Incredible Iceland Part II

 Merry Christmas to Tales and Travel fans. For all about Christmas in southern France, see my previous post, “Noel en Provence,” Dec. 2010. And, just in time for holiday reading, more Iceland:blog2.16

“Of Horses and Men,” a strange but captivating movie about Iceland, piqued our curiosity about the country.   We saw the movie several weeks before departure for our Icelandic adventure. The horses were sensational. I knew I would have to ride an Icelandic horse.

I did earn a Girl Scout badge in horsemanship at the age of 12. Too, too long ago. But, I have always been enamored of horses and have ridden off and on (mostly off) since my childhood.   I am definitely not an accomplished rider, but riding an Icelandic horse seemed so easy in the film.blog2.1

It’s the tölt, the fifth gait of these small, sturdy horses which were originally imported by the Vikings.   A trot? A running walk? Whatever, the tölt is amazing to watch. The horse moves at a gentle speed, precisely, rhythmically moving legs up and down, while the rider seems frozen to the saddle. No bouncing, jolting, posting.   “You can drink a glass of champagne while the horse tölts,” it is said.blog2.17

Forget the champagne, let’s just ride. And, we did, with Andres and Luka, a young couple who have 25 horses at their riding company in northern Iceland.    Husband VR (Vino Roberto) is (or was) dedicated to a bicycle saddle. He is not thrilled about riding a horse, but he put up a brave front and joined me and Karen, a woman from our conference group. We followed our leaders up and blog2.19down rocky hills, through fields, with superb views of the non-too distant sea. VR was not at ease. Those steep downhills freaked him out. He was all too happy to dismount so Andres could take Karen and me to flat land for at try at tölt.

We charged along, but I was bouncing, painfully jerking up and down, to and fro. I tried to post. No go. This can’t be the tölt. After about just 10 minutes of this agonizing experience, we gave up. Apparently it takes skill to get the horse to switch to this gait. Even Karen, who is a riding instructor in the US, was only briefly successful.

I am still happy that I rode an Icelandic horse. It is one of the many adventures touted in the tourist brochures.blog2.8

Along our drive in the north country we encountered more horses, a roundup – exactly like the scene in the movie. Icelandic horses are driven up to mountain pastures where they roam freely during the summer. In the fall they are driven back to the lowlands. We stopped to watch the horses, corralled in different pens, being claimed, and then separated, by their respective owners. All the horses are micro chipped, we learned. Many wanted no part of leaving their summer friends and gave their owners a challenge, resisting attempts to move into different pens. It was an exciting spectacle.blog2.3

A few sheep were held in other pens . Sheep are as prevalent in Iceland as pigeons in Venice. They, too, spend the summer in the mountains. Most had been rounded up earlier. Those we saw were stragglers left behind who joined the horse procession to the valleys.blog2.2

Horses and sheep are important to the Icelandic economy. But, not nearly as important as fish. Today the fishing industry accounts for about half of the country’s GDP. We joined a whale watching cruise but saw only a few tails of distant whales for nano seconds. Fishing was offered on board. It did not excite me, but I did brave the cold winds on deck to take photos of the fishermen and women.blog2.21

Incredible! Almost as soon as they would throw a line into the choppy sea, a bite. They hauled in fish after fish, sizeable critters, mainly haddock but some mackerel. One woman caught six in less than a half hour. This did excite me. I had to give it a try. Too late. All the hungry fish had been caught, or the word had spread underwater that this was a dangerous offering. No matter. A chef on board instantly cleaned and grilled the fish – fabulous.blog2.10

A word about whales. Iceland, despite global condemnation, is engaged in commercial whaling. The country did respond to diplomatic pressure in 2012 and renounced hunting of fin whales. Minke whale hunting continues, mainly for export to Japan. I did see whale on some restaurant menus, but Icelanders are said to eat little whale.

“It’s all emotional. The countries who criticize us are doing far worse,” said a worker at a fish factory.blog2.11

We had another fishy outing, joining a “Sea to Table” excursion. First stop, a smelly factory where fish are prepared for export. We were suited up for the tour – white plastic coats, blue hair nets, shoe cover-ups. A perfect Halloween costume.blog2.12

Much of the fish processing is automated, but we did watch skillful employees undertake the initial step – off with head, out with the guts – at record speed.

The best part followed, a “grand crab feast” at a nearby restaurant, Vitinn, where mussels and other sea creatures are kept in live holding tanks. The restaurant’s claim to fame is rock crab, a marine delicacy found only in Icelandic waters and off the east coast of North America. The meal began with an exquisite crab soup, then a buffet of an overwhelming assortment of shell fish.blog2.13

In the town of Höfn, I savored another sea delicacy, what Icelanders call “ lobster,” but is actually langoustine. Pricey, but delicious.

VR is not a vegetarian, but much prefers fish to meat. He was in his element in Iceland where fish is on every restaurant menu, usually many different kinds. Atlantic char is a favorite and tasty. What about all those sheep? Lamb, too, is on many a menu. Because the lamb graze freely all summer, chowing down on chemical-free grass and herbs, the meat is extra tender. We met an American woman, a frequent Iceland visitor, who takes large quantities of vacuum packed lamb home with her.

blog2.22Fish and lamb aside, my favorite Icelandic food is skyr, a yogurt like concoction made from skimmed milk. It’s extra creamy , rich, decadent – but low in fat. It is often mixed with fruit flavors. Since food in Iceland is very expensive (see previous post “Incredible Iceland”) we often bought containers of skyr to have in the room for our after dinner dessert.

