In Iceland, I have mostly German, British, and Scandinavian riders who come on horse tour, but the few Frenchies that drop in are usually the most memorable. Either they don’t speak a word of English, have no idea to ride or ride better than everyone else, and often drink wine like water. I met a Mr. Berquin this summer, one of the founding creators of the Henson horse breed – a cross between a French riding horse and Norwegian fjord horse. He invited me to ride at his farm, their origin in the Baie de Somme, but as fate would have it, I couldn’t make the trip dates.
Instead, I had the weekend before free, and thought I should go riding in France anyway, and after finding a Wow Air return flight for barely more than 100 euros to Paris and a bus ticket from there to Lyon for 9 euros each way, I just went. The south of France sounded much warmer anyway, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend such little money in Reykjavik.
I have this other fun French friend I met last year on the Golden Circle, Alicia who also rode with me earlier this year in Kyrgyzstan. She lives in Lyon and decided we should go to Camargue and ride their big white beach horses. After a night in Paris (you always have to stay the night in Paris when you get the chance!) and a few hours in the bus, we were in Lyon drinking wine.
The journey from Lyon to Camargue takes you through the heart of Côtes du Rhône, home to some of the best red wines in France. We stopped at a few vineyards (, and one in Chateuneuf-du-Pape, and ended our day trip at the Pont du Gard, that bridge and ancient Roman aqueduct that you’ve seen a hundred times in videos but never realized how to get there. That night we had dinner at the beach town Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer (why is the town name so long and how many St. Mary’s are there?), which, very appropriately, was a huge portion of moules et frites with white wine from the region.
We rode Camargue horses for the weekend, and thought we were special, but there were 5 others riding with us the first day (all but 1 were beginners).We galloped on the beach and rode past herds of flamingos, and had picnic lunches that always included rosé wine. I had a cool Camargue cowboy hat and traditional Camargue saddle, which turned out to be terribly uncomfortable, but at least I looked and felt like a real French cowgirl.
We were one group of many, and only by the end of the weekend did we realize just how many other Camargue horse farms there were in the area. One one random trail crossing in the wetlands, there were 4 groups that actually intersected, causing enough of a traffic jam that maybe yield signs or traffic lights might need to be put up there one day. We had to cross one river, an offshoot of the Rhone, on a barge, and we took our horses on board just as easily as the cars were allowed to be ferried across. Its the first, and probably the last time, I´ve ever ridden a horse on a boat.
Islands are always a favourite when traveling. Little islands, hot islands, isolated islands, and especially islands full of great food and wine. I’d been avoiding traveling to Sicily and Sardinia for a long time because I thought I’d never leave, but lo and behold here I am in South Africa writing about it.
Sicily is a name that brings a few thoughts to mind – pizza, pasta, seafood, wine, limoncello, Palermo, and of course, the Godfather. It’s so far south in the Mediterranean its actually closer to Africa than most of mainland Europe, but the airports and harbours offering dozens of flights and ferries daily mean it stays closely connected to the rest of Italy.
I was traveling with my older sister, who has traveled a bit but can definitely be defined as more conservative than me. She had her first couchsurfing experience a couple of months ago with me in Ireland, but now we planned to couchsurf for the next 12 days with Italian men. I knew what I was getting us into, but she was surprisingly flexible with their loudness, tardiness, and sometimes cheesy, sleezy behavior. Sicily was especially loud – not just in volume, but smells, sights and culture. We took a break from couchsurfing one night and rented a boat to sleep in on Airbnb.
Sardinia felt more like another country. We were no longer just in Italy, we were in a place inhabited by Italians, with Roman/Greek/Arabic/African influences and a history reaching back to prehistoric times. Locals speak Italian, a small part speaks Catalan and many still Sardinian, a different language altogether.
The cities were smaller but cleaner, the houses renewed, the weather cooler, the tourists (and locals) fewer, and the men, less aggressive. They had a local wines and a special berry wine called Mirto, but the familiar pizzas and pastas were still the highlight of most meals.
After our island hop and a few overnight ferries with Tirrenia, we ended up in Genova to catch a train back to Milan, where a direct flight could take us home to Keflavik. But en route, we of course had to stop in Gavi, Piedmont to wine taste the best Cortese and Nebbiolo Italy has to offer.
In Milan I took a 3 day wine course to certify myself as an official wine taster, and now I can finally say I’m on the road to being some kind of sommelier with finally completing my WSET Level 2 training. But that just makes me want to go back to Italy, maybe Tuscany, to get my WSET Level 3… what then?
