Mardi Gras in New Orleans Part 2

When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think of the craziness that happens on Bourbon St. There is way more involved with Mardi Gras in New Orleans than that. The first Mardi Gras in New Orleans happened on March 2,1699. The parades in New Orleans are set up and put on by groups called Krewes. The first krewe, Comus, was formed in 1856. Mardi Gras became a state holiday in 1875. 1972 was the last year that any major parade went thru the French Quarter, most of them skirt around the edge up and down Canal St. now. The traditional colors are Mardi Gras are green, gold, and purple. Green for power, gold for faith, and purple for justice. The colors were used in the first parade of the Rex krewe in 1872. There are now about 77 krewes in New Orleans that hold parades throughout the Carnival season. The parades have a lot of different throws of beads, stuffed animals, and doubloons that are considered collectors items.
Bourbon St. is where most of the tourists head to during Mardi Gras. Bourbon St. was just a residential area up until the 1880’s, when the first red light district popped up along Basin St. By 1950, there were at least 50 different burlesque, striptease, and exotic establishments. In 1962, a new district attorney Jim Garrison started to clean up Bourbon St., shutting down a lot of establishments that were involved in prostitution and overcharging alcohol. When Mayor Moon Landrieu was elected in 1970, he turned Bourbon St. into a pedestrian mall and “Disneyfied” it.
Bourbon St. is where you want to go if you want your “Girls Gone Wild” version of Mardi Gras. There are a lot of people offering beads and there are also a lot of people with cameras and phones out for those that do decide to partake in the exchange. You also have to watch your step walking around on the street. There are potholes up and down Bourbon St. that do get filled up with various liquids, and you do not want to step in it and have leave your shoes/socks/pants behind in New Orleans! During the day, it is pretty easy to move up and down Bourbon St., but at night, it can be very difficult with the crowds of people. I recommend traveling up a side street like Royal or Dauphine to get to where you really want to be on Bourbon St. Being on a balcony on Bourbon St. is amazing anytime of year, more so over the Mardi Gras season. Most of these balconies are rented out to private parties, but you might be able to pay a small cover charge to get up on one if you really wanted to!
I have never stayed up late enough to see it, but the traditional end to the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans is a mounted squad of New Orleans police officer push everyone out of upper Bourbon St. where most of the tourists hang out at. This happens at the stroke of Midnight of Ash Wednesday. I highly recommend everyone at least experience Carnival season in New Orleans at least once in your lives. It is a huge party you really have to see it to believe it!

Mardi Gras in New Orleans Part 1

Mardi Gras is an amazing time of year to visit New Orleans. Mardi Gras , also called Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday, refers to events of the Carnival celebrations which begins on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, reflecting the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season.
On the way from the airport to downtown, I highly recommend that you stop at Beads by the Dozen. They are a huge shop that sells beads, throws, and anything Mardi Gras or party related. We left the store with cases of throw beads and big beads as well! We stayed at the Sheraton downtown right on Canal St. You have to watch the timing of your arrival and the parade schedule, as you could be caught up and very heavy traffic and be forced to walk a couple of blocks due to road closures. We ended up getting lucky and getting upgraded to a suite overlooking Canal St. and downtown New Orleans.
We were very hungry after a long flight to New Orleans. One of my favorite spots to grab a quick bite is Coop’s Place. Coop’s Place is a Creole restaurant that serves up Cajun grub, fried chicken and drinks in a busy no-frills space that’s open late. I had the Cajun fried chicken and it was very plump and flavorful! Also down the street on Decatur is a favorite in New Orleans, Cafe du Monde. Founded in 1862, this cafe has kept it simple, serving cafe au laits and beignets as its staple. The cafe is open 24/7, so it’s always a good pit stop any time of day! Beignets are french fried fritters, served up with lots of powdered sugar. Each order comes with 3 beignets.
Near Cafe du Monde, is Jackson Square. Jackson Square was built in 1721, modeled after Place des Vosges in Paris. This was also the place where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803, making Louisiana a US territory. Right behind Jackson Square is St. Louis Cathedral. St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest Cathedral in the United States, the first church on the site was built in 1718.

