Europe

Lovely Amsterdam

Our next stop on our way to Africa was the lovely city of Amsterdam.

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Amsterdam is such a special place; it has the charm and easy feeling of a small town and the chaos and energy of a big metropolis. No wonder it’s one of my favorites.

I’m not going to bore you with a description of everything we did because finding a list of things to do in Amsterdam on the internet would be simpler. Of the famous sites, the absolute must-dos on our list are:

The Rijskmuseum with the famous “Night Watch”.

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This museum is stocked full of wonderful art and one could easily spend an entire day here and still have more for a second

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and even a third visit. Don’t spend your entire day here though as there is too much to do in this city.

For the Van Gogh Museum,

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you can either stand in line for two hours or buy your tickets online. Beware though, the only website which gets you instant admission to the museum is their official one. Otherwise, you’ll still have to stand in line for about an hour to exchange the vouchers you got for their official tickets.

Visiting the Ann Frank Museum

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which you enter thru the door hidden behind the bookcase as she did, is a sobering experience.

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Again, buy your tickets online (up to a month in advance) unless you like standing in line.

Less known but well worth a visit is the Verzetsmuseum, The Dutch Resistance Museum. This museum chronicles what life was like before, during and after the occupation for regular Dutch citizens and poses the question of what would you have done in their place.

This seems eerily similar to what Trump is proposing for Muslims now:

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Let’s learn from the past lest we repeat it.

Of special note is their junior section. Although one would be tempted to bypass it thinking it was meant for children due its interactivity, take a long look. It follows the lives of four dutch children, one Jewish, one the son of a resistance fighter, one the daughter of a Nazi, another the child of parents just trying to survive the war. It is an incredible experience to follow these kids thoughts, actions and the events in their lives during this tumultuous time. It ends with a video feed of each of them as adults telling us what they think now of what happened then.

An lastly, for us, was a brand new museum unique in the world: Micropia.

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It is an entire museum dedicated to microbes! As you enter, you can see a newly redesigned Tree of Life including all the microbe species known at the moment.

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It’s mind-boggling to think that most of the life on the planet is microscopic. In the small circle of light (bottom right) is every animal you know and can see with your naked eye, including us. Everything else is invisible to us without fancy equipment. And to think that we are all connected and we all came from the same origins. We came here because Fernando forced us to, we were so tired and ready to sit down for coffee and people watching but he insisted and when a son asks to go to a museum, you don’t say no. We are very glad we came. The museum is entirely interactive and you can see algae, bacteria, viruses, glow fish, you name it. They have a body scanner which tells you how many bacteria you’re carrying with you. Microscopes to watch as tiny cells go about their lives. Rotting food and petri dishes with a variety of everyday items to scare you with.

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In the back you can even glimpse, thru enormous windows, the scientists as they work on their experiments. Absolutely five stars worth.

Other activities in Amsterdam include a Canal Boat Ride

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where you can look at the old houses as well as some lovely boat houses.

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In the city where everyone, absolutely everyone, rides a bike

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you can also rent bikes. The boys did for a couple of hours and came back to the hotel happy but stressed to the max.

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It really is surprising that we didn’t witness any accidents. Traffic is chaos with cars, motorbikes and bicycles all going past and thru each other at the same time they try to evade the clueless tourists who tend to stand in the middle of the bike paths because they look so much like sidewalks. Signs such as this

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are quite understandable, but the reality is that everyone is super nice and laid back and you hear less honking here than back home.

An easy day trip from Amsterdam is Zaanse Schans.

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Tours are sold everywhere but there really is no need to get a tour when buses run every 15 minutes from the Central Train Station

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and you can buy your ticket straight from the driver. Several windmills are open for touring but we chose De Kat, as it is the only one that allows you to go up the stairs and walk on the outside of it. This is a working mill, they grind chalk stones into powder which they then mix with different dyes to create paint.

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There are different shops which recreate what Dutch life used to be like. Here you can watch a demonstration of how those wooden clogs are made, and buy some as well of course;

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or cheese, chocolate, oil. You can even bring a picnic and spend the day petting sheep and avoiding being bitten by the swans.

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It’s a picturesque day trip.

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An honorable mention goes to the Amsterdam Dungeon which is a new show, part history lesson, part haunted house which relates the sordid past Amsterdam had in the 16oos when trade ships would trick people into signing up for “service” and sailing to the Dutch African colonies aboard the VOC ships. I wouldn’t want to give it away but definitely recommend it. Get your tickets online and take advantage of the savings.

