April 12, 2016 – Toronto

Dear world,

I am writing from our little apartment on the Danforth, with a cat fast asleep on (yes, on top of) my right arm and Dario curled up on my other side.

We flew home last night after two final days of once-in-a-lifetime moments and take-your-breath-away views, and enough fresh air to leave my cheeks a little sun burnt and wind swept.

We woke up early Sunday morning and had breakfast together before Dario headed off to pick up our rental car. I stayed back at the apartment to pack lunches for the day and write a little bit.

After about an hour, Dario burst through the door and we set out in a little red Suzuki, which I dubbed “Bjorn.”

IMG_2202_2

We drove out of the city and onto Route 1, also known in Iceland as the “Ring Road” because it circles around the island.

The road takes you out of the city and up through a mountain pass, which is still snowy at this time of year, then down towards the ocean.

We turned off at a roundabout in the little town of Hveragerdi, the same place where we’d stopped for coffee on our Golden Circle tour, and Dario turned up towards the mountains.

A few minutes later we hit a short stretch of gravel road and pulled over into a parking lot at the base of the peaks.

Reykjadalur Hike

From there, we hiked for just over an hour up into the mountains. The first stretch took us upwards past bubbling geothermal pools and streams with steam rising off of them.

IMG_2194_2

It’s still early spring in Iceland and most of the grasses are yellow after spending the winter smothered by snow. But on the edges of the volcano-warmed creeks, the grass was green and healthy.

Large patches of snow and ice lingered near the top of the mountain, slowly melting away in the sunshine. This left much of the trail muddy and wet and we slipped and squelched our way to our destination.

IMG_0744

Near the end of the hike there was a series of steaming hot springs, creating such thick, sulphuric clouds that we couldn’t see more than a metre or two ahead of us.

But once we cleared that section we were greeted with a warm little stream, ringed by a simple wooden boardwalk where hikers could eat their lunch before dipping into the water.

Hot springs

There was a tour group just packing up when we arrived, so we decided to venture further upstream where it was quieter and more secluded.

We picked a relatively dry patch of grass near a picturesque bend in the stream and ate our sandwiches and bananas, and then stripped down to our bathing suits, shivering in the mountain air.

IMG_2199

I hopped down to the water, eager to soak off the goosebumps rippling along my limbs, and dipped a foot in, then immediately pulled it back. It was scalding hot!

Dario took the plunge and sat down in the water, grimacing as his skin adjusted to the burning hot stream, and then yelling an optimistic “Well…it’s not that bad if you keep your feet above the surface.”

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

I took my time and eased into the stream, and once I was sitting shoulder-deep it did feel sort of relaxing.

We spent a few minutes sitting like that, then stood up to feel the deliciously cold breeze against our heated skin.

After a couple times going through that routine, however, we’d just about had enough and headed back towards our stuff, feeling a little disappointed that we hadn’t been able to enjoy the hot water long enough to bathe in it the way the hikers down by the boardwalk had.

We grabbed our bags and clothing and walked back towards the dock, which was quieter now that the tour group had left, and decided to give the water one more try.

I eased my foot in, hesitantly, and then realized just how stupid we’d been. It wasn’t until that moment that I noticed a small creek of cold water running intersecting with the large hot stream, making the designated swimming water the perfect warm-bath temperature.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

I called Dario over and he hopped in and we spent a blissful stretch of time floating in the warm current, the sun on our closed eyelids.

So, lesson of the day: stick to the marked swimming areas.

I could have stayed in the water all afternoon, but we had more adventuring to do so we pulled ourselves out into the chilly air and hastily got dressed and hiked back down to where Bjorn was parked.

IMG_2200

The ocean at Thorlakshofn

We drove back through Hveragerdi and when we hit the main roundabout we decided to take the road towards the ocean.

This led us down a long, empty stretch of highway flanked by farm fields leading out to the water on one side and dark cliffs on the other.

We had no set destination, only the vague idea that we’d like to get closer to the water, so we made a couple more turns in that direction and ended up in a small town called Thorlakshofn.

We drove out past some farms, then pulled Bjorn over onto a little patch of gravel and hopped out and walked towards the water. We scrambled over some black volcanic rock and then, suddenly, the view gave way to a large stretch of black sand and rock and the ocean waves pounding at its base.

And we were the only two souls in sight.

IMG_2203_2

We stood for a moment, spellbound by the view and the crashing waves and the feeling of the salt air and sunshine stinging our cheeks, and I thought, “This is one of those moments…”

One of those moments when you realize why you travel. Because the world is so huge and beautiful and we are so small. And because there’s something about the fact that I will never see or feel or know it all that makes me want to explore and experience everything I can.

We hopped over tide pools and I scooped up a handful of black sand just to feel this place in my fingers, and then we walked back to the car and drove back to Reykjavik and made dinner and drank a couple beers and lay down in bed, feeling exhausted in that satisfying way you feel after a day of fresh air and exercise and happiness.

