms, pan fried souffléd langoustine with herb oil and puréed artichoke, creamed skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) with blueberry jam and berry sorbet.

Near Jökulsárlón Glacier LagoonHali Country Hotel

A simple, sweet little country hotel in an amazing location, close to the lagoon and sandwiched between mountains and sea.

Hofn – Guesthouse Dyngja

I liked feeling like I was staying in someone’s home in this family-run guesthouse, which is a few small cosy rooms and shared bathrooms, and a sunny kitchen overlooking Hofn’s harbour.

Lake MývatnHotel Reynjalid

The biggest hotel in the area, Hotel Reynjalid has spacious well-equipped rooms, friendly staff, a great breakfast buffet and excellent dinners in the restaurant – wild mushroom soup, pan-fried Arctic char, Icelandic fish soup, cod with barley, apples and celery root, and liquid chocolate cake.

Snaefellsness Peninsula – Hotel Búðir

Hotel Búðir must be Iceland’s most romantic hotel. Situated on a windswept, otherwise uninhabited stretch of the Snaefellsness Peninsula, the hotel looks like it’s straight out of a décor magazine with Gothic Victorian-inspired dark walls, quirky framed prints, faux-fur covered ottomans, shelves of National Geographics, leather couches and a stylish bar. The hotel is steps from the beach so you sit at breakfast watching waves crashing and seals swimming in the churning sea. The food here was fantastic, from the wild mushroom soup, cod and potato bake, shellfish soup and skyr with rhubarb compote to the salmon gravadlax for breakfast.

Iceland adventures

You could do a road trip around Iceland and just stop off to take photos and wander around waterfalls, but if you don’t do any of the many activities on offer then you’re missing out on Iceland’s greatest adventures.

Diving

Dive (or snorkel) between the tectonic plates at Silfra in Thingvellir National Park with Dive.is. Their diving instructors are great, and their equipment is top notch and the diving is superb – a truly memorable experience.

Flying

While it’s expensive, a flying sightseeing tour of Iceland is a great way to get perspective on the island’s amazing landscapes. There are a few companies that offer scenic flights; I went with Flightseeing, which offers trips from Reyjkavik, Bakki and Skaftafell.

Glacier trekking

If you want to get on top of a glacier, there are lots of ways to explore Iceland’s icy worlds: dog sledding, snow mobiling, ice climbing or glacier trekking, which I did in Skaftafell National park with Icelandic Mountain Guides.

Horseriding

There are places to horse ride all over the island. I went on a ride with Lysuholl, a family-run horse farm on the Snaefellsness Peninsula.

Northern Lights Iceland

 

Switzerland without the skis

When I first saw the itinerary of my trip to central Switzerland in the middle of winter I thought there was a page missing. Where was the bit where we skiied for days? I’d been to Switzerland before and all I’d done was ski and eat mountains of chocolate.

It turns out that there’s a lot more to Switzerland than sliding down mountains with bits of carbon fibre and plastic strapped to your feet. On a six-day trip we went snow shoeing through mountain forests by moonlight, sledded down mountains so fast that our eyes streamed, raced snow mobiles around like badass James Bond villains, tried out curling – a ridiculously slippery bowls-like sport played on an ice rink, strapped on helmets and slid down slopes on airboards (lilos with handles) and ate our body weight in cheese (tip: don’t go to sleep after eating fondue unless you want psychedelic nightmares).

From the lovely car-free village of Wengen we caught a train which took us through a snow blizzard where you couldn’t see where the mountains ended and the sky began and into a steep tunnel inside a mountain glacier all the way up to Jungfraujoch at 3454 metres. Feeling tipsy from the altitude, we walked inside the Ice Palace – tunnels containing ice sculptures and American white oak barrels of maturing Swiss whisky carved out of the glacier. We managed about three minutes outside to take photos of the spectacular view before our fingers froze and our teeth started to hurt – it was -20 degrees with 30 kilometre winds.

From Wengen we took a train and a cable car up to Murren, an even lovelier little village of 350 people and cabin porn wherever you look where instead of cars going down the streets you have skiers and sledders whizzing past and Christmas is not limited to the 25th of December – a month on, all the festive decorations will still strung up in the streets and perched in windows of houses. Our guided tour of Murren (led by the head of village tourism who also worked in the police force and fire brigade) consisted of going inside the village’s fire truck (and seeing its blue lights whirl) and walking down the main street of a few restaurants, bakery and postcard shops and meeting just about every Murren resident.

