Travel by Any Means Necessary

Tag: Europe

2023 Europe Trip Report Recap

Toledo at Night

Toledo at Night

Looking back on our summer vacation, it was a wonderful, whirlwind trip where we got to see many unique locations. We didn’t have much time at any of the stops and so many places have been added to me “must return” list.

The trip started with 12 days at sea on a cruise ship and it was a great, relaxing way to get to Europe. If you have the time and you enjoy being out at sea, I highly recommend it. And we really enjoyed our time on the Norwegian Getaway. It is a big ship with a lot of different places to eat and things to do. I really think Norwegian’s Breakaway class ships are my favorite cruise ships.


Furnas on Saõ Miguel Island

Our first taste of Europe was in Ponta Delgada, Azores which is a place many people have never heard of. The landscape was anything I had ever seen before and one day just wasn’t enough time. We saw beautiful coastlines and steaming hot springs. We had food cooked in the ground. We bought some tea that was grown on the island. It was an incredible experience and we have been watching flight prices to Ponta Delgada since we got home.

Madeira was a place that has been on my list for a while and the one day just wasn’t enough to see everything. There were beautiful vistas and delicious food. We barely scratched the surface. We will be back to ride the toboggan in Monte!

Shadows as the sun set at Ponto Final

We arrived at mainland Europe in Lisbon and it was hot (it got up to 90°F) and our Airbnb did not have air conditioning, but this didn’t stop us from exploring the city! We had three full days in Lisbon but I would love to go back and dig deeper. We did a wonderful food tour where we tried all the food of the city. I celebrated my birthday with one of the most amazing dinners on the water that I think about all the time (above). And we explored the unique city of Sintra and its colorful castle.

We took a train from Lisbon to Porto where it was much cooler. Our Airbnb was in a great location that was just steps from one of the city’s famous bridges. We took the most amazing tour of the Duoro Valley where we learned so much about the history of the region and got to try some amazing wines. I feel like we barely scratched the surface on Porto. We will have to return and take another trip to the Duoro as well!

Toledo (top) was probably the most historically and architecturally interesting place that we visited on this trip. Walking through the streets was like walking back to the 11th century. The cathedral was breathtaking and one of the most ornate churches I have ever seen. If you are planning time in Madrid, take a day trip to Toledo. It is worth it.

Royal Palace of Madrid

I complained about the heat in Lisbon, but it only got worse in Madrid. I feel like the heat (highs above 100° F) and the difficulty escaping it really color my memories of Madrid. Of all the places we visited on this trip, I don’t feel a draw to return to Madrid. Other places in Spain (Andalucia, Asturias, Barcelona, etc) are still on my list, though.

From one temperature extreme to the other, we barely scratched the surface of Iceland but what we saw really makes me want to go back. It was an amazing landscape, in some ways very similar to the Azores, and I would love the time (and money) to properly explore it.

Overall, this trip was very long but went by very quickly. It was amazing and life-changing and I want to do it again next summer! You will have to wait and see where we are off to next!

Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out Cruising the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain trip report. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

Wordless Wednesday: Icelandic Sheep

12 Hours in Iceland

Posing Sheep of Iceland

We ended our time in Europe with a twelve-hour layover in Keflavik, Iceland. Out of all the crazy things we did on our trip to Europe, when I look back on our trip, this is the one thing that doesn’t seem real. We had a night flight from Madrid to Iceland that was so strange because the later it got, the lighter it got outside as we got closer to Iceland. I think I mentioned in my last post that it was very hot on our last day in Madrid (101°F). It was hot in the airport and it was hot on the plane, so I was still wearing shorts and sandals when we landed and I was OK being cold (40°F) as we walked from the airport to a rental car agency at 2 am.

Something to know if you are planning on exploring Iceland a little during a long layover, all the rental car agencies that we looked into require you to pay for a minimum of two days. If you want to explore on your own it won’t be cheap. If you land during the day, there are shuttles that will take you to the famous Blue Lagoon if that is what you want to do on your layover. There are not many other options when you land at 2 AM. So, we got into our very expensive rental car and drove to our expensive, lackluster, hotel where we crashed for a few hours and took VERY hot showers before heading out to see as much of Iceland as we could before it was time to go back to the airport and finally head home.

Road going by Kleifarvatn Lake

Road going by Kleifarvatn Lake

We found a guided driving tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula on the free app Locatify SmartGuide. It took us around the volcanic features, lakes, and hot springs and told us about the geology as well the some of the local legends about trolls and fairies. Our first stop was an overlook on Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The interesting think about Kleifarvatn is that most of the water comes from underground. The water level has diminished greatly since the Icelandic Earthquakes of 2000.