Iceland is paradise for adventure seekers with a laundry list of offerings: glacier hikes, trips inside volcanoes, scuba diving and snorkeling, caving, rafting…. We went for an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) outing. These were heavy, monstrous vehicles. Again, a uniform was required: Bright orange coveralls, boots, gloves and helmet. The how-to briefing was that — brief. I let VR take the wheel, but had intended to give it a try during the ride.blog2.14

I quickly changed my mind. We were a large group, about 18 vehicles, with a leader in the front vehicle and another bringing up the rear. Just 10 minutes into the ride, an abrupt stop.  We waited and waited, then got off and walked ahead to investigate what the holdup was.

A vehicle was overturned at the bottom of a cliff. Fortunately the driver and passenger had been thrown off and were lying on the ground above the crashed ATV.   It took time for assistance and medical personnel to arrive. The victims were taken to a hospital. Both suffered severe injuries, complicated bone breaks. After a stay in a hospital in Iceland, they returned to the U.S. for surgery.

The ride continued. My desire to drive was quashed.  VR said it was fun, but I found the journey too long and too cold. The scenery, like much of Iceland, was barren, bleak. It quickly became monotonous.blog2.15

Never mind, we all went on for a soothing afternoon at Iceland’s number one tourist attraction: the Blue Lagoon, an enormous outdoor pool of geothermal water. There is even a bar in the center offering cocktails. And, a station with silica mud deposits to smear on your face – good for the skin and wrinkles.

I am a swimmer. I like to move in the water. These warm spa pools bore me after about 10 minutes. But, one cannot visit Iceland without a soak in the Blue Lagoon. A fitting way to end our two-week journey in Incredible Iceland.blog2.7

Horseback riding with Andres and Luka, a delightful couple who invited us for refreshment in their home after the ride,

Whale watching and fishing: Elding Whale Watching,

Vitinn Seafood restaurant, www.vitinn.isblog2.4

No new recipe this time. But, the grape salad (top right) is fabulous, a perfect accompaniment to a holiday dinner.

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Food for Thought

I know. This is supposed to be Iceland Part II. Stay tuned. More Iceland will appear very soon. But, since this blog is about more than travel, namely food, and since that topic has been hot recently (think Thanksgiving), this is a blog post on cuisine. Non foodies can tune out.

I celebrated the turkey day twice – before the actual holiday in northern Italy with friends Carol and Noel, then again last weekend with friends here.

Noel and Carol

Noel and Carol

Carol’s feast was excellent, the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner: Turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, two different sweet potato dishes, Waldorf salad, broccoli casserole and peas. For dessert, pumpkin pie (a Thanksgiving must) and an apple/pear pie.

Waldorf salad, a mixture of apples, celery and walnuts, was one of my mother’s specials. I had forgotten how tasty it is. All loved Carol’s version, which, I learned, she is often asked to bring to pot luck dinners. Her turkey was terrific, so moist and flavorful. I copied her roasting method (read on) with a winning result.

Carol's spread

Carol’s spread

Carol and Noel entertained 13 (Italians and Americans), all seated at a long table in their living room. The table décor was fit for a decorator magazine:

Carol's table

Carol’s table

Strands of fall leaves, colorful gourds, flower arrangements, plus a party “favor” for each guest to take home (a pilgrim figure with a small candle).

The afternoon of the evening event, the hostess was calm, relaxed and even had time to sit and chat. I was in awe as I am usually a total wreck, madly dashing to and fro with lots of last minute prep before guests arrive. Carol had prepared much in advance.

I tried to emulate her for my Thanksgiving dinner, from the turkey to the décor to her calm, cool demeanor. (I failed in the latter category.)

“The United States of Thanksgiving,” a New York Times (NYT) food feature with recipes from all 50 states was my inspiration. I pored over all the recipes and chose several, some a bit challenging.

I also relied on a few of my recipes from past years. First, Cranberry Chutney. I was never a fan of the obligatory cranberry relish (Ocean Spray from a

Go for the real berry.

Go for the real berry.

can) served with the holiday bird. Some years ago I came across a Cranberry Chutney recipe in a newspaper. “A pleasant relief from the standard, cloyingly sweet cranberry sauce usually served at Thanksgiving.” Indeed, and my preferred take on the cranberry.

Sweet potatoes, another Thanksgiving requisite and yet another I never liked, with the possible exception of my mother’s Brandied Sweet Potatoes, no doubt thanks to the brandy. (See Helen’s Brandied Sweet Potatoes in Recipe column at right). Instead of the sacred potato I made Butternut Squash with Cranberries and Apples, colorful, festive and delicious. I followed an old recipe for mashed potatoes with cheddar and scallions. Good, but too runny. I always seem to have this problem with mashed potatoes. Must stop adding so much milk.

My spread.

My spread.

Then, the NYT recipes. The Minnesota Grape Salad caught my eye. My mother (family traditions are a big part of this American meal) always served a fresh fruit salad at Thanksgiving. I was going to copy Carol and do a Waldorf salad, but why not grapes? The recipe calls for seedless grapes. I went to four different stores before finding them, but the hunt paid off. This was the easiest of all, and the favorite of my guests. “You could serve it as a dessert,” one commented. The recipe is featured in Today’s Taste, upper right.

I like to begin the meal with a soup. My recipe repertoire includes several that are appropriate for the holiday, mainly different versions of squash or pumpkin soup. Time for something new: Illinois Pumpkin Soup with Ancho Chile.

Canned pumpkin and dried ancho chile are not found on supermarket shelves in France. Thanks to Carol and Noel, I had these key ingredients. Noel is a retired Air Force colonel with base privileges at Aviano Air Force Base, Italy. He purchased both for me at the base commissary.pumpkin

Alas, this was an experiment that failed. I found nothing exceptional about this concoction and regret not having served one of my tried and true standbys.

Connecticut Quince with Cipollini Onions and Bacon. I had to try this and conquer the daunting quince. Back during my years in Germany, it seemed most of my German friends made quince jelly every fall. I love to cook, but don’t do jams, jellies, nor do I can. Yet, I felt the need to somehow incorporate this fruit in my cooking.