Iceland’s budget airline Wow air started direct flights to Cork, only 2h15mins away, for a mere €150 round trip if you’re lucky. My sister and I found the cheapest tickets and decided to hop over for a couple of nights, and maybe try to find some of our roots from our great great great great great great… don’t know how many generations ago grandmother Melkorka, an Irish princess stolen by Vikings to make many, many red headed Icelanders throughout the generations. We were also going to let Kristjana try Couchsurfing for the first time in her life.
Cork, one of Ireland’s oldest cities and currently second largest, kind of has that small city/big village feeling. Similar to Reykjavik, you can see and do a few things in town for a day or so before you start looking further out to the very green countryside. Blarney Village and the port town of Cobh are less than an hour away by public transport, so we spent half a day in each of them.
Cork has a walkable city center, with lots of public houses, watering holes, and even a couple breweries right downtown. Definitey don’t miss trying some of the beers from the Rising Sons and Fransiscan Well, and for a dose of history and culture, dip into a few of the old, stone Catholic Churches and Cork City Gaol.
Take a bus to Blarney village to visit the Mills, Blarney Castle and gardens, and don’t forget to kiss the Blarney Stone! Apparently it will give you the gift of eloquence and flattery, but you’ll have to ask my sister if that worked on me.
Go to the Kent railway station and take a 25minute train south to Cobh, the last port of call the Titanic stopped at. There you can learn a lot about other ill-fated voyages at the Cobh heritage center, visit a couple more churches, and walk down old Street and past the port to see some cute and colorful architecture.
Make sure you eat a full Irish breakfast every morning to have enough calories to burn for all the walking, drink some Baileys (or try Baileys cheesecake – it’s to die for) and an Irish coffee, have a Murphy’s or Beamish local stout instead of lunch, and gobble down some Irish stew or seafood chowder to make sure you come home a few kilos heavier. Atleast it worked that way for me! Next time I’ll spend more time looking for leprechauns and four leaf clovers, though there was plenty of green between all the gray.
Don’t take first time couchsurfers to surf in the nearby village Ballincollig, unless they really like pitbulls (we shared a garage with three of them on tiny couches), and try to find Central-American decent Parisians in downtown Cork – our host had a really big, nice apartment with a guest room and private bathroom. I think that might have rebuilt my sisters faith in the Couchsurfing theory.
Swaziland is a little land-locked country, surrounded on all sides by South Africa and Mozambique. Besides being the only absolute monarchy left in Africa, I didn’t know much about Swaziland, other than it has (at least had) the highest rate of HIV positive people per capita in the world. Someone in Johannesburg told me I should visit in winter, so I could go skiing, but after arriving and asking when the ski season is and being laughed at, I learned there’s never any snow in Swaziland. Someone must have confused it with Lesotho.
To my surprise, Swaziland was a much safer, more peaceful part of southern Africa. As soon as I crossed the border from South Africa, everyone felt more at ease, and no left-over apartheid feelings of racial separation seemed to exist. I could walk the streets alone at night, and even hitchiked my way around Ezulwini Valley. I felt really at home at a hotspring called the ‘Cuddle Puddle’ which was actually a big, beautiful, warm pool where you could BYOB and order take away pizza.
Ezulwini valley was a sort of tourism center in Swaziland, and there was more tourism than I expected. There was a handful of backpackers and most hostels were associated with an adventure company or game park. At Mlilwane Game Reserve, there are no predators, so you can actually go on a walking safari, and get up close and personal with lots of zebras and little horned antelopes and ‘beests.’ They had other game parks, one personally belonging to the king, where you could see lions, elephants and rhinos a lot easier than Kruger National Park, which is 1,500 square kilometers larger than the entire country of Swaziland.
I went on some other hikes, one to a cultural village and waterfall, and another to a granite cave. You wouldn’t think those activites were thrilling anywhere else, but because I hadn’t expected any adventures, I laughed my whole way through the 200m of cave tunnels we had to squeeze, bend, crawl and climb thru. We went to a soccer game to watch the beloved Swallows, one of the better teams on all of Africa, play surrounded by an enthusiastic local crowd. We were the only foreigners in the stadium.
I met an American film producer who used to work for National Geographic and had been making a new tourism commercial for Swaziland, and got sold on visiting Swaziland yet again. I ended up staying a few days longer than I expected, but still left some things undone, and was glad I didn’t visit for only a weekend as I had originally planned. I was lucky to leave at all, since I learned at the border exit that I had been illegally visa-free in Swaziland the entire time. So for any other Icelanders being sold on visiting Swaziland anytime soon, make sure you get your visa on arrival, even if they let you in and stamp your passport without one.
