Continuing on with my list of European vacation favourites, for which I’ve only allowed myself nine to mention, here are the last three.
Reykjavik: Iceland’s Fairytale Capital
Reykjavik, which is Europe’s most northerly capital city, can provide a very pleasant sojourn either on a stopover en route to your European vacation or during a more extensive stay in Iceland. My first impression of Reykjavik was of a beautiful city which, in many ways, seemed like a small community, but at the same time was actually a very cosmopolitan metropolis. The combination adds up to a charming and captivating destination. Although the population of Reykjavik is only 200,000, it contains approximately 65% of the country’s total inhabitants. The city centre is a fairly compact area made up of quaintly-styled colourful houses, good shopping, dining, and drinking, as well as numerous cultural venues. In the background are snow-topped mountains and a silvery-coloured ocean to complete the picture.
I highly recommend walking around Reykjavik, as most attractions are easily reached this way. The centre is divided into the central commercial district, the historic old district, and the harbour district. In the heart of the city is a man-made lake called Tjornin, sometimes called The Pond, with its collection of swans, geese, and other birds. The shores of the lake are used by walkers, runners, and cyclists and in the winter, it turns into a skating rink.
The best known major landmark is the Hallgrímskirkja Church, whose tower can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. The design is absolutely unique and will have you snapping pictures at first sight. The interior is somewhat stark and contains a large pipe organ. What I highly recommend is to either take the elevator or walk up the steps to the top of the church tower for amazing views of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains and ocean in all directions.
A striking and impressive building is the fairly new Harpa, which contains the Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre, and has been the recipient of the prestigious Mies Van der Rohe Award for architecture. It is the cultural and social centre of the city and from inside, offers stunning views of the surroundings. It is the home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera, and the Reykjavik Big Band – which all hold numerous concerts.
Definitely take a stroll around the quaint Old Harbour. Apart from it being a beautiful place to walk with stunning views across the bay, it is the centre of marine activities, and there are a number of museums, restaurants, and cafes in the area.
If you find yourself walking along the main drag, the Laugavegur, you are on one of the oldest shopping streets in Reykjavík. It is popular with both locals and visitors because of its excellent collection of prestigious shops and exclusive stores. In the evening, the street’s many bars, clubs, and restaurants open up and the area becomes quite lively. Another street to note is Skolavordustigur, one of Reykjavik’s most attractive. The street has charming old houses with stores and galleries. You can find everything from Icelandic design, souvenirs, craft shops, and cozy cafes.
Culturally, there are numerous museums and art galleries to fill up your time. My favourite is the National Museum of Iceland, which will certainly enlighten you about the making of the Icelandic nation and its history through fascinating exhibits from the days of Viking settlements to contemporary culture. The main exhibition has over 2,000 artifacts discovered in various parts of the country.
The Reykjavik Art Museum is Iceland´s largest art gallery and contains some of the most distinguished works in Iceland, with displays of both modern and contemporary art, paintings, sculptures, and works in different media by established local and international artists.
The rather unusual Icelandic Phallological Museum is probably the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammals found in one country. It is a serious study into the field of phallology in an organized, scientific fashion. A collection of more than two hundred penises and penile parts belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland are on display.
The Reykjavík Maritime Museum is housed in a former fish factory close to the old harbour. The museum’s varied exhibitions show the development of the Icelandic fishing industry and coastal culture through the years.
If you don’t get to see the Northern Lights naturally, as they can be elusive, head to the Northern Lights Centre, where you can learn about the beauty and facts about the Northern Lights through multimedia exhibits. However, I do recommend taking a chance on a night tour to outside the city to view them, as if you do, you will never forget the experience, as you continue on your European vacation.
I would like to recommend two excursions outside the city. The first is to the Blue Lagoon, which is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. It is a spa located just outside the city in a lava field and is a year-round open-air man-made lagoon where the temperatures of the mineral-rich waters are great for both medicinal purposes or swimming. The minerals are the main cause of the water’s milky blue shade.