Quince is not for sissies, I learned. Peeling this rock-hard fruit was tough enough. Cutting it into chunks required a cleaver and the muscles of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I let VR attack the stubborn quince, but all those tiny onions had to be peeled.

Nasty quince

Nasty quince

“Cipollini” in Italian means small onion. The NYT title for this recipe is thus redundant. I felt triumphant at discovering an error made by those gods of journalism at the NYT.

Verdict: Good, but definitely not worth all the intensive labor. The Germans and those cooks in Connecticut can have their quince.

North Carolina Sweet Potato Cornbread. This was easy and good. Since French bread is tops, I never bake bread here. But cornbread is so American; I decided it would be a nice addition to my meal for British and French guests

Tennessee Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Peanut Vinaigrette. I like most all veggies, with the exception of peas – and Brussels Sprouts. So, why did I prepare this? Because sprouts always seem to be included in those magazine

My table, festive thanks to decorative elements provided by Carol. elkements Carol sent me home with the decor

My table, festive thanks to decorative elements provided by Carol.

features with Thanksgiving menus. I have tried so many versions over the years – with maple syrup, bacon, apples, walnuts, pecans, dill, lemon. I hated them all. I decided to give the B.S. one last chance due to the peanut (actually peanut butter) in this recipe. A new twist. I have always found recipes with peanut butter to my liking. Forget it! Even yummy peanut butter could not save the horrible sprout. A Brussels Spout is a Brussels Sprout is a Brussels Sprout. Never again will a sprout be found in my kitchen.

Arkansas Roast Heritage Turkey and Gravy. Perhaps the best turkey I have ever prepared. The recipe calls for brining. My friend Lynne, a cook extraordinaire, turned me onto brining the bird several years ago. It definitely makes for a moister turkey. This recipe goes one step further.

Carol's handsome turkey,

Carol’s handsome turkey,

It basically utilizes the same cooking method Carol follows. Her turkey was an American Butterball from the commissary and she did not brine. But, she enveloped the bird in layers of heavy duty foil with a cup of water added to the bottom of the turkey foil package. No basting. The turkey is essentially steamed. Her method specifies a higher temperature than the Arkansas recipe. I followed the latter, tightly covering the turkey in two layers of foil.

The only disappointment with this method is the appearance of the cooked turkey. Not a beautiful golden brown bird to present to guests, but instead a very sickly, pale, almost white fowl. I kept it hidden in the kitchen as VR carved it. Carol’s bird, since it had cooked at a higher temp, was presentable. Perhaps I should have removed the foil for the last half hour to allow for browning? But, wouldn’t it dry out the turkey?  It’s the taste and texture that count. “Succulent” proclaimed Lynne. I will definitely prepare future turkeys this way. Thank you Arkansas – and Carol!

Pumpkin Pie and Apple Cranberry Pie – my desserts, but most guests had no room for them. VR is enjoying the leftovers. The filling for my pumpkin pie includes a healthy dose of brandy. I love those recipes with a bit of alcoholic content.fblog.5

For your holiday cooking, you may want to try these and other NYT Thanksgiving recipes.

If you’d like some of my recipes not found in the column at right (Cranberry Chutney, Butternut Squash with Cranberries and Apples, Pumpkin Pie with Brandy), let me know. I will be glad to supply. The Grape Salad recipe is Today’s Taste (upper right).

Casa Parks (left) with the Domolmites.

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Provence for Visitors

With its gorgeous landscapes and numerous attractions, Provence is a Mecca for tourists. French. British. Dutch. Belgians. Asians. Russians, and many more.

Hilltop Gordes -- the quintessential Provence perched village.

Hilltop Gordes — the quintessential Provence perched village.

Friends and relatives who come to visit us in the Luberon hills also enjoy the allure of Provence. Carol and Noel, friends from Germany who have retired to northern Italy, arrived in early October. Soon after came John and Mickey, VR’s (husband Vino Roberto’s) brother and sister-in-law from northern Ohio.carriers.3

We kept on the move and had fun showing off our Provence favorites. A hit with all was Carrières de Lumières in Les-Baux-de-Provence. Words fail to describe this amazing place –vast caverns, formerly quarries, where a unique multimedia presentation enthralls all. The show changes every winter.carriers.4

“Klimt and Vienna” is this year’s show, ending Jan. 4, which features the works of turn-of-the-century artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, plus Fritz carrieres.2Hundertwasser, projected on the walls and floors. Wander through the immense space, engulfed by the gigantique tableaux. Enjoy the mesmerizing musical background.

“Klimt is now one of my favorites. The show is awesome. I could have just sat there all day looking at the images,” said Carol. We, too, are overwhelmed with the production and return every year to see the new show.lesB2

The ancient town, Les-Baux-de-Provence, with its medieval château, spectacular views and boutique lined cobblestone streets, is also captivating. ”I’ve been to a million of those cutesy towns that have become little more than amusement parks. Les Baux seemed, to me, to have retained some of its soul,” commented Noel.lesbaux.

Mickey was especially intrigued with the site where the ruins of an 11th century citadel dominate a plateau perched on a rocky spur. She listened to the explanations on an audio headset at each numbered stop throughout the historic site. “I love castles,” she said.rou.fb

Carol and Noel were also impressed with Roussillon, a touristy town whose attraction is its Sentier des ocres (ochre footpath). A trail descends into a gorge of orange/yellow walls, then winds through the woods bordered by these exotic, colorful cliffs. The area was also formerly a working quarry.

Carol and Noel and Bouillabaisse.

Carol and Noel and Bouillabaisse.