IMG_2214

What was supposed to be a half-hour nap turned into a three-hour slumber and we woke up just after midnight. I rolled over and whispered, “Oh no…”

We’d planned to head out at 9:30 to try and spot the Northern Lights while we still had the car. Despite the late hour, we got up, rubbed our eyes, and decided to give it a go.

Night drive

We drove through the empty streets, trying to get away from the city lights in the hope of spotting the Aurora. First we drove south, towards the airport, but the road was bordered by bright street lights so we turned around and drove back to Route 1.

We could make out clouds overhead and didn’t see any stars, but we hoped for a lucky break in the cover.

As we left the city behind us, however, there were no Northern Lights to be seen.

We drove in the direction of the mountains, into the blackest night I’ve ever experienced. I knew that, somewhere not too far ahead of us, there were towering, snow-capped peaks, but I couldn’t see anything beyond Bjorn’s high beams.

Eventually we turned around, sleepy and satisfied that at least we’d tried instead of just going back to sleep. Back at the apartment we packed our bags and went back to bed for four hours, before our alarms went off and we rose for our final day away.

April 11, 2016 – Blue Lagoon

We ate some breakfast and then Dario dropped me and our luggage off at the bus station while he went to return the car.

I sat and read an interesting magazine article about Syrian refugees arriving in Iceland (After public pressure the country has agreed to raise its refugee quota and welcomed a family of eight in February.) We actually flew in with a family that we believed were refugees. The mother and father had a new baby and a young son, and an Icelandic woman was travelling with them and kept asking if they were okay and if they knew where to go on the plane, etc.

Dario soon arrived at the bus station and we bought a sandwich for later and then boarded our bus to the Blue Lagoon, which is in a lava field between Reykjavik and the airport.

The Blue Lagoon is possibly Iceland’s most famous attraction, and for good reason. The lagoon is filled with milky-blue salt water that filters up through hot volcanic rock to create large, steaming pools in the middle of the moss-covered lava fields.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

Bacteria doesn’t grow in the unique mineral content of the water, and the pools naturally regenerate every 40 hours, so chlorine isn’t necessary to keep the swimming areas clean. What is present in the water is large quantities of ashy-silicone, which is gathered into large tubs so that guests can use it for natural face masks.

The facility also has steam rooms and saunas heated by  geothermal activity.

We spent more than two hours bathing in the steaming water, sauna-hopping, and slathering silicone on each others’ laughing faces.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

By the end our muscles and limbs were loose and we both felt fresh and content (and about ready for a long nap.)

Instead, we dried off and ate our sandwich and then boarded our bus to the airport, where we breezed through security and then killed time finding out exactly how much food we could buy with our leftover Icelandic kronas (two sandwiches, one water, a Fanta, and a small can of Pringles).

And now, we are home. Back to reality, but also not quite.

I have only three days here in Toronto to pack my suitcases and get ready for the next big adventure: moving to Vancouver.

For today, however, Dario and I are taking it easy and enjoying the feeling of being home.

We spent the morning lazing around, sleeping off our jet lag, eating oatmeal in bed, and talking about the incredible trip we’ve had and all the new experiences and information we’ve gained…and about how lucky we are to be able to look forward to more exploring and adventures in the future.

Lots of love,

Emily

April 10, 2016 – Reykjavik

Dear world,

We had such an amazing day yesterday.

We woke up to beautiful sunshine and packed our bags for our Golden Circle day trip. The Golden Circle is a sort of standard first-time-in-Iceland tour that takes you away from the coast to the country’s interior, through landscapes that show off some of the best that Iceland has to offer: waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes and valleys cracked in two by shifting tectonic plates.

Our route took us through snowy mountain passes, across the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and then through farmland to the thundering Gullfoss waterfall. We stopped for lunch near Geysir, the grandfather of all geysers, and then we drove through the incredible Thingvellir National Park, a historic site with spectacular views.

Along the way we stopped periodically to snap photos of volcanic mountains and extra waterfalls, and to pet shaggy Icelandic ponies by the side of the road.

Our group was small and our guide was extremely knowledgeable, both about the natural and geological phenomena around us and the history of the country.

One of the most striking things about Iceland for me is the lack of large trees. Since the mid-century, our guide explained, locals have been planting millions of trees, hoping to grow enough to eventually produce their own lumber.

But much of the landscape we travelled through yesterday was only recently (as in, since the last ice age) covered in lava, and doesn’t have enough top soil to support large plant growth. For now, moss is the only plant that can take hold there, since it doesn’t have to grow deep roots like trees.

Over time, the moss will decompose and sand and dirt will blow into the area and it will become fertile for small, scrubby Icelandic birch trees, and, potentially, other plants, our guide said. But that won’t happen within any of our lifetimes.

It’s because of this slow, fragile growth, our guide said, that locals are so protective of moss. It could take 50 or more years for a rock to become covered in moss, and if a tourist steps on it and kills it in one go, it sets the natural process back dramatically.

“Icelanders, in general, are mild mannered people,” he told us. “But if you want to see one get really angry really quick, step on a moss-covered rock.”