The other excursion takes you to 3 of Iceland’s most popular attractions, the Gullfoss Waterfall and Strokkur Geysir – two areas of thermal activity in the form of spouting geysers, and Thingvellir National Park – home of the world’s oldest parliamentary site. Along the way, you will have an excellent idea of the wild side of the country.
Ljubljana: Slovenia’s Gem
I have heard it said that Ljubljana (pronounced Loobliana) in Slovenia has been compared favourably with the city of Salzburg in Austria. On my arrival here, I could definitely see why the comparison has been made. There is a dominating castle in the centre, located high on a hill overlooking the city. There is a similarity in the architecture of the older historic buildings. As well, Ljubljana has a charming river running through its midst. That’s not all, but perhaps as I go on, you might see more comparisons.
Two features here struck me as outstanding. The first is the aforementioned, Ljubljana Castle, most of which dates back to the 16th century and which literally seems to hang over the city centre on top of a hill highly visible from almost everywhere. To access the castle, you can take the funicular from the old town or one of the three main walking routes. Once up on the top of the hill, you will have fantastic panoramic views of Ljubljana. In the castle itself, there is a watchtower, a chapel, an interesting exhibition on Slovenian history, a Time Machine tour, a puppet theatre, and two restaurants.
The other outstanding feature is the very attractive Ljubljanica River which cuts right through the centre of the city. The new city and modern commercial core lies to the west of the river, while the old city and castle are located on the east side. Although not very wide, the river has charming character. This is mainly due to the tree-lined banks which have numerous open-air terraced restaurants and cafes where both the locals and visitors alike can relax and enjoy the beauty of their surroundings. At night, this is a lively scene. This colourful place is enhanced by a number of very unique and attractive bridges that straddle the river. The Triple Bridge consists of three separate picturesque bridges located next to one another. The Dragon Bridge is guarded by four dragon statues from the city’s coat-of-arms. There are several other bridges all equally different.
Immediately behind the river, sandwiched between it and the castle hill, is the old town, featuring well-preserved medieval buildings which house boutique shops and a number of restaurants and cafes. You can meander off the main street here and explore the narrow alleyways and lanes which can reveal something to admire, such as a small square or historic buildings.
Tivoli Park is Ljubljana’s largest and most beautiful park stretching right into the city centre. This extensive charming park offers tree-lined walks, ornamental flower beds, and numerous statues and fountains. There is also a promenade which has become a well-known outdoor venue for exhibitions of photographs.
When it comes to culture, Ljubljana has plenty to offer every interest. There is a delightfully designed opera house with regular performances of opera and ballet. For art lovers, there is the National Gallery of Slovenia, with permanent collections that include works of some of the best and most renowned Slovenian Impressionist painters.
The National Museum of Slovenia stores a rich collection of valuable objects. The oldest go back to the Stone Age. The permanent exhibition brings together objets d’arts from the 14th century to present day. The National Museum of Contemporary History in Tivoli Park is Slovenia’s 20th-century history museum which gives you a real sense of the country’s rollercoaster ride through time. The City Museum of Ljubljana I thought to be excellent. It focuses on Ljubljana’s history, culture, and politics via imaginative multimedia and interactive displays. There is a reconstructed street that once linked the Roman colony of Emona (today’s Ljubljana) to the Ljubljanica River.
One unusual neighbourhood is called Metelkova City. The best way I can describe this is to compare it to the San Francisco neighbourhood of Haight and Ashbury. It is a self-declared area for what you might term alternative youth culture, consisting of street art, bars, and clubs. It is fun to walk around and you can also visit two bona fide cultural centres here, the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova and the aforementioned National Museum of Slovenia.
You can take in the Sunday flea market in the centre as well as the lively daily open air Central Market which features a wide array of local produce as well as local cheeses, breads, and meats.
8-Day Flavours of Northern Croatia and Slovenia
Ireland ‘s Three Awesome Peninsulas
If you are looking for wild, rugged coastal scenery on your European vacation, South West Ireland offers this in abundance. There are 3 different peninsulas jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean which offer at least a full day each for private exploration or a group tour. All of them are accessible from either Killarney or the less commercial, Kenmare, the major centres in the region.
