Belgium and Iceland solo

By: Francis Garcia
This item appears on page 28 of the June 2018 issue.

Street in Bruges, Belgium.

On my first solo trip to Europe (not ignoring my friend Ernie, who travels in my carry-on with me), May 12-24, 2017, I visited  Amsterdam (May ’18, pg. 29), Bruges and Reykjavik. In this letter, I’ll just talk about the Belgium and Iceland portions of my trip.

Traveling from Amsterdam, Netherlands, my rail trip to Bruges, with a train change in Brussels, was seamless. A taxi to my hotel, the Grand Hotel Casselbergh (Hoogstraat 6; www.grandhotelcasselbergh.be/en), cost €7 (near $8.40). 

Located in the heart of the city’s historic center, this hotel, part of the Swan Hotel chain, is housed in a couple of interconnected buildings, one historic and one new. It has elevators, but some steps may need to be navigated.

I had a 2-night stay. My room was attractive and vast, and the bath included a separate tub and shower. An extensive breakfast buffet was included in the price.

In Bruges, I enjoyed a private, 2-hour walking tour of the city with Chris Robinson of the Royal Guides’ Association of Bruges & West-Flanders (bruges-guides.com/en).

Bruges (Brugge), a city that textiles made wealthy in the Middle Ages, has a historic central area rich in canals and historic churches and boasts one of the tallest medieval brick towers in the world. A UNESCO Heritage Site, the Historic Centre of Bruges has much to like, but it’s overwhelmed by tourism and overly “Disneyfied.” Evenings were blessedly quiet and uncrowded. 

After returning to Amsterdam for a couple of nights, I took a mid-afternoon flight to Reykjavík, Iceland, on Icelandair. Once at Reykjavík’s airport, the Flybus took me to a central bus depot, where smaller buses took passengers to their various hotels and tours.

In the embassy district and a short walk from Reykjavík’s central downtown, I stayed at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Marina (Myragata 2; www.icelandairhotels.com/en/hotels/marina), a modern hotel with elevators, a restaurant, a bar and a coffeehouse. Its breakfast buffet is extensive.

When I arrived, I withdrew Icelandic krónur from an ATM, but I shouldn’t have bothered. At local pubs and cafés, I noticed that the locals made all their purchases, even the smallest ones, with plastic. Servers automatically brought portable card-processing machines to tables. 

Iceland is the size of Kentucky and has a total population of around 330,000, of which the majority live in Reykjavík, a large suburban city with a small, hilly, walkable city center. This is a young country with an ancient history, having gained its independence from Denmark in 1944.

Ernie at Eyjafjallajökull Glacier in Iceland. Photos by Francis Garcia

For my 3-night stay, I visited nearby natural sights on day tours operated by Iceland Travel (www.icelandtravel.is) and Reykjavik Excursions (www.re.is). On my first full day, “The Golden Circle Express” tour took me to the Gullfoss waterfalls, Geysir, which spouts high into the air every few minutes, and Thingvellir National Park, where the Viking parliament began meeting a thousand years ago.

On my second day, the “South Coast & Eyjafjallajökull” tour took me to a vast geothermal greenhouse complex (where organic tomatoes are grown and delicious Bloody Marys are served), Eyjafjallajökull Glacier, the volcanic black-sand beaches at Vik and Seljalandsfoss (falls).

We also visited Skogar Museum, where I entered sod houses, an intimate church and a one-room schoolhouse. An adjoining museum displayed folk art.

Had I stayed a third day, I would have made use of the hop-on/hop-off bus to better explore Reykjavik. 

I liked the burger at Prikið (Bankastræti 12; www.prikid.is [Icelandic only]), the oldest coffee house in Iceland, dating from 1951 and attracting a young, contemporary clientele.

While touring the island, I enjoyed the national dish of lamb soup at a truck-stop café. I believe it cost ISK1,700.

Food prices are high in Iceland. I paid a small fortune for an Italian dinner consisting of a Caprese salad, a pasta dish with Italian sausage and a cocktail. According to my diary, the meal cost me ISK8,600 (near $87)! Perhaps I should have stuck with the lamb soup.

I had a 4 a.m. wake-up call in order to make a 7:30 a.m. flight on Delta from Reykjavík to New York’s JFK Airport. A week later, I flew from JFK to San Francisco.

Anyone with questions may contact me at jazza@cruzio.com.

FRANCIS GARCIA
Santa Cruz, CA