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Iceland’s best kept secret | Finding the Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool

The sun was already slowly setting on our first day in Iceland. We had spent the entire day exploring Þingvellir National Park and were on our way to Vík, where we were sleeping over that night. However, a quick detour into the mountainous valleys on the south coast in search of the secret Seljavallalaug geothermal pool turned out to be one of the best, most special little excursions of our travels yet.

This little destination is not in any of the travel guide books (yet), and so we relied on a myriad of directions from multiple travel blogs. Some described it as a 10 minute walk, others account of how they trudged around through thick snow for 40-odd minutes. Expecting anything between an easy 10 minute and a confusing 40 minute walk, we plugged the exact location into Google Maps and followed the road as far as we could.

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FINDING THE SECRET SWIMMING POOL

Turning left off the main road, we followed the road as it bent to the right, past a couple of lonely houses on the bottom of the mountain slopes. We parked our car at the end of the road, in what seemed like an indiscriminate dirt ‘parking lot’, feeling a little surreal as we bundled our swimsuits, some beers and a towel in our backpack in the 4°C weather. We headed towards the valley, crossing a stream or two on the way. The trick is just to follow the river upstream into the valley, as you can’t see the pool until you’re right by it. It’s a short and easy walk – 10, maybe 15 minutes – and it is so worth it when, all of sudden, the pool materialises before your eyes, set against Iceland’s snow-capped mountains, mossy greens, and crystal-clear, cyan-blue water.

Head into the valley

Head into the valley

Hop over some mountain springs

Hop over some mountain springs

And there it is

And there it is, with the steam rising from the rocks

You can see the steam rising from the rocks as it trickles into the pool, its water ranging between 30 and 40°C (like between lukewarm bathwater and nice & hot bathwater), depending on how close you are to the pipe that leads most of the water into the pool. We changed into our bathing suits in the handy little changing rooms, and shivered as we tiptoed to the pool ladder. Then we submerged our freezing bodies in the wonderfully (and naturally) warm waters with big sighs of relief.

It is something so simple, yet so extraordinary – wading around in geothermal water in Iceland’s oldest pool (built in 1923 so that the locals could learn how to swim), secluded in the quiet solitude of a gorgeous valley that is just breaking into Spring. We will never forget this experience, and we love Iceland for it.

The unbelievable setting

The unbelievable setting. #nofilter. For real.

 

Seljavallalaug pool

Sweet memories of our cold bodies in the naturally warm water

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Roadtripping Turkey: A One-Week Itinerary

Driving through the West of Turkey was one of the most wonderful travel experiences – without knowing much in terms of what to expect from the landscape, we saw the earth rising up to snow-capped mountainous peaks, dip low into fertile valleys, open up to reveal beautifully placid lakes, and sink into the cyan-blue of the mediterranean sea. All of this intermittently occupied by Roman and Byzantine ruins, dusty little Turkish towns and the wonderfully warm Spring sun, often bathing the landscape in golden hues. Turkey is just a gorgeous country, and a road trip is the best way to see just how diverse and gorgeous it is.

Our free upgrade treated us well :)

Our free upgrade treated us well 🙂

We had lived in Istanbul for a couple of months last year during the off-season and while tourists gradually started wandering up our street looking for the Museum of Innocence towards the end of our stay, we packed our backpacks and took the road when it was still relatively quiet in the rest of the country (which is perhaps one of the best parts of the road trip).

DISCLAIMER: Our quirky cats get to stay at my mom’s house when we do cool things, but for this road trip my mom and her fiancé actually joined us allll the way from South Africa, so they got handed over to a friend. So technically not “two cats at mom’s”, but this itinerary still made the cut. 🙂

Day 1: Into the Woods

Istanbul – Bolu

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We picked up our car and fought our way into Asia and out of Istanbul (a seriously crazy city to drive in or out of) until we found the open road hugging the narrowing East end of the Marmara Sea, mountain peaks with with snow hugging the opposite shore. We were barely out of Istanbul and it was the first taste of the beauty of the Turkish landscape that we would soon encounter in abundance.