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On our last day in Amsterdam we were met by Anita, Fernando’s friend from high school, and one of her lovely daughters, Sophie, at Voldenpark, Amsterdam’s central park. What a shock to meet again now with kids the age they were when they met so many years ago.

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Amsterdam is just as beautiful, welcoming and full of life as I remembered. We can’t wait to come back!

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Categories: Europe, Netherlands, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hiking to Hell

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For our last day in Iceland, we had planned to visit Thorsmork and the Blue Lagoon. It all fell apart.

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Thorsmork translates to “the Woods of Thor”, Thor being the Norse god, and it is said to be an otherworldly place and a must visit on any trip to Iceland. We were caught in a dilemma: access to Thorsmork is by bus only and the bus only runs three times a day, morning, mid-day and evening. The “fastest” hike in Thorsmork gave us only 20 minutes to spare in order to catch the return bus at mid-day. If we missed it, we would be stuck until nighttime and miss the Blue Lagoon. Given that our definition of an easy hike differed greatly from the Icelandic one and that we were still spent from the previous day’s ice hike; we feared that 20 mins was cutting it too close and decided to forgo Thorsmork entirely. Yep, we committed the sin of choosing not to visit Thorsmork, one should always leave something for the next visit.

Instead we had a leisurely drive back. We passed by the volcano Eyjafjallajokull, whose eruption threw the world into chaos back in 2010.

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We stopped for pictures until the boys put their feet down.

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They relented a bit when we let them out to chase sheep.

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It’s harder than you’d think and they didn’t catch a single one!

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We also took a detour to visit the volcano Hekla. Icelanders are expecting it to erupt at any moment now and are afraid that if it blows next summer it will disrupt their entire tourist-based economy. We didn’t get all the way to Hekla because the road turned into pebbles and then rocks. We were afraid of getting a flat, so we turned back and instead petted horses.

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These guys are gorgeous.

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Soaking in a warm soup of strangers has never been high on my list of things to do but not visiting the Blue Lagoon seemed sacrilegious so I mentally prepared myself for it. Paying close to $75USD for the privilege seemed preposterous, I had to really talk it up to myself. Then fate intervened and saved us! Turns out the Blue Lagoon is such a tourist attraction, you now need to reserve online in advance, we couldn’t get any tickets. This is the power plant whose water is emptied into the Blue Lagoon.

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We were told of another geothermal pool which is natural (the Blue Lagoon is not) and used by locals instead of tourists. Even better: it’s totally free. We headed right over. Accessing Reykjadalur was a feat of endurance! Icelanders said it was a pretty 45 min hike to get there. Pretty yes but it took me over an hour and my heart cursed at me the entire way there while my knees did the same on the way back.

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To get to the stream, you must first climb up a mountain, then down the backside of it, hike halfway up the next mountain and around the bend into a hidden valley.

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On the way, you walk on rocky ledges, past small waterfalls,

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bubbling mudflats

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and scalding hot water holes.

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All this while a frigid wind does its best to pull you off the mountain. We were wearing all our winter clothes and even so we were chilled to the bone by the time we got there. While the water is toasty and must be a relief after that torturous hike; the idea that I would have to get out of that hot water into the freezing wind made it impossible for me to even try. The boys declared it to be Hell on Earth and quickly turned around and left us behind saying that they’d wait for us in the car. We tried to be brave but we didn’t stay any longer than it took us to stick our numb fingers in the water until they regained feeling and then left too.

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Enjoying the heated seats in our rental, we drove back to Keflavik

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where we watched Germany beat Italy by the skin of their teeth along with a roomful of other travelers in one of the nicest hostels we’ve ever stayed at before getting up at the crack of dawn to board our flight to Amsterdam.

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Iceland was wonderfully beautiful and we feel lucky to have had the opportunity to enjoy a brief visit.

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Walking on Ice

We drove to what seemed to be the end of the island. Why? Bear with me, I’m getting there…

The place we stayed the night is so remote, this is the vehicle they have on hand (remember “The Shinning”?)

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There are no shops, no supermarket, no restaurant.

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We had no idea it would be so empty, but thankfully we had some leftover supplies and fashioned breakfast from a combination of Frosted Flakes, cheese and coconut cookies before visiting Jokulsarlon, the Ice Lagoon which at 250 meters is the deepest lake in Iceland.

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All these chunks of ice come from the Vatnajokull glacier which is the largest glacier in the whole of Europe.