Noel had made a special request . He remembers a scene in the movie, “In Like Flint” with James Coburn, during which Coburn savors Bouillabaisse, Marseilles’ signature dish. He had to eat this legendary fish soup in Marseille. I did some

Bouillabaisse is much more than fish soup. A plate brimming with different kinds of fish comes with the soup.  Carol ordered the deluxe version with lobster.

Bouillabaisse is much more than fish soup. A plate brimming with different kinds of fish comes with the soup. Carol ordered the deluxe version with lobster.

restaurant research to find a place serving authentic Bouillabaisse. Many restaurants have a version for tourists. My find, Le Ruhl, has a perfect setting on a hillside just adjacent to the Mediterranean. Great views – but the food? OK, but not great. Next time I’ll try another restaurant for Bouillabaisse

Selfie, of sorts, under the new, giant mirrored canopy at Marseille's Vieux Port.

Selfie, of sorts, under the new, giant mirrored canopy at Marseille’s Vieux Port.

Before lunch we had hoped to take a boat ride of the calanques (dramatic fjord like inlets in the limestone cliffs between Marseille and Cassis), but due to the fierce Mistral which blows too frequently in these parts, the boats were not running. We braved the winds and took a long walk through the Vieux Port, then on to the J4 Esplanade, Marseille’s swanky new addition for 2013 when the city was the European Capital of Culture. I never tire of admiring the dazzling architecture of the new Villa Méditerranée and MuCem ( museum of Mediterranean and European culture).cassis.2

Mickey and John did get to see the calanques. On a delightfully calm day we boarded the sightseeing boat in the enchanting port town, Cassis, for the excursion through parts of this dramatic coastline.   It was market day in Cassis with vendors selling clothing, food, purses and all manner of

Markets are a major Provence attraction. Mickey accompanied me to Forcalquier, a town near our home known for its big Monday market.  “I loved the shopping you did at the outdoor market,” she later said. “ I really liked that you were able to purchase fresh fruit, vegetables, produce, eggs, fish and sausages direct from the farmers the same morning they were picked.   I enjoyed listening to you get a better price for the shawl/cape you purchased, especially after the seller informed you this would be the last time he was going to be at the market with his items.” (It was a coat I could have done without. But when my bargaining was successful, I could not resist.)

Although photos are "interdit" at the Vence chapel, many manage to get a shot.

Although photos are “interdit” at the Vence chapel, many manage to get a shot.

VR and I recently joined the American Club of the Riviera. Their October agenda included an event during Mickey and John’s visit I knew we should not miss – a tour of the Henri Matisse Rosary chapel in hillside Vence above the Riviera. A documentary, basically an interview by American Barbara Freed with the late Sister Jacques Marie, the nun who played a major role in the realization of this unique structure, preceded the tour. Freed has translated the nun’s book about her relationship with Matisse into English and served as director of the documentary. She was on hand with more fascinating commentary. It’s an unbelievable story – the deep friendship between this renowned artist who was not religious and the Dominican nun, and how she influenced, inspired and encouraged him on the chapel project.nice

An overnight stop in Nice, my Riviera favorite, preceded our trek to Vence. We strolled along the seaside Promenade des Anglais and wandered through Old Nice.

John, Mickey and VR.

John, Mickey and VR.

Then back into the hills to Sospel, a town VR and I had visited many times. We had even considered moving there. We became friends with Marie Mayer who

Marie and I with one of her father's sculptures.

Marie and I with one of her father’s sculptures.

runs a chambre d’hote (bread and breakfast), Domaine du Paraïs, where we always stayed. Her late father, Marcel Mayer, was a well known sculptor. She invited us for an aperitif in her living room filled with some of her father’s remarkable art works.

Noel and Carol are foodies like VR and I. ”Food, of course, is always high on our list,” Noel said. “The afternoon at the Dutch guy’s place was unforgettable… everything about that afternoon was wonderful – the intimate setting, the company and the food, which really was excellent.”

He was referring to Table du Bonheur, a special eatery in the hinterlands where we had an excellent lunch. (See previous post, Table of Happiness, Sept. 2, 2011)

Noel and Carol treated us to lunch and some fine wines at Le Bistrot de Lagarde which now has a Michelin star.

Noel and Carol treated us to lunch and some fine wines at Le Bistrot de Lagarde which now has a Michelin star.

Our food extravaganza with John and Mickey was an over-the-top meal in Italy – a lunch of multi courses at an agriturismo (farm inn), La Locanda degli Ulivi, hidden up a very long, very narrow, very windy road in the hills above Dolceacqua, a small, picturesque town just north of Ventimiglia. This was a first for me and VR. We will return, but VR said I can drive up that taxing hill next time. We must have had at least six different antipasti before two different types of pasta followed by the main course, rabbit, and the dessert. Not gourmet cuisine, but a fun experience in a livey, cozy – and very Italian — ambiance .

Clean plates after an Italian feast.

Clean plates after an Italian feast.

Throughout our drives, Mickey, who is very interested in vegetation, often asked me the names of different trees. I failed . All the lavender fields fascinated her. She’d like to come back to see them in bloom (usually July). Olive trees were another favorite.   ”The olive orchards were amazing to see.  It might be interesting to see the trees when in bloom or when the farmers are harvesting the olives.  I noticed olives were served at all the meals.”



I asked her what was most memorable about her visit. “The view of the mountains was unbelievable, and the winding roads took our breath away.   What a wonderful trip and  fantastic weather!   The sight reminded me of what heaven must be like.  Not a lot of noise, heavy traffic, or trucks unloading but just a peaceful, restful vacation place.”

Not quite heaven, but Provence has its

Like my blog? Tell your friends. If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up with your email address at upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared. Please comment, Leave a Reply below. I love feedback. Coming next: Incredible Iceland Part II –horses, fish, food, adventure. And, for a taste of fall, try my recipe for Spaghetti Squash Gratin — above right.