A few hours later we arrived at Yedigöller (‘Seven Lakes’) National Park – a beautiful, mountainous area covered with lush forests and wildflowers and lakes and rivers. We followed our noses up the mountain, where it got greener and greener, higher and higher, colder and colder, until we were driving into a magical white flurry. Even higher it started snowing just a bit harder and we felt like this must be the road to heaven. We stopped to admire the freshest, softest, whitest snow, and eventually made our way down the mountain while the snow covered everything we just saw under her veil.

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Day 2: The Cotton Castle at Sunset

Bolu – Pamukkale

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A very long drive ended in the Denizli district, with the white travertine of Pamukkale glistening against the side of a mountain in the distance. We arrived there just before sunset, at about 18.30, which happened to be just perfect, because all the buses had already left with all the other tourists, it was the perfect time for photographs (the sun reflects very harshly on the white surface of the travertine), and it was open for three more hours.

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Pamukkale, meaning ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish, is a site where natural hot springs and travertines were formed against the side of a mountain. It cascades down in naturally-formed terraces, each filled with pleasantly warm water, appearing brilliantly blue against the white of the limestone. It has been used as a spa ever since the ancient city of Hierapolis was built above it over 2000 years ago. We wandered through these ruins and the wildflowers that grow around them, all bathed in sunlight, and then we dipped our feet in the milky warm waters of the Cotton Castle.

The amphitheatre at Hierapolis

The amphitheatre at Hierapolis

Hierapolis ruins at sunset

Hierapolis ruins at sunset

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Day 3: Secret Turkey

Pamukkale – Fethiye

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We set out to visit Kaklık Caves the next morning (all the while giggling because it sounds a lot like ‘shit’ in our native language), understanding it to be like a small Pamukkale in an underground cave. We arrived at a tiny gravel car park (again, the only car), found some lone person who issued us 5 lira tickets (less than 2 USD!) and we followed the slippery wooden steps downstairs. By downstairs I mean we followed them under the earth. Before we even submerged into the cave we could see the brilliant, aquamarine-blue water glistening in the sun. And then it felt like we had stepped into a sauna as we traversed what seemed like an other-worldly terrain. It was wonderfully maintained and spectacularly beautiful, we were the only people there and we all agreed that Kaklık Caves can definitely hold its own next to its much more famous sister-site.

Descending into the cave

Descending into the cave

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We then headed over to Laodikeia, still in the Denizli area, which is another significant ancient city – it’s claim to fame is that it is home to one of the ‘Seven Churches of Asia’ mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. It is an enormous site – its excavated ruins sprawled over hectares of green grass, framed by snow-capped mountains and overlooking a lush valley dipping into a river below. We roamed around, welcoming the hot Spring sun, before we hit the road again.

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Amphitheatre at Laodikeia

Amphitheatre at Laodikeia

It was a short drive to Fethiye, but one of the most scenic legs of the trip. We followed the windy road through the mountains, stopping halfway at a roadside pitstop to drink some tea on a somewhat rickety porch overhanging yet another breathtaking valley with snowy mountains looming before and behind us.

Feeling lucky and happy.

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scenic tea stop

My happy place: Tea with a view

Day 4: Mediterranean Blue and Abandoned Villages

Fethiye & Kayaköy

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After a scenic drive around Fethiye’s coast, which is as zigzaggy as it is beautiful, we headed over to the ruins of a Greek village abandoned after the Greco-Turkish war in the early 20th century. Tucked away in between steep mountains, the romantically overgrown, roofless houses sit like ghosts on the mountainside. But we were also greeted with the sounds of live folk music and laughter, the wafting smell of grilled lamb burgers and aubergine, and the sight of families picking herbs and flying kites amid the fallen homes. This is a place where a community gets together and we happily joined in, strolling in the bright sun through weeds and wildflowers, with the mediterranean blue in sight from the top of the hill. The memories of this afternoon has become one of my happy places where I escape to from London’s gloomy weather (read a blog post just about our afternoon in Kayaköy). 