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The lagoon empties into the sea where this fresh water mixes with the ocean

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and sometimes seals even swim upstream in search of food.

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Here, motor boats take tourists on the lagoon but we had something a tad more adventurous in store for us.

We drove on to the Skaftafell Visitor Centre which forms part of the much larger Vatnajokuls National Park. An “easy” 90 minute hike takes you to Svartifoss.

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Our definition of easy differs from the Icelandic one just as much as the one for “cheap”. Svartifoss falls 12 meters from black basalt columns. It is a pretty waterfall but doesn’t stand up to Seljalandfoss in my opinion. However, the hike is beautiful and well worth the effort.

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Names here really get confusing as they seem to be used interchangeably to mean the same place. Vatnajokull is the name of the glacier but it has several outlets and each is given a name and called a glacier in itself. So when we signed up to hike the Skaftafell glacier, we didn’t realize it was really a tiny part of the Vatnajokull glacier.

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That’s right, we signed up to not only hike but climb the glacier. What was I thinking???

Our guide, Tom from the UK, was as nice as I could have hoped. He fitted us for crampons and drove us to the base of the glacier from where we began our hike. He taught us to walk up a wall of ice by forcefully stabbing our toes into the ice and then leaning back a little to engage all the front spikes of our crampons.

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It sounds much easier than it actually is. Walking down was almost impossible for me as it is done in the same manner, just backwards. I had a though time trusting those spikes to support me. After all of us had somewhat managed to do this, he proceeded with lesson number two: climbing a 65 foot totally vertical wall of ice! This time we donned harnesses and a safety rope, just in case. He gave us ice picks to use for pulling ourselves up.

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It was terribly difficult! I’m sorry to say that I quit 2/3s of the way up. My legs were shaking so bad, they wouldn’t obey me anymore. The guys all managed to climb to the very top though.

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Tom then took us on a 90 minute hike on the glacier. We passed thru some dangerous terrain and had to hook ourselves to ropes and walk one at a time thru ledges.

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I was spent and if there had been a way, I would have stayed behind but it wasn’t an option so I trudged on. Being all alone on the ice was beautifully quiet and with all that hiking, not cold at all. The boys think this is the coolest adventure we’ve ever been on and would have stayed out there the entire day if possible.

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After 5 hours, it was time to go back. We refilled our water bottles with pure 2000 year old glacier water and began the hike back.

Tom told us that we were lucky to have been there at that time since climate change is causing the glacier to melt faster than usual and the ice chunks we had climbed onto to reach it would probably be gone in a couple of days. This is incomprehensible: those ice chunks are each of them the size of a small house. Tom told us the glacier is retreating at a pace of 2.5 meters per day! Can you wrap your head around that?

We drove back to Skogar to spend the night feeling exhilarated and exhausted all at once.

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Chasing Waterfalls 

Our third day in Iceland was spent on a very ambitious quest to drive the south coast all the way to Vagnsstadir. It took us the entire day, mostly because it’s impossible to resist stopping for pictures every km or so. Although it must be noted that this is no easy thing as Icelandic roads have no shoulders and every small exit isn’t paved but rather covered in pebbles. We got stuck once but with the three boys pushing we made a quick getaway.

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We found the roads here to be in good condition which is surprising given the weather. Icelanders are not fast drivers but there are so few of them on the road that most bridges consist of only one lane, forcing cars to take turns crossing them. Not a problem at all. Sheep are everywhere literally, on the road and on top of the mountains, as are horses. Icelandic horses are the only ones which can do the “fifth gait”. They say it developed because of the rocky terrain and it almost looks as if the horses are tippy-toeing. Lots of people keep the Icelandic horses as pets and are very proud of their lineage. No “foreign” horses are allowed on the island. The rule is so strict that if ever one of these horses left Iceland, it would never be allowed back again. We found them to be curious and gentle animals and stopped more than once to pet them.

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Our first “official” stop was at Seljalandfoss.

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This waterfall drops about 40 meters but what’s a number? What you need to know about it is that it is gorgeous and rightly deserves its spot in Iceland’s top tourist attractions. If you follow the path, you’ll be able to walk behind it.

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We were here early, before the tour buses, and had a beautiful time enjoying the peace before the hordes of tourists got there.

Our next stop was Skogafoss which  drops 60 meters and is 25 meters wide.