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Incredible Iceland

blog.sceneRain gushed from the heavens. Ferocious winds ripped the car door from my hand. It was frigid. The only sight was a wall of gray/white. Welcome to Iceland. I was devastated. We left warm and sunny Provence for this? The warning of a friend haunted me. “Why would you want to go to Iceland? They trained for the moon landing in Iceland. It rains all the time.”blog.ringrdThere was no turning back. Husband Vino Roberto (VR) and I set off in our rental car for a seven day venture, driving Iceland’s Ring Road, a 1,600 kilometer (992 miles)  circuit around the island. When the fog began to lift, depression intensified. Flat, brown, barren landscape. No trees. No buildings. Ugly!blog.0Fortunately things did improve, but Iceland is not for sissies. The country has some breathtaking scenery, but much of Iceland is desolate, vast tracts of varying shades of brown and black.   No vegetation. Sparse civilization. The weather…not much sun, at least in September. Of the country’s 320,000 citizens, more than half live in Reykjavik, the capital.blogglacier.2“Iceland weather is very unpredictable,” a local said. Another quipped, “We don’t have bad weather. You just have to dress for it. In one day, we have four seasons in Iceland. ”blogglacier.7That proved to be true. Often the sun would sneak through the dense cloud cover, usually only briefly, casting its intense rays on all below for what seemed a miraculous transformation. Mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, geysers, lakes, mud pots —we marveled at all. Iceland is overloaded with amazing natural“Most travelers come to Iceland for nature, for the landscape,” we were told. And, adventure. In Iceland, you can hike across glaciers or to the top of a volcano, descend into a volcano, explore caves, drive All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs)  and snowmobiles, snorkel, scuba dive, surf, ski, ride horses… Our adventure was limited to horseback riding, an ATV tour, whale watching, fishing, and soaking in the legendary Blue most spectacular sight during our tour was the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. We were lucky. The luminous blue waters with their great chunks of ice glistened in sunshine. It was beyond beautiful. We walked around the shores, awe struck by the scene, as were many film makers. The lagoon has been a set in many movies. From the lagoon we followed a stream where all sizes of iceberg bits floated on to the sea, many then tossed back onto the black sand beach by the sun stayed away during most of our visit to the Skatafell National Park, a wilderness area of flora and fauna at the base of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap outside the poles. Numerous glaciers flow from the ice hulk and there are active volcanoes underneath. Most visitors opt for a trip to glacial heights where they blogglacier.1can drive snowmobiles or hike across the glacier with a guide. Instead we hiked to Sksftafellsjokull as suggested by my Lonely Planet guide book, a one-hour trek to the dirty, gritty glacier face. Even though it was hardly a thing of beauty, its monstrous size was an overwhelming sight. A flash downpour drenched us as we hiked, but within a few minutes, the sun popped out.blogglacier.3Iceland sits on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, an 18,000 kilometer long rift between two of the earth’s major tectonic plates.   It is the youngest country in Europe, formed 17 to 20 million years ago by underwater volcanic eruptions along the joint of the North American and Eurasian plates. Molten rock continues to rise from within blogpark.2forcing the plates apart. We saw the result at Thingvellir National Park, walking along the path through Almannagja near where the plates tear farther away from each other at the rate of 1 to 18 mm per year. The path between two great walls of rock is dramatic, however it is not actually between the two continental plates.geyserGeysers and waterfalls abound in Iceland. The country’s most famous geyser is Geysir which gave its name to geysers throughout the world. Unfortunately it became clogged when tourists threw rocks into it back in the 1950s so it remains quiet. But just next door is Stokkur, a most reliable geyser that delights the camera crowd with eruptions every five to 10 minutes. The bizarre landscape around the geyser is fun to explore: pools of bubbling mud, steam surging from the earth.falls.1Gullfoss, Dettifoss, Goöafoss — three major waterfalls we visited along our journey. I failed to get a good photo. These are powerful falls producing powerful sprays. The skies were dark when we visited. At mighty Dettifoss which has the greatest volume of water of any waterfall in Europe, a dangerous gale-like wind added challenge. VR had to hold on to me lest the wicked wind blow me into the furious water as I tried to take a picture.

In pursuit of a perfect photo, I almost ended up in this falls.

In pursuit of a perfect photo, I almost ended up in this falls.

Visiting these falls is not for the faint of heart. There are no guard rails, no secure viewing platforms at most. Hike to the site, usually down slippery steps, across rocky terrain.   At Goöafoss you have to jump from rock to rock to cross a pool before reaching the edge of the falls. It was too much for one woman who froze in the middle, afraid to move in any direction. Her husband finally coaxed her back to solid ground.blogfalls.6Volcanoes – active, extinct, dormant.   Iceland has all. Several active volcanoes are beneath glaciers causing dramatic eruptions when molten lava and ice interact. The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull caused serious flooding, as well as world disruption thanks to its ash that grounded Europe’s airplanes. During our September visit Bardarbunga was erupting, but in a remote, uninhabited area. For $1,500 you could take an airplane ride above the fiery cauldron.

Pseudo craters in the Lake Myvatn area.

Pseudo craters in the Lake Myvatn area.

The volcano continues to erupt, but Icelanders seem to take it all in stride.  However John Stevenson, a volcano researcher at the University of Edinburgh, told Newsweek last week (Oct.15) that the lava and sulfur fumeshave been reaching unhealthy levels in large parts of the country. The area affected depends on the wind direction but includes Reykjavik. It has been causing painful eyes and throats, led to cancelation of sporting events, and asthmatics are encouraged to stay indoors.” Glad we visited in September.

Viti crater with floodwater pool.

Viti crater with floodwater pool.