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The Kayaköy market

Welcomed by the cheery atmosphere of the Kayaköy market

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Day 5: Good food and great AirBnB hosts makes up for terrible tourist traps

Fethiye – Ephesus

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It was a leisurely drive with a lot of kodak moments, before we ended up at ‘Mary’s House’ in Ephesus. This is supposedly where Mary lived out the last days of her life – a little Catholic shrine tucked away in the mountains around Ephesus. We went because we were there and it was in a guide book. But they make you pay a ton (mandatory ‘donation’) for seeing the tiniest little shrine, and we were all grouchy about it and would say that it is definitely not worth it. All our good-weather luck had also run out, so we mumbled something like ‘screw mary’s house’ and got out of there.

In hindsight feeling bad that we didn't stop that couple from going in there

In hindsight feeling bad that I didn’t stop that couple behind them from going in there

Our spirits were lifted when we arrived at our AirBnB home  – a beautiful, cozy cottage with friendly dogs and cats and a wonderful host. So, with a new cheerier disposition we headed off to explore the tiny, picturesque town of Şirince, whilst eating Dondurma in the rain (the chewiest, bestest, most delicious kind of ice cream ever). Şirince is said to have been occupied after Ephesus was abandoned in the 1400s, supposedly by freed Greek slaves, who named the town Çirkince (‘Ugly’ in Turkish) to deter others from following them. It was renamed in 1926 and it means ‘Pleasant’ instead! 

After picking up some wine in Şirince and Turkish pizza in Selçuk (bigger town closer to Ephesus) we had a cozy night in, already reminiscing about our roadtrip.

Our beautiful AirBnB home for the night

Our beautiful AirBnB home for the night

Buying wine in Sirince is a good idea

Buying wine in Sirince is always a good idea

Massive storks make their nests atop ancient columns in the middle of Selçuk

Massive storks make their nests atop columns in the middle of Selçuk

Day 6: Not being able to believe our eyes

Ephesus – Bursa

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We approached Ephesus tentatively and with much expectation. Apparently the world’s most complete ancient city, with only something like 12% excavated after 150 years of excavations. It is really difficult to fully understand its colossal, ancient magnitude when you’re there, and even more difficult to really relay what it feels like.

Ephesus did not disappoint. It was really an unforgettable couple of hours under the sun. It’s a very rare and special place, and we would highly recommend it.

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Also. There are cats. Everywhere.

Just chilling on ancient things like they’ve been there for ages.

I am not even kidding when I say we saw a cat giving birth right in front of a gift shop. A truly eye-opening and terrifying experience which I try to not think about to much…

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It was also the first time we actually felt like we were encountering tourists (probably because lots of mediterranean cruises stop at Ephesus). So being there in off-season was definitely one of our finest moments.

Day 7: Home Sweet Home

Bursa – Istanbul

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After a quick trip up to the ski resort on Uludağ (‘Sublime Mountain’ in Turkish) into thick fog and deep snow, we headed home to Istanbul, ending our road trip on high note with a game of pool at our local Billiard place in Cihangir. 

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Highlight: Watching my mom and her fiancé smack talk each other at the pool table.

Highlight: Watching my mom and her fiancé smack talk each other at the pool table.

After nearly 2000kms, roughly 30 hours of driving, and a week of on and off-road adventures, we can confidently say that not only is Turkey as beautiful, diverse, and friendly as everyone says it is, it is also a perfect place for an unforgettable roadtrip.

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Venice in Winter | A Photo Gallery

I have been to Venice once before as a kid – my mom took me and my brother and I remember a warm sunny day, with carnival processions, and markets, and glass-making demonstrations. There was also eating fish, and shopping for souvenirs, and visiting the Romeo and Juliet square in Verona (which blurred into the Venice memories), and feeling a little bit trapped and lost with hundreds of people in tiny little alleyways.