The result of all this is a series of stunning, almost alien landscapes completely void of big trees. And at the edge of these moss-covered stretches: mountains.

Iceland is actually an extension of an underwater mountain range formed at the edge of two tectonic plates, and everything here has been formed by volcanoes and earthquakes.

The geysers spout 100 degree Celsius water heated by underground lava (Strokkur, the most active geyser we saw, shoots this sulphuric water up to ten metres into the air every five to ten minutes).

Lava also heats the hot springs that provide electricity and heating for most Icelanders. The hot water in the taps smells of sulphur and is heated by volcanoes, while the cold water comes from glaciers.

The very word Reykjavik comes from the volcano-powered steam. The name translates to “smoky bay,” our guide said, a reference to the vapour rising off the plentiful hot springs in the area.

Perhaps the most striking part of our tour was Thingvellir park.

Ringed by volcanoes and home to the largest natural lake in Iceland, the park straddles the line between the tectonic plates. In the heart is a deep rift valley, filled with black pumice covered in moss.

The tectonic plates move apart at an average of two centimetres a year, our guide told us, but this doesn’t mean they gently separate. Rather, they tend to violently pull apart in an earthquake every few decades or even centuries, moving metres at a time.

This has left jagged cliffs on either side of the valley, and rocks striped with waving horizontal lines, revealing the tides of lava that poured out to form the ground beneath your feet.

We had about an hour to wander the park and walk up to the rock where historians believe Iceland’s first parliament of chieftains used to meet every summer to set laws for the regions around the island.

To get there, we crossed a bridge over some of the clearest, purest water I’ve ever seen. In fact, our guide said, the location is popular with scuba divers who enjoy views of up to 100 metres through the water.

To demonstrate, our guide dropped a coin over the edge of a bridge (after clarifying that it was, indeed, legal to do so) and we watched it spin down to the bottom for nearly 30 seconds.

Both Dario and I dozed on the bus trip back to the city, exhausted by the fresh air and wealth of information we’d inhaled over the course of the eight-hour tour.

We came back to freshen up and then headed out for dinner.

Because the prices are so crazy here we agreed to splurge on one nice dinner out and cook for ourselves the other nights, and last night we made good on our promise. We ate at a cosy gastropub near the centre of the city, indulging in some local beer and a really delicious meal of lobster soup and duck salad, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and slices of blood orange.

Today is our last full day of this trip and we’ve rented a car for some adventuring outside the city. It is sunny and gorgeous outside. The kind of day that makes you feel so happy to be alive.

Love,

Emily

 

April 8, 2016 – Reykjavik

Dear world,

It is a cold and drizzly day in Reykjavik and we are taking it easy before our final few days of outdoor adventuring.

Dario is fast asleep beside me, tucked in for an afternoon nap, and I am lying in bed listening to the wind whipping outside.

We had a lazy morning, sleeping in and fixing breakfast and then crawling under the covers again to watch Silver Linings Playbook. Outside it was damp and chilly, hovering around zero degrees, and we felt happy to hide out for a few hours.

Eventually we gathered the courage to venture outside and walked through town to the Loki Café, a little yellow restaurant right across from the church we visited yesterday.

Dario ordered the “Iceland Braveheart” meal, which featured samples of dried fish and butter, thick home-made rye bread and butter, flat bread, the infamous fermented shark meat and a shot of Brennivin, a liquorice liquor that is popular here.

I had the traditional meat stew and a slice of rye bread thickly spread with butter and lamb pate, and tea on the side.

I liked both my dishes — the soup was hearty and the bread moist and sweet — but the verdicts were mixed on Dario’s adventurous lunch. The fish didn’t taste like much and the texture was chewy and leathery, meanwhile the shark smelled overwhelmingly of fermentation, had the texture of sashimi, and tasted…well, about how you’d imagine rotten shark would taste.

Still, Dario says the shark is popular here, where locals enjoy it between shots of Brennivin, and we were happy that we tried the dish, even if our taste buds weren’t Icelandic enough to properly appreciate it.

After lunch we wandered back through the rain, making a stop at the grocery store to buy some fresh local salmon for dinner tonight and some chocolate just because.

I called home and chatted for a while with Mum, finding it hard to believe that in just one week I’ll be moving to Vancouver and enjoying a very different set of mountains and ocean.

How did I get so lucky?

Emily

April 7, 2016 – Reykjavik

Dear world,

The wind is literally whistling outside, rushing down our quiet street and whipping against the white picket fence.

Luckily, we are inside, engulfed in our clean, white duvet covers and tucked in for a quiet night. In a way, the gales blowing off the North Atlantic just make our little shelter here feel even cosier.

I woke up at about 7:30 a.m. this morning and peeked out our window to find a perfectly cloudless blue sky.

Lured by the sunshine and nearby ocean, I slipped out for a walk while Dario slept in, bringing his camera along as I set out for the sea.

I walked the short half a block to the coast, where a barrier of black volcanic rock protects a winding seawall from the spray of waves. From there, I strolled aimlessly through the old harbour and up a series of side streets.