Gunnuhver Hot Springs

Gunnuhver Hot Springs

Our next stop was the Gunnuhver Hot Springs, a collection of mud pots and steam vents with an intense sulfur smell that took me right back to the hot springs of Yellowstone. The name Gunnuhver comes from a local legend about an angry ghost, Gudrun, who legend says, was trapped in a hot spring by a local priest 400 years ago. Iceland’s largest mud pool can be found at Gunnuhver and unlike the other geothermal areas in Iceland, the groundwater is 100% saltwater which gives a different look to it.


Our next stop was Krýsuvíkurkirkja, a historic church (above). It was built in 1857 and closed in 1929 but has since been used as a residence until being transferred to the National Museum. The original church burned down in 2010 but it has since been rebuilt in the historic manner.

Bridge Between ContinentsOne of the final stops of the trip was at the bridge between the continents (left). This is the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart. Visitors can stand on a bridge separating the two plates. One side of the bridge has a sign that reads “Welcome to Europe” while the other says “Welcome to North America”. The giant fissure the bridge scales really drives home the tectonic theory that the plates are shifting a few centimeters each year.

After that, we headed back to the airport, dropped off our rental car, and flew home. Even though we got to the airport several hours early, we really didn’t wait around much at all. Since we were leaving the Schengen area (a group of 27 European countries where you don’t need to show your passport to cross their borders. This is the area that will be requiring a visa for Americans to visit at some point in the future) we had to go through passport control and additional security screenings. The boarding process was very complicated and involved multiple escalators and a bus to the plane. If you are flying out of Keflavik to a non-Schengen country, give yourself more time than you think you will need.

My one complaint about this experience is that Icelandair seems to be expanding its U.S. service faster than Keflavik Airport can support. It was very crowded in the area after passport control. There was only one set of bathrooms and one food option, but that seemed to be where all the people in the airport were. There weren’t even enough gates for all the flights. We had to be bussed out to our plane.

Overall, we had an amazing time in Iceland. I feel like we barely scratched the surface. If you are thinking about a trip to Iceland, be aware it is VERY expensive and it is not easy to convert Icelandic Kronas to U.S. Dollars in your head like it is with the Euro. The few meals we had there were pricey for what they were and the hotels were outrageous. The sights are unlike anything else I had ever seen, just make sure you budget appropriately for your time in Iceland or you may be in trouble.

Thanks for stopping by! This marks the end of my recap of our Cruising the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain trip report. Next week I will post a final recap, so keep your eyes out for that. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

Two Days in Madrid

Palacio de Madrid

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After our time in Toledo, we took an early train back to Madrid. Our flight wasn’t until the following evening so we had almost two full days to explore Spain’s Capitol.

We stayed in a boutique hotel near the Palacio de Madrid called Hotel Principio Pio which felt very similar to Hotel Per La in Los Angeles. One benefit to hotels when arriving at a destination early in the day is that often you are able to check in early. We arrived around 10 am and even though check-in wasn’t until 3 pm, our room was ready so we were able to set our bags down and relax a bit before we started to explore the city. I only really had two goals for our time in Madrid, the Prado Museum, and Palacio de Madrid. We decided to break them up and do one each day.

Plaza Mayor

Madrid’s Plaza Mayor

After settling into our hotel, we headed to the Prado. I was able to buy tickets online in advance which allowed up to skip the line. The Prado Museum is Spain’s premier art museum and is known to house one of the world’s finest collections of European art, especially Spanish art. Being my first visit to a European art museum, I enjoyed seeing new-to-me artists such as Goya, Francisco de Zurbarán, and El Greco. Probably one of my favorite parts of the museum was a special exhibit that showed the similarities between selected works of El Greco and Picasso. Picasso spent many hours in the museum in his youth and many of El Greco’s paintings were the inspiration for some of Picasso’s famous works. The Prado is also home to an older version of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I could’ve stared at it for hours comparing it to the most famous one. If you enjoy art and art museums, the Prado is a wonderful museum that you need to visit in your life. Wonderful guided tours of the Prado can be found on Viator.

We started our second day in Madrid with a guided tour of the Palacio de Madrid. While I was able to get tickets to the Prado a few days in advance, all the tickets to the Palace were booked up so, to see it, we had to book a private tour. In the end, I am glad I did because our tour guide explained a lot about the palace and the history of Spain that you wouldn’t get just by walking through. It did get crowded at times, but we had earpieces so we were able to hear her even if we were separated, which was really nice. More tours should invest in this equipment!

Lions on the stairs of the Royal Palace

Lions on the stairs of the Royal Palace

The Royal Palace of Madrid is the largest palace in Europe at 135,000 m2 (1,450,000 sq ft) and is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, although these days it is mostly only used for official functions. The palace is full of lavish furnishings and amazing Spanish art. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted in most of the palace so I don’t have any pictures to show you. One of the rooms that was open on our visit was the crown room where a rather simple-looking silver crown is on display. It is much less ornate than what I expected anyway and our tour guide explained that the Spanish “are not the British”. Overall, I highly recommend a guided tour of the Royal Palace and I had a great experience with Madrid walking Tour and Royal Palace Skip the Line tour on Viator. Combination tours of the Prado Museum and the Royal Palace are also available on Viator.