So this year we went to Venice to catch the tail-end of the 56th Biennale, and what we found there was so profoundly different from what I remembered. We went for late-night walks in narrow, labyrinthine alleyways, tracing the maze that is Venice as if we were the only people on the floating city, with patches of light glistening on the wet cobblestones. Sometimes the canals get so hazy in the cold, that the water disappears into the sky without any traces of a horizon. We find an open shop, glowing with gold-like warmth against the dark and quiet street, filled with Venetian masks and the mask-maker, dressed in his white coat with glue or paint or something on his hands. Then we find an open bar, and we watch a gang of old and tipsy Italian ladies whilst sipping on limoncello, spritz, prosecco and wine. And then the sun comes out on Sunday (affirming me that my memories were real) and people dare to hang their clothes out to dry. The water turns clear blue just before we have to take a boat back to Italian mainland, back to cold and windy London, which feels a lot different than cold and windy Venice.

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P.S. The wind is pretty rough

P.S. The wind is pretty rough

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A few months ago we found our invitation lying on our London doormat, and ever since then we have been looking forward to a weekend in Warsaw celebrating the wedding of our friends Danny and Karo.

The day of our departure was then upon us and, as usual, we scurried around packing bags and getting the apartment ready for our AirBnb guests, all of which resulted in yet another run through London Stansted Airport (running through Stansted has resulted in 80% of my workouts the past couple of months). After a quick flight from London and a short drive from Warsaw Modlin Airport, we parked our car in Podwale street outside the Old Town, famously reconstructed after its 13th century former self as it was completely in ruins after WWII. A short stroll led us to our AirBnb in the Old Town square, which turned out pretty awesome – another AirBnB victory for the books!

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Our neighbourhood for the weekend

Friday afternoon was for exploring Old Town and drinking vodka, Saturday was for wedding celebrations and making new friends, so when Sunday rolled by, in order to get the most of the weekend we had left, I referred to our favourite new travel book:

36 Hours in Europe Travel Book

And, as Barbara Ireland recommends it, we took our leftover Zlotys, hopped in our car and headed to the Kolo Bazar fleamarket. After aiding Google Translator at a parking area, we finally paid and walked across the street to where we saw the tops of some gazebos peeking out.

Disclaimer: In a desperate attempt to give a glimpse of what the market is like, I included multiple photos in this post, but nothing can really quite capture the feeling that is the Kolo Bazar. 

What we walked into was a social arena so different in so many nuanced ways from anything we have seen before, we felt as though we had entered a parallel world where old men in fur hats and/or old army gear with tattoos on their fingers sell anything from old Prussian helmets, gas masks, military regalia, to foxes and mongoose made into scarves, taxidermy fish, violins and trumpets, and vintage record players, while Polish radio plays 80s and 90s American music in the background. The winter sun is caught in its reflections in crystal decanters and swaying Prussian lamps, and sharp glimpses off the edges of vintage swords, pistols, and axes. It is a wonderful balance between the chaos that would erupt from bringing all objects in one place and the precision of carefully curated displays.

Warsaw's Kolo Bazar

Warsaw's Kolo Bazar

Warsaw's Kolo Bazar

We find ourselves completely distracted and also totally engaged, not once looking at each other or even our feet, but rather our heads turn from side to side constantly, in a feeble attempt to take in and see everything. We slowly start asking prices – I’m mostly interested in decanters, taxidermy, and antlers; Joel mostly looking at old coins, tobacco pipes, and beer jugs. Mostly the vendors say something in Polish, sometimes they trace the price on your palm, but the best thing to do is having your cellphone calculator ready.

We have almost always lived in neighbourhoods with a ton of markets (or bazaars) close by, but they were almost always a backdrop for trendy hipsterism (except for Istanbul). Kolo Bazar is not trendy at all – there are no vegan treats for sale, no fairtrade coffee, no branding, no indy live band in the background, no jewellery-design girls, craft beer or high-priced leather goods and vintage clothing – Kolo Bazar is so definitely uncool. Rather, it is a tradition enacted in a few square meters, where some old men bring some things vintage (like pre-war grandfather clocks), and some things not-so-vintage (like a G.I. Joe doll dressed in knitted doll clothing), waiting it out in the back of their mini buses or in a chair in the sun, selling it to you only if you seem interested. It was for sure the best market we’ve ever been to and one of the clear highlights of our weekend in Warsaw.