Lesotho is a tiny, land-locked kingdom, surrounded by South Africa on all sides. There aren’t many road borders in or out, but you could easily walk into the country by accident. There are some beautiful mountains and National parks on the north side where South Africans can see Lesotho just across the valley, including the Drakensberg and Golden Gate National park, places I visited to flirt with the idea of Lesotho before arriving.
I found couchsurfers to stay with, a household of Filipino sisters and brothers and cousins. They’re all working in various businesses, from textiles to furniture and a car garage. We ate breakfast and dinner together every day, with a few other guests, and at one point I was in Lesotho singing Karaoke with 9 Filipinos drinking South African wine and couldn’t imagine expecting a more random experience to write home about.
I borrowed a friend’s car from Johannesburg and drove to Lesotho. The roads on the South African side were excellent – and also filled with tolls and speed cameras. Once entering Lesotho, I didn’t see a single traffic police officer or camera, and only one traffic light, and the roads were full of potholes, where they were paved, and one big pot hole where they weren’t. I was driving a Ford Fiesta, not the greatest off-road car, and it took hours just to drive 80km, but I managed to get deep into the countryside and find some horses to ride.
Lesotho has an alive and kicking horse culture – people still travel by horse, shepherd on horse back, and use horses to work their fields and transport goods. I found a camp called Malealea where tourists can go on multi-day treks, up to 28 days, and basically see the whole of Lesotho from the back of a horse. I rode for only one day, barefoot because I didnt have proper shoes and it was too hot, and left my guide in the dust everytime I asked him if we could go for a gallop. We visited a waterfall, a cave, and some ancient rock art paintings, and by the end of the day I realized I should have stayed a week for this. But oh well, there’s always a next time. And next time I’ll bring riding shoes.
I came up with the goal to try and visit 200 countries before I turned 30. I arrived in Mauritius, country #200, 3 days before my birthday, and 9 other friends from around the world. Without sharing too much incriminating evidence, here are a few pictures and stories from the best birthday week I’ve ever had.
Most of my friends are from Europe or North America, so I had originally chosen Laos as a more ‘central’ meeting point. But my best friend Ursula from Washington D.C. said there had to be a beach, and booked her flight to Mauritius even before I did. She knew it was a new country for me, and thought it would increase the number of people coming, despite it being much further away in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
There were supposed to be twelve of us, but one friend from Australia who is a pilot for Qantas couldn’t use his standby tickets because of some schedule changes. My best friend from Canada, who recently married an American, got scheduled an immigration interview for a date exactly in the middle of her already booked vacation, so since Green cards don’t last forever and Donald Trump exists, she had to cancel.
But, there was the Lebanese entertainer from Paris, the German horse-back rider from Munich, the Belarussian couple from Minsk, my study abroad roommate from Washington DC, a couchsurfer I met in Italy from Pennsylvania, an emergency doctor from New York, a professional dancer from LA, and Iceland’s best chef. We were 4 girls, 6 guys, half of us couchsurfers, and nearly no one had met eachother before.
The week went flawlessly. I could never imagine putting a group of 10 strangers together, traveling and staying together in a foreign country without any hiccups, but it was perfect. Everyone got along, the rum was never-ending, and the beaches and sunsets stayed beautiful no matter where we were on the island.
We spent our first 4 days in Blue Bay, 3 days in Flic en Flac, and 2 days in Trou aux Biches, near Grande Baie. Our only errands every day were to refill the ice bags and fill them with wine, then walk to the beach and work on our tans, or burns, in some cases. In Le Morne we swam with wild dolphins in the open sea, and our personal taxi-van carried us from A to B and showed us some of the touristic sites on the island. We passed towns with the names of Suriname and Yemen, and saw endless fields of sugar cane backdropped by Jurrasic park-like mountains.
We visited a rum distillery, a tea plantation, a Hindu temple, and some waterfalls and park areas, but the beaches were by far the most memorable. The water was always warm, and even under dark and stormy skies stayed bright and crystal blue. We had a few rain showers, but went to the beach anyway, and missed the cyclone that hit after we left. We danced at some live music bars, drank with some locals who were friends of friends of friends, ate brunches with bottomless mamosas and cooked dinners together at the various airbnb’s we stayed at. It’s a miracle no one got hurt or lost or left out or too claustrophobic, but this group of people made my 30th birthday a most unforgettable party. I’ve also never traveled in such a big group, but after visiting 200 countries and experiencing Mauritius the way I did, I kind of wish some of those people would carry on traveling with me.