Architecture of Madrid

The Architecture of Madrid

After our tour of the Palace, we still had the whole day ahead of us and we had checked out of our hotel, so we booked a hop-on hop-off bus tour. This allowed us to get to see the rest of the city and enjoy the breeze from the top deck of the bus. From the bus, we learned more about Spanish history, including that in 1874 a military coup overthrew the monarchy of Spain. A dictator named Fransisco Franco ruled from 1939 to 1975. In 1969, he named Prince Juan Carlos (the grandson of the most recent king of Spain) as his successor. When Franco died, Juan Carlos transitioned the government from a dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy and his family still rules today. In 2014, Juan Carlos abdicated the throne and said “We do not want my son to wither waiting like Prince Charles.”

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to stop back next week as we fly to our final stop on the trip, Iceland. To read more about this trip, check out Cruising the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain trip report. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

One Day in Porto

Porto Cathedral

After a wonderful day touring the Douro Valley, the next day we did a tour of Porto. I found a walking tour on Similar to the free walking tour we did in Santa Barbara, the idea of these tours is that you pay nothing for the tour, and at the end, you tip your guide however much you deem appropriate. These tours are usually a fun way to get to know a city without breaking the bank.

Compared to Lisbon, the buildings in Porto are much older. The earthquake and fire of 1755 destroyed Lisbon but no such disaster has affected Porto. The Porto Cathedral (top) broke ground in 1110 AD.

São Bento Train Station AzulejosThe first stop on our tour was the São Bento train station which is home to beautiful Azujelo murals from the early 1900s (left). While looking at the murals, our tour guide told us the history of this building. Before it was a train station, the building used to be a convent. The city of Porto decided that they needed a train station so they took the building over, but they allowed the nuns to continue to live there until the last nun died. It was a while before it became a train station because the youngest nun in the convent was a child at the time. The building was transformed into a train station in 1893.

Our guide also detailed some of the less pleasant parts of their history. From 1933-1974 Portugal was under a dictatorship that separated them from the rest of the world. The dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for the name of the founder of Slytherin House), ruled the country, repressing the rights of the citizens until he died from falling off a chair. Democracy was restored through the Carnation Revolution only four years after his death.

Our guide also told us about the summer festival celebrating São João (St. John) that was coming up later that week (thus the decorations on the right). She explained that people flood the street during São João, grilling Sardines, and walk from the city to the ocean, hitting each other on the head with plastic hammers. I am sad that I missed what is known as Europe’s liveliest and least-known (outside of the city, of course) summer festivals. In the words of our Duoro tour guide, they celebrate summer and blame it on a saint.

Our tour ended with our guide serenading us with a traditional fado song. Fado music is a traditional Portuguese genre of music that dates back to the 1820s and is known for its mournful lyrics and tone. Saudade is a Portuguese word that captures this feeling of irrevocable loss that Fado embodies.  Later that day, we went to a Fado show at the Casa de Guitarra where we heard more of this music.

Port Barrels at Ferreira

That afternoon, we headed across the river to Villa Nova da Gaia to visit one of the famous port wine cellars we heard about on both our tour of the Duoro and of Porto. We chose to tour Ferreira because they are a historic port producer owned by a Portuguese family (most big port producers are British for some reason). It was interesting seeing how a big company differed from the smaller producers we toured in the Duoro. Of course, our tour ended with a port wine tasting. If you have a short time in Porto, this is a good way to get an understanding of the importance of Port. If you have more time, I recommend a tour of the Duoro instead of touring a port cellar. They are very similar experiences and I much preferred our full-day in the Duoro.

Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out Cruising the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain trip report. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

One Day on São Miguel Island – Azores

Azorean Beach

Azorean Beach

After seven days at sea on the Norwegian Getaway, we arrived at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island in the Azores. The Azores are a group of islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that are an autonomous region of Portugal. Because of its location in the middle of the Atlantic, Ponta Delgada is a common port of call on transatlantic cruises. I booked the Furnas Crater Lake Small Group Tour for the day on and I have to say, it was one of the best shore excursions I have ever taken. When they say small group, there were only six of us, and with such a small group, our guide was able to take us to spots where the big tour buses from the ship just couldn’t go.

Nossa Senhora da Paz

Our tour guide met us at the port with a sign with my name on it which is something I’ve seen in movies but have never experienced myself before. The two of us and one other family loaded into a van and we headed out to explore the island. Our first stop was at a black sand beach where we could feel the volcanic sand (top), although it was a little chilly for a swim. Our next stop was at Nossa Senhora da Paz, which is a chapel to Our Lady of Peace. According to the plaque on the wall of the chapel, a statue of Mary was found on the hill and it was given to a priest who put it in a church. The next day, the statue was found on the hill so they began to build a chapel to store it. Later that night the foundation of the chapel was moved to a place nearby, where the chapel is standing today. The chapel itself is beautiful and the view from the top is breathtaking.