While much of our drive was through bleak, bare terrain, even it had its charms – a strange, mysterious, eerie beauty. In the mountainous interior region of the north where there are no towns, no farms, no houses, suddenly we’d spot a lonely sheep.   We drove through many a fishing village, but there were no weather beaten boats tended by wrinkled fishermen. The boats appeared freshly painted, often in vivid colors. The villages are, parts of Iceland do seem lunar like. And, rain is frequent. Nonetheless the Land of Fire and Ice is incredibly intriguing — and well worth a on Iceland coming in Incredible Iceland Part II – horses, fish, food, adventure. Don’t miss it.  If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up with your email address at upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared. Please comment, Leave a Reply below. I love feedback. And, try Today’s Taste recipe, Almond Pear Clafouti, also upper right. You won’t be Tips: Iceland is expensive, very expensive. A simple meal in an average restaurant can easily cost $35 and up. A beer: $8. A glass of wine: $11 (This put a crimp on VR’s drinking habit.)    I had hoped to buy an Icelandic sweater, but prices start at about $150. A nice one: $200. No sweater for me.   I complained about the high prices to a shop owner. “When we go to the states, we shop like mad. Everything is so cheap.”blog.misc2A 7-night, 8-day Ring Road Highlights self-drive trip from Iceland Travel costs from €868 (about $1041) which includes the rental car, accommodations and breakfasts. Gasoline is expensive,$7.74 per gallon. Follow Tales and Travel on Facebook,  And me on Twitter: @larkleah

Meet Les Rosiers Renters 2014

blog.lede.2Luberon weather during summer 2014 was not the stuff those vacationers from the north expect. The glorious sun that normally blazes every day in July and August, and most days in June, was too often on holiday, taking a rest behind massive clouds. Nonetheless those who rented the apartment at Les Rosiers, our home, did not complain.   When the sun appeared, they were happy to plunge into the pool. They also hiked, biked, explored the region and discovered interesting sights. The season got off to an early start with our first renters who arrived in late April for a week, a young French family: Anne, Armand and precious Clement, a blog.guests.1veritable model baby. We never heard a whimper. We rarely saw them as they set off early each morning and returned in the evening after a full day of sightseeing. Clement was no problem, his mother told me, as he was accustomed to being in the car for long periods. Amazing! Back for the fifth season, Austrians Klaus and Eva again spent four weeks with us, from early June to early July. Eva is a legal secretary, so Klaus, who is retired, arrives for the first week with his car and roof rack packed to the brim with beer and Austrian blog.guests7delicacies. He always presents us with  generous gifts of the latter. Eva flies in for the middle two weeks. They lounge poolside, read, walk in the countryside, revisit favorite places and Klaus also likes to do battle with those nasty wasps that like to drink from the pool and zap you with a painful sting if you are in the way. While in the water, he often walks around, fly swatter in hand, striking the enemies with vengeance.  And, he loves to grill. He treated us to a fabulous meal of his specials one evening. Before leaving, he gave me a list of items needed in the apartment, something he has done in the past. This time he said we needed a fire extinguisher, salad spinner, blog.guests.7band quality clothes hangers. He showed me one of the metal hangers from the apartment closet. “These are Alcatraz hangers,” he announced, and then explained that at home they use wooden hangers. Rest assured Klaus, all have been purchased. No more Alcatraz hangers. Machteld and John from the Netherlands arrived for three weeks in July. They were content to rest and relax poolside. Machteld came with 20 books. She read 16. blog.guests4John was often on his computer, or photographing butterflies. They raved about Bacchus, a restaurant in nearby Pierrevert that John had found on Trip Advisor. It was so good, they went three times. And, they shopped. Machteld loves to cook. She went home with a car full of French goodies, including plenty of wine. “We love France, the food, the wine, blog.guest4athe people,” she said. They spend a summer holiday in a different part of France each summer. This was their first time in the Luberon. Fortunately, they and the other summer renters like cats. We have three, as well as many feline visitors. Machteld showed me photos of her two, one a Maine Coon, and we shared cat Marco and Mireille from Alsace joined us for two August weeks. Marco was smitten with Filippo, a feisty feline who amuses with his antics, often chasing blog.guest.3aimaginary butterflies. A DJ  in the evening, by day Marco manages his clothing stores. In his younger days he was a ski instructor at Val d’Isere. We had some serious ski talk. Mireille works with the elderly in a hospital.   Their passion: hiking. They drove to different areas each day from where they set off on long, long treks. Wynand and Evelyn, another Dutch couple, began everyday with a poolside breakfast and swim. They were lucky — there was morning sun. Then, on to the bikes, which they had brought with them, for cycle excursions.  ”We enjoyed having a coffee everyday at the Reillanne (our village) cafes,” Evelyn They also vacation in France every year, but usually camp near Mont Ventoux, the legendary mountain Wynand has conquered on his bicycle five times. Stef, Ninon and adorable Lise, 1 1/2 years old, came from Lyon where Ninon works as a “chef de cuisine” in a restaurant and Stef is in the communications industry. They did not venture too far, but did walk into Reillanne almost every day, about a 25-minute jaunt, at first up a very steep hill on a bumpy road.   Stef pushed Lise in her baby carriage. She was another model infant — always smiling or laughing, a joy to “Thank you for the welcome, the cats for their company, the flowers for their colors, the pool for its freshness and the road for its sweat, “ Ninon wrote in our guest book.

If you’d like more information about the rental apartment, see

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Souvenirs of Summer 2014

fleurs.2It’s officially over. It makes me sad, even though summer 2014 was not a normal Provence summer. Thanks to climate change, we had thunderstorms and cool, cloudy days. Too much wind and rain. The latter had a plus. July and August days are usually hot and sunny with almost no rain. This year we saved both money and time on watering all our flowers and trees. Still, I would have preferred a real summer.