The sun was low and pale in the sky and the mountains still had a bit of a haze in front of them, obscuring their peaks. But it wasn’t too cold and I soon found myself peeling off my Canadian-winter coat and heavy scarf.

By the time I got back to the apartment Dario was awake and we fixed coffee and tea, toast, jam, and thick Icelandic yogurt for breakfast.

There is something so civilized about having the time to sit down and enjoy breakfast. After a year of leaving the house at 6 a.m. in order to make it to work for early morning shifts, it felt luxurious to sit and chat and plan out our day.

After breakfast we made our way into town. It’s only about a ten minute walk from here to downtown and maybe another twenty minutes from one end of downtown to the other.

We stretched out the experience, however, popping into souvenir shops and admiring little “kaffi and te” shops.

We walked to the towering Lutheran church that overlooks the city and bought some tickets to go up the tower and get a view of the city.

As we rode the elevator up the eight stories to the top of the iconic tower, Dario commented on just how different the Church of Hallgrimur is from a place like Notre Dame.

Construction on the Icelandic church started in the mid-1900s but it wasn’t opened until the 1980s.

Hallgrimer is stark and white, its architecture striking in its simplicity. Nothing is ornamented or adorned in any way.

IMG_2167

At the top of the tower we looked out at the city: little streets of colourful houses, hemmed in by a grey-blue ocean and mountains. There were a few panels with information on the poet and preacher for whom the church is named, and the history of Christianity in Iceland.

According to one of the blurbs of information, some of Iceland’s earliest inhabitants were Christians brought over by the Vikings as captives or slaves or wives. So from the country’s very beginning there was a combination of Christianity and Paganism.

Eventually, however, the divided faiths began to split the population, and the country’s leaders met in the year 1,000 discuss whether the country should break up into separate nations. Instead, the leaders decided to unite the country under Christianity and Icelanders officially adopted the faith.

Today, the church said, the vast majority of Icelanders identify as Christian.

After admiring the view, Dario and I descended and walked back to our apartment, making a stop at a local music store to pick up a souvenir for his cousin.

Iceland has a very distinct and strong musical culture and has exported a number of now-famous musicians, including Sigur Ros and Of Monsters and Men. There is also a very popular annual music festival here called Iceland Airwaves.

Back at our apartment we had a little snack and read a little bit and Dario got on the computer to do some research. After seeing just how small Reykjavik really is we’ve decided to book a car on Sunday so we can get out of the city and do some exploring.

We lounged for the rest of the afternoon, reading and napping, and then Dario dashed out to pick up some groceries and we roasted a big casserole dish full of potato and cauliflower and onion and sausage, all drizzled with olive oil and salt and a spoonful of dijon.

We spent the evening curled up on the couch, watching YouTube videos and eating our hearty dinner as, outside, the wind picked up pace.

Tomorrow it is supposed to rain and we plan to seek shelter in a café recommended by the Icelandair staff for serving authentic local dishes, including fermented shark and traditional meat stew.

Good night,
Emily

April 6, 2016 – Reykjavik

Dear world,

We left Paris this morning and our cramped little apartment there already seems like something out of another lifetime.

After I last wrote we headed out to meet with Madi and her partner for an evening drink in the 6th arrondissement. We had planned to split a couple large hot chocolates at a swanky location where Hemmingway used to spend time, but when the manager turned his nose up and insisted it was a one-drink-per-person establishment we opted to move onto a small bar down the street and drink wine instead.

We had a lovely evening chatting about life and travel and even journalism, until Madi had to head to bed before her morning class. Dario and I walked back to our side of the Seine, stopping for a couple Nutella and banana crepes at a nearby stand.

In sharp contrast to the snooty manager at the earlier café, the friendly crepe-maker here chatted us up, asking where we were from and teaming up with Dario to laugh at my poor attempts at French. He invited me behind the counter and let me try my hand at flipping a crepe, and then insisted Dario join me back there for a photo.

IMG_2148

We left him a tip and walked away laughing and cradling our warm crepes in our hands, happy for the reminder that most people we’ve met on this trip have been warm and kind and welcoming.

On our last day in Paris we took the metro to the Père Lachaise cemetery, where Oscar Wilde is buried alongside a number of other famous names, including Jim Morrison and Eugene Delacroix.

It was surprisingly beautiful there. After our initial days of rain, spring seemed to have truly arrived in Paris by our final day there, and the sun was warm and gentle.

We strolled along cobblestone streets through a maze of crumbling headstones and sepulchres. Birds sang. Buds hung from the trees, looking ready to flower or burst into leaves at any moment. It was all much more picturesque than it was morbid.

We found Oscar Wilde’s tomb, which was once decorated in red-lipstick prints from his many admirers, but is now surrounded by plexi glass and a notice from the City of Paris asking visitors not to mark or damage the tomb.

From the cemetery we took the metro back to Montmatre for another walk around one of our favourite neighbourhoods in the city. We were tired when we first visited the area, but this time we took our time seeking out scenes to photograph and ducking into little shops.