Above Murren is Schilthorn mountain, which has some pretty epic-looking off-piste ski runs (which no one was on that day because of planned avalanche detonations) and Piz Gloria – a revolving restaurant featured in the Bond movie On her Majesty’s Secret Service – at the top. The cable car played Bond music, there was a cardboard cut out of George Lazenby stuck outside in the arctic winds at the top of the mountain and a very cool James Bond interactive exhibition featuring such things as a simulated helicopter flight over the mountain. We ate 007 burgers and 007 pasta washed down with 007 cappuccinos in the revolving restaurant which had just about the best lunchtime views of anywhere, ever – picture endless vistas of the snow-covered Bernese alps and tiny matchbox villages in the far distance.

The last stop on the trip was Engelberg, which was founded as a monastery about 1000 years ago when a monk spotted an angel above one of the dramatic peaks that surrounds the village. You can stay in the village like we did and travel by cable car to go sledding, snow mobiling, tubing (like river tubing but on slopes) or skiing, or wear an extra pair of long johns and stay on Trubsee mountain in the igloo hotel. At a temperate 1 degree, the hotel’s not exactly cosy but it’s a pretty magical place to spend a night. There’s a restaurant with wooden fur-covered stools where you’re served fondue (a lingering smell of cheese permeates the icy passages here), a blue-lit bar where you’d probably want to drink as much hot gluhwein as you can to warm up and rooms that sleep between two and six people, each with beautiful ice carvings in the wall of different animals, furnished with sleeping bags that can keep you toasty in temperatures as low as -40 degrees. My favourite were the jacuzzis – rooms with skylights melted in the roof and bubbling hot jacuzzis. I can’t imagine anything more romantic than sitting in there at night as snow falls on you, drinking some Swiss wine.

From Trubsee we had a ride up to the top of Mount Titlis (cue juvenile humour) on the world’s first revolving aerial cable car, watching skiers make their way down treacherous-looking black runs as we headed up to what looked like the world beyond the wall in Game of Thrones. In -15 degrees we jumped up and down on Europe’s highest suspension bridge as it swayed in the whipping winds and took selfies while our fingers froze and I remembered what explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ hands looked like after his last Antarctic expedition.

When you go on a skiing trip you generally stay in one resort – and days are a wonderful routine of waking up, carbo loading, riding the cable car up and skiing all day, with breaks for hot chocolate and cheesy Alpine food. You don’t end up exploring much or seeing anywhere else other than the ski runs of the village. What I loved about this trip was how much we travelled around. We traversed the breadth of the tiny snowy country by train, travelling up and down white tree-covered mountains that looked like Christmas cards, winding around glacier-studded peaks, past chocolate-box-cute villages of steep-roof wooden cabins, tiny churches and graveyards as neat as mathematical paper and through valleys with lakes the colour of Halls blue cough lozenges.

The spectacular train rides alone would have been worth a trip to Switzerland – there aren’t many other places in the world with that kind of railroad scenery. In fact, you could easily spend a whole week riding trains and taking photos out the window, eating delicious pretzels from stalls in the stations you stop at and sleeping at charming family-run alpine hotels with fireplaces and thick hot chocolate and bircher muesli for breakfast. Or you could spend a trip just taking cable cars to the top of ridiculously beautiful mountains, or spend all day sledding through trees, high on adrenaline and cheese. Or all of the above.

 

Getting to Switzerland from South Africa

Edelweiss flies to Zurich direct from Cape Town on Tuesdays and Fridays during the winter season – October to May. Swiss Air flies direct to Zurich from Johannesburg daily.

Getting around Switzerland

Switzerland is just about the easiest country to travel around, with an amazing network of rail, funicular and cable cars – and everything runs exactly on time (as in, to the second). Because we were going to be doing a lot of moving around, we got Swiss Passes – an all-in-one ticket that allows you to travel by road, rail and waterway for the duration of your stay.

 

My trip to Switzerland was hosted by Edelweiss and Switzerland Tourism.  

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