Gone are those long summer nights when we could dine on the balcony by daylight up until 10 p.m. Soon many restaurants will close or drastically shorten geraniumstheir opening times. I am still swimming, but that too will come to an end before long. Tomatoes — those tasty gems I buy from farmers at the markets, will soon disappear and we will left with those tasteless Dutch hothouse tomatoes at supermarkets. Fall and winter are for cosying up with the cats by the fireplace — not as exciting as summer, but not so bad.

In spite of the less-than-perfect weather, we enjoyed some fun times and outings during summer 2014. The following photos are souvenirs of those good times.

Again I tried for the perfect lavender shot. Now that I have had photo lessons from friend and fab photographer George, there’s hope for improvement next year.lavender.blog2

We joined fellow Americans for a Fourth of July party sponsored by Democrats Abroad in Avignon.4th.1

Then we joined the French for a Bastille Day fete in neighboring Vacheres. The July 14th sardinade (grilled sardines) is an annual event with plenty of wine, music and song – in addition to those petite fish.vachere.2

On the cultural side, we joined a group from our town for a bus excursion to an outdoor piano concert in La Roque d’Antheron, also an annual event — preceded by a picnic in the park.piano.1


And, we went to Avignon for a day at the Festival d’Avignon which features almost 1,000 theatrical performances. The festivities in the streets are more than jolly.fb.1


And north to Sisteron for an outdoor concert under the Citadele.fb.5

I longed for the mountains, so we drove to a winter ski town that draws hikers and mountain bikers in summer. We rode a chair lift to the heights for an easy trek. Alas, riding a chair lift in summer minus snow and skis is not easy. Getting off I did not  jump aside fast enough and was whacked in the back with the chair and knocked to the ground. Painful. We canceled the hike, but enjoyed beautiful scenery on the way home.mts.2


Another community meal – paella in our town, Reillanne. We love these events, good food and socializing.sisteron.paella.lac 021

Again this summer we tried our luck at a Vide Grenier (Empty Attic). It’s a flea market, but our hopes of making money on our no-longer-used possessions were dashed. We could not even give things away. There were still treasures in the box labeled “Gratuit” (Free) after the last customers had gone home.

vg.2Cannes on the Riviera was our destination for an event sponsored by the American Club of the Riviera – mind-boggling fireworks shot from boats in the harbor. We spent the night in Cannes and enjoyed a visit to the off shore island, Sainte Marquerite, the following day. Gorgeous.  On the way home, a quick dip in the Med at Theoule-sur-Merisle.1


Friends Mollie and David put summer to bed with a fabulous garden party.


Summertime is also for enjoying our pool and yard and flowers — and the SPPS (State Park Picnic Shelter). See previous post “Pergola — Or State Park Picnic Shelter?”  Aug. 22, 2013.  It’s looking better,  thanks to the decorative elements painstakingly installed by Bob, and Ben’s suggestion that we we lighten the posts and beams.  That made a huge difference.  Thank you, Ben.  You saved it– and our marriage.pool.2



Don’t miss the next post featuring our summer renters. We meet fun and interesting people who rent the guest apartment at Les Rosiers for vacation. And then… a post on Incredible Iceland.  If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, sign up now at top right so you don’t miss future tales. 

Please comment below.  Share your thoughts.

Summer may be over, but grilling is not. One of my favorites which is always a hit with guests is grilled lamb. See column at top right for recipe.




Highlights of the Midi-Pyrénées

Strains of “The House of the Rising Sun”   reverberated through the massive edifice. This was not a rock concert. No one was singing.

The sounds came from a powerful organ played by a monk in the abbey church of Ste. Foy. The Animals 1964 hit about a brothel in New Orleans seemed a strange choice of music in this religious shrine.

It was electrifying, and the perfect background for a nighttime tour of this Romanesque temple in Conques, a picture-perfect village in southwestern

Every evening from May through September at 9:30 p.m., visitors are permitted to wander freely around the upper galleries of the church, normally off limits, to look down at the vast nave, to study the unique windows, to look up at the sculpted capitals of columns, each a magnificent work of antique art. Spot lights grow dim and then brighter, highlighting architectural details. Shadows move. The music entrances. Even for the non-religious, this is a spiritual experience, a sound and light show like no other.conques.blog3

Conques was my favorite of the many places visited on a recent tour of the Midi-Pyrénées region in this corner of France. It’s easy to understand why it was named one of the “plus beaux villages de France,” (one of the most beautiful villages in France). The tiny burg of Romanesque fountains and half-timbered houses is nestled in a valley surrounded by green.conques.4blog

The abbey church’s roots go back to the eighth century when a Benedictine monastery was established at the site in the wilderness. Relics were needed to give the new monastery clout. In the ninth century a monk set off to Agen and came back with part of the skull of Saint Foy, a Christian who had been martyred in the town in 303 AD. Miracles were soon attributed to the relic, and Conques became a pilgrimage site, a holy place to visit on the road to Santiago de Compostela, the well-known pilgrimage destination in northwestern Spain.conques.blog2

Today about 13,000 pilgrims per year visit Conques, a town with just 90 year-round residents. Most visit the Treasury as well as the church. Lavish, bejeweled gold and silver reliquaries are displayed in glass enclosed cases. The most elaborate is said to contain the foreskin of Christ. “How do you know it’s the foreskin of Christ?” asked a doubting visitor. “I don’t know. I was not present at the Circumcision,” quipped the guide.

The Conques abbey Church has another attraction – windows designed by the French contemporary artist Pierre Soulages. These bear no resemblance to the usual church stained glass windows, but were designed to let light penetrate the grandiose yet somber structure. The Soulages windows, geometric shapes of glass of varying density, change color depending on the exterior light.

Models of Soulages windows in the Rodez museum.