We stumbled across the Moulin Rouge in Pigalle, then doubled back and allowed ourselves to be lured into a boulangerie with a sign on the window claiming it had won an award for baking Paris’ best baguette in 2016.

We stood on a street corner and each ate half a baguette topped with cheese and tomato and herbs before continuing our wandering.

Eventually we headed back to the area around the Assemblée Nationale. From there we walked along the river, taking more photos and browsing the outdoor stalls selling a combination of vintage books, prints, and cheesy souvenirs.

We took a short rest at the apartment before gathering the strength and appetite to head back out to L’Oie qui Fume, the little restaurant Mum and Dad had recommended.

On our way we stopped into Shakespeare and Company, a famous English language bookshop near the river. Realizing we hadn’t gotten ourselves any Paris souvenirs, we decided to pick up one of the bookshop’s mystery boxes.

For a 7 euro donation to charity, the store offers sealed boxes containing one book, a postcard and a bookmark. We purchased one and then sat on a bench to open it up and pour over the aged red volume inside: Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

From there, we walked to the restaurant feeling a little giddy over our spontaneous purchase, the romantic Seine and the perfect golden-hour lighting. I grabbed Dario’s hand and said “Something about this evening feels kind of…magical.”

At the restaurant I enjoyed one last bowl of French onion soup, a decadent baked tartiflette — basically potatoes, cream sauce, onion and bacon — and chocolate mousse for dessert. And a one more glass of red wine.

We took the long way back, overshooting our apartment and doubling back by the river. Then it was upstairs to pack and clean up the apartment, feeling a little nostalgic about it all.

This morning we woke up at about 9 a.m. and went out in search of breakfast before heading to the airport. We grabbed quiche and a pain au chocolat and sat out in the sun to eat our final Paris meal.

Then it was back to the apartment and underground to catch a train out to the airport.

After about a three-hour flight, we landed in Iceland.

We picked up our bags and walked out into the fresh, crisp air. When we passed through here a week and a half ago there was snow on the tarmac, but by today the ground was clear and the temperature about 7 degrees Celsius.

It was about an hour-long shuttle bus ride to get from the airport to Reykjavik, and we pressed our noses to the windows the entire way, taking in the lava fields dotted with ash-green moss clinging to black volcanic rock, the grey North Atlantic and the glacier-topped mountains.

By the time we pulled into the bus terminal in the city, Dario had figured out that it would only be a two kilometre walk to get to our Airbnb, so we headed out into the drizzle in search of our accommodations.

A few impossible-to-pronounce Icelandic streets later, we turned up a side street and I patted Dario’s arm and said “Oh, look how adorable that little green house with the white fence is!” And then, to my delight, he said “I think this is it!”

IMG_2159

We were told that our keys would be waiting in a green mailbox, but since we didn’t see one of those, Dario tried the door. It was unlocked — a sure sign of just how friendly and trusting Icelanders are. He backed out when he realized he’d walked into somebody’s kitchen, but we soon located the mailbox around the back of the house and easily entered our charming Reykjavik apartment.

We are so in love with this little city and our temporary home here. Despite being partially underground, our apartment is big and bright with white walls and simple, tasteful furniture. Our host, Bjorn, is a local radio journalist who lives with his family upstairs. The ocean is half a block away and downtown is only a ten minute walk.

We went into the city briefly to find an ATM and wonder at the stunning views from the old harbour, the adorable coloured homes and winding cobblestone roads, and to gasp in slight dismay at just how much everything costs. Even simple restaurants here seem to charge the equivalent of at least $30 for a meal here, and we saw a number advertising what worked out to be $80 specials.

Luckily there is a grocery store nearby and our kitchen here is well equipped, so we picked up some supplies and headed back for a cozy night in. Dario cooked up some pasta and we split a couple of beers and talked about how much we love this place already.

IMG_2155

It is just so different from Paris in every way – climate, culture, architecture, landscape, language and people, and I feel so lucky to be able to experience both amazing places, and to have Dario here with me.

He is fast asleep beside me though and I think it’s just about time for me to follow suit.

Good night,

Emily

April 4, 2016 – Paris

Dear world,

It is our second-to-last evening in this city. Only one full day left here and we are already halfway through our trip… how time flies!

We spent the day a little outside of the core of the city yesterday, wandering the opulent rooms and extensive gardens of Versailles.

We started the morning by picking up pastries and freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast and purchasing a picnic-feast on our way to the train station, then boarded a regional train that took us to the suburb where Versailles is located.

Today, the lavish palace where multiple generations of France’s royal family once hosted court stands as a stunning reminder of just how extravagant the monarchy was.

We picked up little handheld speakers and took an audio tour around the king’s chambers, through countless rooms named after Roman gods, every inch of every surface embellished with gold highlights and crown moulding and silk embroidery, every ceiling a masterpiece painting.