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In case it’s not obvious, the water is freezing cold. We tried getting all the way to the edge of it but even the mist emanating from it leaves one’s teeth chattering. A strenuous hike

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takes you to the top of the falls from where experienced hikers, and a few dummies, begin the trek into Thorsmork (Thor’s woods). Undoubtedly inspired by the sheep, the boys decided to follow their own path to the top of an outcropping.

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It was about an hour before they agreed to climb down.

Following the road east, we found ourselves at Reynisdrangar.

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Here, basalt rocks lie strewn about as kids’ Legos. The wind was howling and a light rain falling but the view was such that we wouldn’t be deterred.

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We continued on to Reynisfjara, the famous black beach.

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The sand here is as tick as play sand and would invite one to play if it weren’t for how cold it is. Puffins nest on the roof of the cave.

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On sunny days, they spend most of the time out at sea so there was a silver lining to those stormy clouds as we were able to spot a few. Once again, the boys decided to climb the mountain

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and got so high

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that the tourists stopped to take pictures of them.

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I’m coming to terms with the fact that I gave birth to mountain goats and not children but ask them to hike a path with you and suddenly they’re too tired…

We were all tired, cold and wet now. The guys all fell asleep while I drove us to our destination, with so many stops on the way that the boys threatened to confiscate the camera if I stopped again. It’s just impossible not to though when beauties like this one are lying just by the side of the road.

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But the best was yet to come.

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

The Golden Circle 

A common way to spend a day in Iceland is driving the “Golden Circle” There are several attractions on this drive and one could easily spend a couple of days instead of just one on it.

Our first stop was Thingvellir, a national park and UNESCO world heritage site.

P1010655 It’s an important site for two reasons:

First, in 930 the first seat of government was established here because it was at the intersection of all major trade routes on the island. Once a year, the chieftains of every family would gather here to resolve arguments, perform weddings and take care of any other issues which might have come up during the previous year. As you can imagine, this gathering took the shape of a celebration which lasted several weeks and allowed for people to meet and trade with each other. It was called the “Law Rock” since parliament had its seat here until 1798. Iceland gained its independence from Denmark in 1944 and Icelanders gather here at Thingvellir to celebrate that occurrence every 17th of June since.P1010675

The second reason is geological. The North American and European plates meet, or rather drift apart, here. They are drifting apart at a rate of about 2.5 centimeters per year and this can be clearly seen in the huge cracks they cause, some of which could be called canyons. P1010663Thingvellir

A popular activity is to take a dive in the lake to the Silfra fissure to observe the plates.

P1010679 One could easily spend an entire day just hiking thru this park as it holds natural beauties such as Oxararfoss

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and of course it’s share of wildlife.

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We then continued on to Haukadalur which is famous for being the site of the OG=original geyser. (“No! Mom, don’t try to be hip.” went ignored) All other geysers take their name from this one.

P1010699Unfortunately the “Geyser” is no longer spewing hot water and steam but a much bigger geyser, or so we were told, is now taking up the slack: Strokkur.

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Only from this far can its height be appreciated.

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This is the view on the other side which rewards those who make the strenuous climb to the top of the mount.

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After having what must have been the grossest and most expensive hamburgers in the entire world, we continued our drive on to Gulfoss, a massive waterfall which drops 32 meters down.

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The story of how Gulfoss came to be is quite interesting. Back in 1907, an Englishman wanted to harness the power of the waterfall and leased it from the farmer who owned the land. One of the farmer’s daughters loved the waterfall so much that she protested this contract and even went to court to plead for it to be voided. The legal battle lasted years and Sigridur (the farmer’s daughter) threatened to throw herself into the waterfall if the Englishman went ahead with construction, very dramatic. One must be in awe at Sigridur’s strength of character back in those days. Eventually, Sigridur lost her case but it was moot as the Englishman lost the concession for failure to pay rent! Iceland began waking up to the importance of protecting its natural beauties because of Sigridur and she is now thought of as Iceland’s first naturalist.

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Our last stop of the day was Kerid, a small caldera in a collapsed volcano. As the boys threw rocks into the lake, we watched the sun fall.

P1010808Or rather just diminish a bit because it doesn’t actually set until almost midnight and is up by 2am. Those few nighttime hours are quite bright as well. Our sleep has been suffering due to the lack of darkness, somehow light always filters into our rooms. The weather has been all kinds of crazy, we’ve had hot, short-sleeves kind of mornings, only to have to wear thermal underwear in the afternoon. The bedrooms are usually too hot but the toilets too cold. This place is absolutely gorgeous but I surely wouldn’t survive a winter.

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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