Models of Soulages windows in the Rodez museum.

Soulages was born in 1919 in Rodez, a Midi- Pyrénées town now a must for contemporary art fans. In May, the Soulages Museum opened with some 500 works of the renowned abstract artist who is known for his devotion to the color black.albi.56blog

Another artist, born some 150 years ago, was the reason for a visit to Chateau du Bosc. As a young boy, the famous post-impressionist painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who hails from nearby Albi, spent summers in the chateau.   Today a distant relative gives fascinating tours of the grandiose medieval house which is her home. Nicole-Berangere Tapie de Celeyran, 89, tiny, frail, and slightly hunch backed, charges up the long staircases with the vitality of a teenager, visitors following behind. From the kitchen where she points out Lautrec’s sketches on the wall, she continues upstairs to a lavish salon and dining room, a bedroom, hallways, and then into the garden.albi.11

“I love to talk. I want to preserve this house, the spirit of the family,” she says. She also wants to show Lautrec mementoes and correct misconceptions about the legendary artist.

She embellishes the tour with stories passed on from her grandmother and other ancestors who knew the artist. Lautrec’s father and uncles often went hunting, I learned. They’d come back after an outing and relate tales of their adventures. Young Lautrec sat on the floor, using coal from the fireplace to make drawings of their exploits, she said. In his bedroom, the floor scattered with toys, she pointed out a boat Lautrec had made after his accident.

At ages 13 and 14, Lautrec had two bad falls resulting in broken legs which never healed properly. He stopped growing, reaching only 4 feet 9 inches. He developed an adult size torso, but child size legs and was unable to participate in sports. He immersed himself in art instead.

The chateau visit was ideal background for a visit to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in

Lautrec’s cabaret posters have become synonymous with Paris and Montmartre, the area of Paris famous for its bohemian lifestyle and the haunt of artists, writers, and philosophers in the late 1800s. More than 1,000 of his works – paintings, lithographs, drawings, as well as the famous posters — are on display in the Albi museum which has the largest collection of his works in the world.

“What is important in a painting is the person. Landscape is secondary. That was his philosophy,” a museum guide said. He painted psychological portraits, and he understood advertising, hence the posters, she explained. Lautrec was an alcoholic and died at the age of 37 due to complications of alcoholism and

Albi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, hugs the banks of the Tarn River where it is spanned by an ancient bridge. The spires of the city’s mighty cathedral dominate the skyline for a scene almost too picture-perfect. The cathedral, Sainte Cecile, is the only cathedral in France that is still completely painted with the original 15th century paint still intact. During the Middle Ages, church interiors were painted although the paint on most has long since vanished. It survived here because the cathedral is very dark.

Albi’s museum of miniatures is curious if not incredible. It houses 55 miniature rooms all made by a 79-year-old woman who started the project 40 years ago. As a child she wanted a dollhouse, but she never got one. So, at the age of 39 albi.3blogshe set out to make her own, room by room. The museum curator told us that it takes her from six months to a year to make one room. She is now busy making a miniature church.

Toulouse, the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées and France’s fourth largest city, is also the European capital of aeronautics and the home of Airbus. The university city, often called the “ville rose” (pink city) due the bricks it produces which have been used in the construction of many of its buildings, is vibrant and attractive with magnificent churches, lively markets and excellent

Saint Sernin Basilica, the largest complex of Romanesque buildings in the world, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because it was a major stop en route to Santiago de Compostela.toulouse.2blog

The Jacobin Monastery, stark on the outside, is a marvel inside with famous and unique palm tree arches. toulouse.1blog

The heart of Toulouse is the Capitole, the city hall and its courtyard with a statue of Henry IV. The 18th century neo-classical façade of the elongated building dominates a large square that is always a hub of activity. Seats at one of its outdoor cafes are in demand.

The cuisine of southwestern France is legendary.  For more about it, as well as  well-known restaurants in the Midi-Pyrénées, see previous post, “Fabulous French Dining, a Post for Foodies.” I love to know what readers think about my posts, so please comment.  See Leave a Reply below.  And, don’t forget Today’s Taste, a recipe for Thai Green Beans, column at upper right.  toulouse.4blogIf you go…

Chateau du Bosc is located in Naucelle, 30 minutes by car from Albi. Madame Tapie de Celeyran gives guided tours only in French, but guided tours in English by other staff members who know all about Lautrec are offered year round from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m.   If you visit, you are sure to meet Madame who loves to welcome visitors.   + 33 (0) 5 65 69 20 83

Museum Toulouse-Lautrec, Palais de la Berbie, Albi, +33 (0)5 63 49 48 70

Museum of Miniatures, 16 Rue Rinaldi, Albi, +33 (0)5 63 79 00 98,

Soulages Museum, Jardin du Foirail, Avenue Victor Hugo, Rodez, +33 (0)5 65 73 82 60,

Recommended Hotels

The Hotel Mercure Albi Bastides on the banks of the Tarn has the perfect location for admiring – and photographing – Albi.   Moulins Albigeois, 41 rue Porta, 8100 Albi, + 33 (0) 5 63 47 66 66

The Hotel Restaurant Hervé Busset, in a wooded setting on the banks of the lively Dourdou River just outside Conques, is a true delight. An old mill was transformed into an inn with a lovely riverside terrace for relaxing and/or dining. And, the food – fabulous. Busset has earned one Michelin star with his cuisine which makes use of plants and flowers from his garden. Domaine de Cambelong, 12320 Conques, +33 (0)5 65 72 83 91

Location, Location, Location – Toulouse’s Grand Hotel de l’Opera can’t be beat. Facing the heart of  town, the Place du Capitole, the charming boutique hotel is located in a former convent of the 17th century. Place du Capitole, 31000 Toulouse, +33 (0) 61 21 82 66