We strolled through the famous Hall of Mirrors, with its wall of glass reflecting the rows of chandeliers and windows overlooking the gardens, and peered under the brocade canopy suspended over the king’s bed, where he would perform ceremonies every morning and night in front of an intimate audience of courtiers.IMG_2147

Across the way, we visited a remodelled area of the palace adorned with paintings of revolutionary leaders and a grand hall flanked by murals of French military victories. We paused in front of the painting of Jeanne d’Arc and then ducked downstairs to tour the “mesdames” rooms which once housed the unmarried daughters and sisters of the king.

After soaking in the history and taking a moment to imagine each room at the height of its indulgent glory, we went outside and into the gardens.

We strolled the central promenade, past gilt fountains and up to the “grand canal,” where Sunday picnickers were happily rowing themselves around in rented boats. Then we made a space for ourselves on a bench near the Apollo fountain and unpacked our backpack-full of delicacies: baguettes, cheese, tomatoes, salami, pickled artichoke hearts and a small jar of fish roe, two half-bottles of wine and a side of chips, just for good measure.

By this time the sun had emerged and we soaked in the daylight with a hunger only possible after having spent a painful winter in eastern Canada.

At 3:30 p.m. the fountains turned on and we watched Apollo spout water out of his conch shell, then we went for a little stroll through one of the hedge mazes off to the side of the fountains. We weaved through the bushes, stumbling upon dancing music coming from hidden speakers, pale statues, and trees boasting newly-blossomed spring flowers.

After a few hours in the garden it was time to call it a day and we made our way back to the train. I was hit with instant exhaustion when I sat down (a feeling I realize now was probably the result of stupidly drinking half a bottle of wine while still on painkillers for my sore throat). I passed out for the entire journey back into the centre of the city, and fell into to bed as soon as we got back to the apartment.

Four hours later, I woke in a bit of a haze to a worried Dario hovering over me, checking to make sure I was okay.

I sat up and sipped some water and determined that I was, indeed, okay. And hating to waste another minute inside when we could be out there, we pulled on our jackets and set off into the evening.

We wandered through the 5th arrondissement up to a little student hangout we noticed a couple nights ago called Au P’tit Grec. A line stretched down the cobblestone street outside the open-air eatery, and satisfied customers stumbled away from the stand with gigantic wraps as big as my head clutched in their hands.

After a short wait we placed our own orders for two galettes, stuffed with country ham, gooey cheese, potato, lettuce, and tomato. Dario declared it “one of the best things” he’d ever eaten, and he happily polished off my leftovers when I admitted defeat three quarters of the way through the meal.

By the time we polished our dinner off with a Nutella and banana crepe, it was nearly midnight and we made our way back to the apartment by moonlight.

We slept in this morning. Now that we’re through with our four-day museum pass there’s some more flexibility for wandering and dozing and less need to rush from one tourist hotspot to the next.

By the time we set out for a coffee and croissant and a visit to the doctors’ (I’m still sick) it was almost 11 a.m., but we’d no sooner validated our metro tickets than we realized I was sans ID. So, both feeling a little grumpy, we turned around and walked back to the apartment and up the seven flights of stairs to grab my health card and try again.

It was past noon by the time we finally found the doctors’ office and got in line to see the receptionist and I was feeling anxious at the idea of wasting an entire day inside a clinic. But we were both pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the French healthcare system.

Within 45 minutes we were in and out, a prescription in hand. The doctor took one quick glance at my throat before decisively saying “Ah, oui, oui, oui” and diagnosing me with what Dario translated to “a white infection.” And it only cost me 23 Euros (back when I only had B.C. healthcare, I used to get charged $70 to visit an Ontario clinic)!

We were finished the whole doctors’ business by 1:30 p.m. and feeling both accomplished and hungry, so we found a little bakery and wolfed down some mediocre ham and cheese sandwiches.

Then we set out to walk to Montmartre to see the café where they filmed Amélie and the Sacré-Coeur. The walk was only supposed to be about two kilometres, but as we wandered further and further away from charming cafés and into a neighbourhood of newer, dirtier apartments, laundromats and cheaply-made clothing stores, we began to have our misgivings.

Eventually we decided to check a map in a metro station, and found that we’d far overshot our destination. So we hopped on a smelly train and transited our way to Pigalle.

Once there, we hurried past the rows of sex shops and strip joints, turned up a side street, and thanks to Dario’s navigation, found ourselves outside le Café des Deux Moulins, or as we called it “The Amélie café!”

We stopped in for café crèmes and cardamom-spiced crème brulée (me) and chocolate mousse cake (Dario). The server seated us at a table in the very spot where, in the movie, Amélie hovers over the shoulder of her lover, too terrified to reveal her identity.

After our afternoon dessert we wandered the delightful streets of Montmartre and then up the steps to the beautiful Sacré-Coeur, where we enjoyed the view and circled the church before descending and hopping on a metro back to our neighbourhood.

Now we are relaxing in our little apartment before heading out to meet my friend Madi at what says is a famous café once frequented by Hemingway. We are full from a big dinner of pasta and bread and wine and cheese and feeling relaxed and content in that deep-in-your-bones-happiness way.