Warsaw's Kolo Bazar

Warsaw's Kolo Bazar

Warsaw's Kolo Bazar

Warsaw's Kolo Bazar

Warsaw's Kolo Bazar

After losing track of time at the market, we followed 36 Hours in Europe to Bar Zabkowsky – one of Warsaw’s milk bars. While most milk bars have disappeared, a few remain and still the run the way they used during Poland’s Communist era, which is when they were established and subsidised by the government during a major food shortage. Bar Zabkowsky is like a time capsule, and Joel and I lined up with the senior citizens at the register to order some dirt cheap cafeteria food. Again, thanks to Barbara Ireland and 36 Hours in Europe, I knew to ask the lady at the cash register for their English menu. We pointed at some stuff, hung around until an English-speaking local told us to hand our slip to the hair-netted lady behind the pick-up counter, who promptly dished our soup. We hung around some more, waiting for our dumplings, and then some grouchy old Polish guy stole and ate our first order of dumplings! The milk bar lady kinda shouted something at him and he retorted and kept on eating while he waited for his take-aways. The food is good but won’t win any awards; the experience of going to a milk bar, and knowing the part it played in Polish history, is really what warrants a visit.

Bar Zabkowsky

Please note the mannequin in the back right corner

After hitting up the Museum of the Polish Uprising, which is free on Sundays, showing the birdman in Old Town square slow mo videos of his pigeons, and doing just a little bit sale-shopping, we managed to squeeze in the extra jackets and coats in our little carry-ons and headed back to the airport, and back to London.

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The streets of Stare Miasto (Old Town)

And more Kolo Bazaar photos 🙂

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The beautiful, colourful Old Town of Warsaw

The beautiful, colourful Old Town of Warsaw

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Favourite Things: DC Edition

We lived in Washington D.C. for a couple of months last year while I was doing an internship at the Smithsonian. Now, our friends will attest that we talk a lot of crap about D.C., so I thought it’s time to set the record straight. Behind the veil of complaining about the weather and all the other things we like to complain about, there lies a treasury of happy memories and favourite things, listed here in no particular order:

Our Neighbourhood

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We absolutely loved Bloomingdale, which is the neighbourhood we stayed in. We loved evening strolls or leisurely cycles, we loved playing basketball with random strangers, we loved the colourful little townhouses – it is a part of DC that I felt had a real feeling about it. After spending time in the very federal centre of town it really was a saving grace to return to Bloomingdale.

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The Best BBQ in the whole entire District

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OH MAN. We moved twice within Bloomingdale during our short stay in DC. But the first place we lived in was maybe four minutes’ walk away from the best BBQ joint in the whole entire District of Columbia, possibly even the whole entire East Coast of the United States of America.

DCity Smokehouse.

We had way too much of it and yet at the same time it felt like we could not possibly ever get enough of it. So when we moved further away it felt like both the best and the worst thing that has ever happened to us ever.

DCity Smokehouse – I bury all my vegetarian hatchets for you.

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Sangria & Jazz in the Sculpture Garden

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Every summer Friday afternoon equates to a big jazz party in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, best enjoyed with pitchers of sangria and/or beer. We managed to sneak a spot on the cool grass after a long walk of memorials and other All American things with our friend Chris, and the cool, citrusy sangria was very, very welcome.

Pro-Tip: Watch out and/or join in with weird-ass jazz dancers

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Cycling After Dark

What a fantastic way to enjoy DC. We grabbed some bikes after our pitcher(s) of sangria and zipped around the mall after sunset – when there are nearly no cars or people to spoil your fun (in comparison with the summer congestion otherwise) – cycling around in circles in front of the white house (minus the crowd) pretending to be sober, the cool of the darkness a happy contrast to the sweltering heat. We ended up on our backs by the Jefferson Memorial, docked our bikes, and later convinced our Uber driver to take us to McDonald’s drive through for a McFlurry (he ended up waiting for us in the parking lot).