Caldeira Das Furnas

Caldeira Das Furnas

cozido das furnas

Cozido das furnas

Our next stop was Caldeira Das Furnas which is a park with hot springs on Furnas Lake. The walkways with the bubbling hot springs and mud pots around them reminded us a lot of Yellowstone.  The biggest difference between Furnas and Yellowstone is that in Furnas, they use these geothermal features to cook. One area of the park has big holes where local restaurants put a giant pot of Cozido das Furnas (a traditional Azorean dish) in the ground to cook for six hours. While we were there, we watched the chefs pull their pots out of the ground to take back to their restaurants for lunch. Of course, we wanted to try it so our tour guide made us a reservation at a local restaurant, Já Se Sabe, so we could try food cooked underground. We had a little bit of time to kill before our reservations so we drove to an area with more hot springs, some natural springs where we could drink bubbling water right out of the ground, and a snack bar that served corn on the cob.

Furnas Lake

Furnas Lake

After lunch, we hiked up a hill to see Furnas Lake from above and to burn off some of the calories from lunch. It was great being so high up and seeing where we were earlier in the day. From there we headed to Gorreana Tea Factory, an Azorean tea plantation where we saw how tea is processed and got to sample some of the teas they make. Their tea was delicious and we brought some home for ourselves and as gifts. This is the first time in the day that we encountered crowds. It was so full in the tasting room that there was no place to sit, so we sampled some tea and headed to our next stop.

Miradouro de Santa Iria

Santa Iria Overlook

Next, we got to see the north coast of São Miguel to the Santa Iria overlook. This was a nice place to stand and watch the waves crash against the cliffs for a little while.

Lagoa do Fogo

Lagoa do Fogo

Our final stop of the tour was at Lagoa do Fogo which is a crater lake in the center of São Miguel island. One of the people in our group said they booked this tour for this view because she saw a picture of it on her Windows login screen. Our tour guide took us to the top of a hill to get this viewpoint that the big tour buses couldn’t get. From where we were sitting we saw the buses down below and all the people walking around and we had this view practically to ourselves. It was a pretty awe-inspiring moment and I would say, one of the best of the whole trip.

We had a wonderful day seeing the sites on São Miguel, but we really only saw half of the island. I would love to go back and spend more time exploring this island and the rest of the Azores. One thing I hope you get from reading this is how amazing third-party shore excursions can be. I am so glad we chose this small group tour where we could escape the crowds and try typical Azorean food.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to check back next week when I recap our day in Madeira! To read more about this trip, check out Cruising the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain trip report. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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Cruising the Atlantic to Portugal and Spain

Cruise Ship in Ponta Delgada

We are back from another crazy, life-changing trip! This time we spent 12 nights at sea sailing from Florida to Portugal. When we arrived on land, we explored Lisbon, Porto, Toledo, Madrid, and Reykavik getting around by train, plane, and boat. This trip involved four separate flights on four different airlines. Here is a sneak peek at what is to come over the next few months:

Day 1: Orlando

Day 2: Board Norwegian Getaway in Port Canaveral

Day 3: Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas

Day 10: Ponta Delgada, Azores

Day 12: Funchal, Madeira

Day 14-16: Lisbon Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

Day 16: Sintra

Day 17: Douro Valley

Day 18-21: Porto

Day 21-23: Toledo

Day 23-24: Madrid

Day 25: Reykjavik

Norwegian Getaway Review

Trip Recap

The trip alternated between a relaxing week at sea without much to do and jam-packed days exploring European cities. We saw many historic sites and beautiful churches. We tried some of the most amazing food of my life and drank some delicious wine. Without much time at each place, we got a feel for many of our stops without really being able to see and do everything so many of these places have been added to our “must return” list for future travels.

Thanks for stopping by! To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! For my list of gadgets to make your travels easier, click here. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

French Mountain Memories

Sun in the Mountains

When I was in High School I had the opportunity of a lifetime to travel to Europe for a month with a group of musicians with Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. We traveled around France, Germany, and Belgium in a double-decker bus pulling a trailer that must have just screamed “American Tourists!” That trip was 10 years ago this summer and I think it sparked that travel bug in me. I can’t wait to get back to Europe!

This photo was taken at a park in the French Alps with a disposable camera. While this may not be the best photo I’ve ever taken, it proves that you don’t have the nicest camera to take good pictures. I believe that a good photographer in a beautiful location will give you a stunning picture.

Thanks for stopping by! If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page, follow me on Instagram, and Flickr!

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