I am a little sad that we have only one day left here, but Dario just asked me what I’d like to do with our spare day in Reykjavik and floated a list of equally-thrilling sounding ideas and it made me excited for the adventures still to come.

Lots of love,

Emily

April 2, 2016 – Paris

Dear world,

After a few days of furious touring we took it a little easier today.

I am fighting a nasty throat infection (“Mal à la gorge!” We told the pharmacist this morning) so I am on a schedule of anti-septics and anti-inflammatories in the hopes that it’ll clear itself up quickly.

In the meantime, Dario generously let me sleep about 12 hours last night and we got off to a lazy start this morning.

We had delicious pho in a simple little Vietnamese restaurant around Saint-Germain last night, then went for a bit of a stroll around the Pantheon and along Rue Mouffetard, in search of crepes with Nutella and banana for dessert.

IMG_2138

I wasn’t feeling great though so we headed back at a reasonable hour and I hit the sack.

This morning we started the day picking up some medicine, then we walked all the way from our place to the Eiffel Tower – about a an hour’s walk.

On the way we ducked into a boulangerie for a pain au chocolate for breakfast and a croissant (for me) and a demi baguette (for Dario) to hold onto for lunch. We also slipped into a grocery store and picked up smoked ham, Camembert, pickled eggplant and, what has strangely been our favourite French delicacy: fresh cherry tomatoes. And wine.

From there, we walked to the Champs de Mars and set ourselves on a bench for a little picnic. But just as the pigeons began to circle us, we realized we’d forgotten a bottle opener! So we packed up again and walked to a grocery store to buy a cheap corkscrew, then headed to a different bench and had the most lovely little picnic, people watching and enjoying the view.

IMG_1027

By the end of our meal we were both feeling a little chilled, so we snapped some photos and made the walk back to the apartment.

Feeling drained and still a little under the weather, I took a long three-hour nap, and then a hot shower. Now we are just lazing around. It’s dark and rainy out but we may still venture into the night for one more outing today.

Tomorrow, we plan to wake up early and visit Versailles! (Though our alternate plan is to wake up early and visit the doctor, then Versailles.)

And though we are both feeling a little lousy, nothing can really detract from how amazing this city is. We are both having such a beautiful time — sore throats and all.

We wish we never had to leave!

Emily

April 1, 2016 – Paris

Dear world,

We are in our apartment taking a short breather before plunging back into the Paris streets.

It’s been a busy couple of days.

We activated our museum passes yesterday and headed west a couple of blocks to the entrance of the Louvre. It was pouring rain and we sloshed through puddles to get to the queue near the entrance, only to find a sign with a message saying the museum staff was on strike and that the museum would be opening an hour and a half later than usual.

We walked off to find a coffee, arm in arm as we tried to squeeze under the small umbrella I’d (luckily) packed in my bag.

We ended up at a funny little café, sort of a dive-bar feel with red pleather booths and the name scrawled in neon lettering above the metallic bar. Construction workers leaned against the counter and I left Dario to order for us while I went to huddle behind a table and people watch.

Two coffees later, the bartender wished us “bon courage avec la pluie” and we ventured out onto the street again.

By the time we made it back to the museum a long line of umbrella-wielding tourists had formed in front of the iconic glass pyramids. We joined the throngs and jostled for enough space to accommodate both us and our umbrella.

About 45 minutes later, we finally made it inside. I pulled up my soggy socks, we grabbed an English map and we headed into the galleries.

I went to the Louvre on my first trip to Paris, almost 10 years ago, but I’d forgotten just how enormous and daunting the building is.

Overwhelmed by the number of rooms and styles and forms of art, we decided to start with a hunt for the Mona Lisa, so that we could be sure we didn’t miss it in the maze of other distractions.

We walked through a long hall of Italian art, full of expressive characters with faces frozen at the height of drama in the middle of some Biblical epic or another, then veered into the crowded room where the Mona Lisa stood, dwarfed by the protective stone around her and the bullet proof glass across her face.

Once we’d successfully seen the Mona Lisa, we felt free to wander with a little less direction. We surveyed the map and picked a number of destinations, but invariably became lost in the in-between rooms, taking side trips to admire sculptures while en route to rooms full of paintings or artifacts.

My favourite part of the whole scattered tour was a statue of three women, leaning on each other and posing with such unabashed confidence that they earned the hashtag #girlpower when I shared the photo on Instagram.

IMG_2116

Dario’s favourite part was seeing Delacroix’s revolutionary painting of liberty leading the people.

IMG_2111

After a few hours of battling crowds we decided to call it a morning and made our way out of the building and back into the open air. We picked up a few supplies at a grocery store on the way back to the apartment, then came here to cook pesto pasta with fresh, ripe cherry tomatoes and, of course, a side of cheese.

We napped off our meal and set out again in the late afternoon to the Ile de la Cité, where we stopped into the Conciergerie and Notre Dame.

There was a powerful photography exhibit on display in the main hall of the Conciergerie, and we spent some time wandering among the gigantic black and white portraits stationed around Europe’s oldest surviving medieval hall.