Ring of Kerry
Probably the best known peninsula is the Ring of Kerry, where you can enjoy not only spectacular beauty, but also discover ancient sites, stone forts, old monasteries, and several castles – all amid a landscape carved out of rock by the last Ice Age. The Ring is approximately 180 kilometres/112 miles in circumference, and the main route follows the coast around, encircled by scenic mountains and lakes with views everywhere of the ocean.
Consider stops at the laid-back village of Sneem, Staigue Fort, an imposing sight rising out of a desolate high valley. Also visit Derrynane House, once the home of Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s most influential pre-independence politician, two ring forts, Cahergal and Leacanabuaile, and the Kerry Bog Village Museum, which recreates a 19th Century bog village, typical of the small communities that carved out a precarious living in the harsh environment of Ireland’s ubiquitous peat bogs.
To the north of the Ring of Kerry is the Dingle Peninsula, which is about 48 kilometres/30 miles in circumference and must be driven in a clockwise direction. It is a mountainous peninsula containing Ireland’s second highest peak. The coastline consists of steep cliffs together with sandy beaches. The town of Dingle is traditionally Gaelic in character and has the claim to be the most western point in Ireland. This fishing port is quaint without even trying. Many pubs double as shops so you can enjoy a Guinness along with purchasing hardware items.
Once again, as you travel around the Dingle, you experience amazing panoramic views of the ocean. The dramatic Conor Pass is the highest mountain pass in Ireland. There are wonderful views here of the coastal cliffs. You can see Blasket Islands which lie off the west coast. They are famous for the literary and linguistic heritage of the former inhabitants. However, these remote islands have been uninhabited since the 1950s following an evacuation.
Parts of the Dingle are extremely bleak and godforsaken. Add to this, the pounding waves against the cliffs, and you see why this particular peninsula has character. There are places to consider for a stop. The Gallarus Oratory is a 1300 year-old stone church and a rare sight, as it stands on a lonely spot on the hills. There is also Gallerus Castle, built in the 15th century. Visit the Celtic & Prehistoric Museumm with its collection of prehistoric artifacts including a 40,000 year old cave bear skeleton.
The Beara Peninsula
The Beara Peninsula, located close to Kenmare, is totally tranquil and unspoiled – ideal for some quiet time to ponder on your European vacation. It is certainly less visited than either the Ring of Kerry or The Dingle. However, it offers just as much dramatic scenery with a number of skyscraping passes snaking over the mountainous terrain with awe-inspiring views of the surrounding countryside. It has two mountain ranges running down the centre, the Caha Mountains and the Slieve Miskish Mountains. The Beara Peninsula is 148 kilometres/92 miles around. However, you might want to cut inland and go over the dramatic Healey Pass which cuts across the peninsula from Adrigole to Lauragh.
The south side, along Bantry Bay, is a string of working fishing villages. The north side, in contrast, has only a few small hamlets dotted along craggy roads that wind in and out of the coast’s nooks and crannies. Many have fantastic views north to the mountains of Kerry. The entire north side is the scenic highlight of the Beara Peninsula, with a series of minor roads, often steep and twisting, which snake around the rugged coastline. Sometimes your only company along some stretches are flocks of sheep.
The largest town is Castletownbere, one of Ireland’s largest fishing ports. One highlight is Ireland’s only cable car, which can be taken from the tip of the peninsula out to tiny Dursey Island. The island can also be reached by a short ferry ride. Other attractions are the ruins of Dunboy Castle and Puxley Mansion, a 19th Century manor house, which are both near Castletownbere. Also see Dereen Gardens, which displays sub-tropical plants from around the world, as well as views of the sea and mountains, and the Allihies Copper Mine Museum. The highest waterfall in Ireland is the Mare’s Tail in Adrigole. Also, if you can imagine it, there are 511 historical sites, some dating back to 2000 B.C. that can be found, making it the location with one of the highest number of antiquities in one area in Ireland.
Choose one, choose all! You will be thrilled by the outstanding scenery of these three peninsulas!
While these are some of my European vacation favourites, no doubt you will discover your own, and hopefully make a return trip one day to this historically-rich continent.