Pro-Tip: Best enjoyed with a friend and after sangria and jazz in the sculpture garden.

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Concerts

This was my first time living in the States, and Joel’s first time living in a city in the States (and after a long time abroad), so going to lots of concerts of people whose music we love was a big high (especially for Joel who luuurves concerts).

Sufjan Stevens, where I thought ‘is this what dying and going to heaven sounds like?’ at the end. And where we heard Moses Sumney open.

Ben Folds, where I laughed and laughed and bopped up and down (in neighbouring Maryland)

The Weepies, where we reminisced.

Sufjan Stevens in concert

Sufjan Stevens in concert

Watching the Washington Wizards at a play off game

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We were in the area when the Wizards faced the Nuggets in a NBA play off game, and decided to check it out. We felt awkward hanging around some scalpers at first, but bought some tickets off a guy (they were real!) and had the absolute pleasure of cheering for the Wizards, whose fans are crazy!

or, Watching basketball at the only bar in town that plays the sound

We set out one afternoon to find a bar where we would be able to see and hear the rest of the play-offs. We tried a couple places that refused to turn the sound up and ended up finding ‘Climax’, an Ethiopian bar who happily turned the sound way up, and provided Joel with some Shisha. We returned for the subsequent games, for which we were rewarded with really great Ethiopian bar food (sometimes someone would come in from the kitchen with some cooked pieces of spicy beef, sending it around as snacks). We have very happy memories in Climax, and, though this might just be in our heads, we feel like we have some sort of rapport with its staff.

Museums

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‘Museums’ might go without saying, but for someone who loves museums (I am doing my Masters in Museum Studies after all) Washington D.C. is a wonderful place to be. I was really busy with my internship at the National Museum of African Art but when I forced myself to go see some things in museums, I found a disproportionate amount of pleasure in flashing my Smithsonian I.D. card and not have to submit to bag searches. Whether it was quick run through the Natural History Museum, multiple visits to the Hirschhorn to just get through Shirin Neshat’s exhibition, going through the National Gallery looking for ‘freaky paintings’ marked on my map by an eager security guard, or just standing in the darkness of ‘Hell’ at the National Museum of African Art (the lowest floor dedicated to an exquisite exhibition on Dante’s Divine Comedy, curated by Simon Njame), it really was just an incredible time of seeing and exploring new things.

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Being subjected to large, hissing cockroaches at the NMNH before official opening hours

Being subjected to large, hissing cockroaches at the NMNH before official opening hours!

Battery park

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Sometimes we went to Battery Park to watch planes land at the Reagan Airport. Lying on the grass, watching the planes line up in the distance, waiting for the roar of the engines to drown out your heartbeat as they soar meters from your head, feeling like it’ll crash into you, landing on the trip across the water – it was one of our favouritest favourite things to do.

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Happy hour Cucumber Collins and Sapporo

Every now and then we would head to our sushi place after work (Momiji), which was coincidentally also happy hour, to get some sushi on sushi and $5 cocktails. Cue lots of refreshing Cucumber Collins in large mason jars, and Sapporo, which the waitresses cracked open and poured on their way to the table, mid-walk – which was just something so magical.

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Bottomless mimosa brunch

We lived close to this place called Boundary Stone, who served bottomless mimosas or bloody mary’s with its brunch. At a stage we were going to have to find a new place, and for a long while it seemed impossible and like we were going to have to go to the suburbs. We drank our feelings over brunch, refined our Turkish accents, and laughed with the waitress over considering taking up some guy’s Craigslist offer of a ‘soundproof room’ – we will always have fond memories of Boundary Stone’s bottomless brunches and remember it as some sort of a halfway house for us.

Baby Panda!

Seen rolling around and being silly at the National zoo

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To be honest, we really had a great time exploring DC and neighbouring Maryland and Virginia, and we look forward to heading back there some day.

I mean, #nofilter:

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