IMG_2118

Once home to early French royalty, the Conciergerie took on a darker role later in the city’s history, when it served as a prison. The peak of prosecution came during the revolution, when Dario read that thousands of prisoners were housed there before being sentenced to the guillotine.

Marie Antoinette spent two months imprisoned there and Robespierre spent some of his final hours in the stone building, before being swiftly condemned to death. As one of the informational signs on the wall said, the only evidence necessary to sentence him was his identity.

After the Conciegerie we walked the short distance to Notre Dame and wandered through the cathedral’s echoing interior. After admiring the stained glass and arched roofs and observing the whispered prayer around us, we both agreed: it’s hard not to be moved by a place like that.

IMG_2119 (1)

From there we walked to the left bank and for a short, rainy stroll before heading back to the apartment for dinner: baguette sandwiches with fresh tomato, salami, Camembert and pickled artichoke hearts. And wine, of course.

We were both feeling tired after such a busy day, but we downed a couple glasses of pinot noir and rallied the energy to head back into the night and onto the metro.

We took line 11 north, out of the tourist-filled 1er arrondissement where we are staying and up a little further north to a student-filled bar called La Cantine Fabien, where we met up with my friend Madi, who is currently living and studying here, and a group of other international students.

We grabbed five-euro pints of Stella, watching as, just beyond the crowded bar, a group of horn players danced on tables above an enthusiastic crowd. In the centre of it all, a female saxophone player doubled over, throwing her entire body into the music.

Upstairs, we gathered at a table with Madi and her friends and shouted over the music, trading stories of school and travel and life back home in Canada.

We walked to the station in time to catch the last metro train out, and Dario was properly scandalized when a girl from California boldly called the eight-degree Celsius weather “too cold.”

Then it was back to the apartment to fall into bed and sleep a few hours.

We started our day walking along the Seine to the D’Orsay, where we put on our headphones and let the Rick Steves take us on a free audio tour around the incredible gallery (cheesy lines and corny clichés included!).

The tour opened in the neoclassical section, with pastel-coloured paintings of Venus reclined seductively on a bed of sea foam, her curves soft under the rosy light.

From there we walked to a room housing Manet’s Olympia, a much bolder depiction of a reclining naked woman, and an important break with what the Paris art community was used to at the time.

We walked upstairs to the impressionist section, pausing a moment to survey the full length of the gallery, which was once a grand train station. Then it was through a set of doors and, suddenly, we were surrounded by blurred brush strokes and a wealth of beautiful outdoor scenes.

We keep talking about how amazing it is that all this priceless (and famous) art can exist in one space. At home, just one piece by Degas or Monet would be enough for the museum to begin boasting, but here there are dozens lined up beside works by Renoir and Cezanne and Pissaro. Dario says his favourite part was wandering the dreamy impressionist halls.

We wandered through the impressionist section and then into the post-impressionist works, which were much more vivid and less hazy.

This section featured a room full of van Gogh paintings, including Starry Night and his famous self portrait, and a small painting of a church and a woman out front, which may have been my favourite piece in the gallery.

IMG_2128

There was also a room devoted to van Gogh’s one-time room mate, Gauguin, who shared a flat with van Gogh in the South of France before tensions between the artists became too much to handle and van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a knife. Gauguin packed up and left and van Gogh descended into madness, lopping off a piece of his own ear and entering an asylum before, eventually, shooting himself in the chest.

Meanwhile, Gauguin ended up seeking refuge in the sunny Pacific islands, where he painted bold, flat, exotic paintings of lush fruit and trees and local girls with their dark breasts dangling. We saw a number of those at the D’Orsay too, though I can’t say I care for them too much.

After that we briefly wandered the Art Nouveau section of the museum, which was mostly furniture, and then we were on our way.

We planned to walk back to the apartment for lunch but the sun made an appearance and, after such a rainy day yesterday, we couldn’t help but be lured onto a little patio in the 5th arrondissement, where we went ahead and ordered all the clichés: escargots and French onion soup for our appetizers, mussels and salmon pasta for the mains, and a crepe and crème brûlée for dessert. And a little jug of white wine.

From there, we planned to go home for a rest, but the sun on the Seine was far too beautiful, so we walked to the Ile de la Cité and down to the path along the water, then up to the Notre Dame where we waited in line for about an hour before ascending the 421 steps to the top of the towers.

IMG_2131

Up top, even the gargoyles grinned at the spring weather and we snapped a bunch of photos of the view and the crowds milling below. We climbed into the bellfry to look at the gigantic bells that we can hear chiming each hour from our apartment, and I managed to spin myself into quite the dizzy spell as we walked the winding steps back down to ground level.

On our way back to the apartment we took a quick glance in the church’s crypts, where the remains of a Roman-era wall still remain, then we came back here for a bit of rest.

Tonight: we are on the hunt for Vietnamese pho! I know, it seems a funny dish for us to seek out in France, but Vietnam was once a French colony and the fragrant beef soup seems just the thing to warm us after the chilly, damp weather we’ve been having.

Wish us luck,

Emily