Running Around Rome and Beyond Day 4

We decided to go out of Rome again one more time to visit the ancient ruins of Pompeii. The trip to Pompeii was very easy by train! We showed up to buy tickets for the next train to Naples, the nearest major city to Pompeii. The train station had lots of automatic kiosks to buy tickets from, and the walk up fare was 49 euros a person! The trains run about every 30-45 minutes and the trip takes only 67 minutes on the new Frecciarossa 1000 trains! One we were seated, the train picked up speed pretty quick once we got out of Rome. They have monitors in the cabin that shows where you were, how far you were away from your destination, ETA, and speed. It was crazy watching the Italian countryside fly by at 220mph. Once in Naples, we had to transfer to the local Circumevesuviana trains, which are cash only, to Pompei Scavi station. The trip on the local commuter train is about 35 minutes.
Pompeii is an amazing ancient city, founded in the 7th or 6th century BC, it was covered in 13-20 feet of ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The site was lost for about 1,500 years, rediscovered in 1599 and only really excavated in 1748. All the artifacts have been so well preserved because of the lack of air and moisture from the ash that covered it. When we got to the front gate, we were in luck! Come to find out, most public Italian museums are free to the public on the first Sunday of every month! Once we got in, the city is 170 acres full of ruins. You’ll need a good part of a day to explore all of what this ancient city has to offer. It has a few homes, baths, temples, an amphitheatre, and a gymnasium. When I was walking around, I was in awe of the technological feats to support these ancient citizens way of life 2,000. I could only imagine what it would be like then.
After walking around Pompeii for what felt like all day, we headed back into Naples. We were going to catch a meal in Naples before heading back into Rome, but we decided on heading back earlier. Luckily, our walk up fare train tickets were transferable to an earlier train. We left an hour and half earlier than we expected! Once we were back in Rome, we went to the Colosseum one last time at night before we had to head home the next morning. I just stood there, looking at this ancient wonder in appreciation for a minute or two, before heading back to the subway station for the hotel, longing to return back to Rome to enjoy its sights and sounds.

Running Around Rome and Beyond Day 3

The Vatican Museums is another great Roman destination. Founded in 1506, it has over 70,000 pieces of work with 54 galleries. You defiantly also want to book your tickets online in advance, so the lines to get in can be hours on some days. The tickets for entry are 16 euros, plus a 4-euro reservation fee. You can select the day and time you want to enter. Be sure you pick a time you can commit you, as the guards can be strict on trying to enter the queue early or late during high season. When you enter thru the main doors, you have to exchange your reservation for a physical ticket. There is a guided one-way path thru the Vatican Museums to see most of the exhibits and artwork. Most people pass the artwork quickly to get to the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel sits in the Apostolic Palace, home of the Pope. It is the site of the Papal Conclave, where the College of Cardinals vote on a new Pope. To be in the Chapel with the fresco of The Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo is breathtaking. You could easily spend hours looking up at the ceiling! There is no talking or taking photos allowed while inside the Chapel, and they are very strict on those rules. I would say plan to at least spend half a day at the Vatican Museums.
After walking around all day and working up an appetite, we found a small pasta chain nearby called Pastaciutti. It is little hole in the all joint, but it has some of the best pasta I ever had! I had cheese and pepper pasta with a coke for about 7 euros! After a quick meal, we hoped on the subway towards downtown Rome. One of the famous sights we checked out was the Pantheon. The Pantheon was a former Roman temple that is now a Christian church. The current building standing was opened in about 126 AD. The church is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns. The dome is the largest unreinforced dome in the world at 142 feet in diameter! It is also one of the best preserved of all the ancient Roman buildings due to its continuous use. Entering in to see the oculus opening shining light down on the marble floor is an awesome sight! We then walked over to the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps are 135 steps built in 1725 to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to Trinita dei Monti church. The steps were made famous to an American audience during the 1953 classic movie, Roman Holiday.

Running Around Rome and Beyond Day 2

The next morning, we got on a tour bus and headed north to the Umbria area of Italy. The first stop was a winery outside of Orvieto called Cantina Custodi. Cantina Custodi is a small family winery on 70 hectares that is dedicated to making wine and olive oil. We were given a tour of the grounds and winery, while sipping on a few different type of wine! After a few hours at the winery, we made our way into the town of Orvieto. Orvieto, founded in 1290, sits on a volcanic plug. It is home to a huge Roman Catholic cathedral finished in 1591. There are lots of small shops and restaurants in the city center by the cathedral. It was difficult to find a restaurant open in the middle of the week in February, but we eventually ran into Osteria da Mamma Angela, a small local Italian restaurant. Once we filled up on more pasta, we headed back down to check out the city of Civita.

Civita is an interesting little town. It was founded by the Etruscans more than 2,500 years ago. It also sits atop a plateau of friable volcanic tuff. It is constantly in danger as parts of the plateau have fallen off due to erosion. Its population can vary between 12 people in the winter to 100 in the summer. There is a really long footbridge that you have to take to enter Civita, it is the only way in or out of town. Once you are in, it feels like you have gone back in time hundreds of years. The old architecture has withstood the test of time here. We only had a few minutes of daylight to check out the streets of this mysterious town before we had to hop back on the bus to Rome.

Running Around Rome and Beyond Day 1

Once we got into Rome, we took one of the local Trenitalia train lines to get to our hotel. The one-way fare was only 8 euro for the hour and 20-minute ride with a transfer. We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Central Park, which is located conveniently near a local bus and train stop. I ended up getting a room with an amazing view of St. Peter’s Basilica. I didn’t have time to admire the view, as we had to rush over to the Colosseum for our tour reservations! We took an Uber right to the Colosseum for about 35 euros.

The entrance and tour package allows you to skip the line, which was a huge help. The third ring tour was 12 euros, plus a 2-euro reservation fee. You still must buy a ticket to get in the Colosseum, which was 9 euros. The total package was 23 euros. Once you pass security, you must stop by a ticket booth to collect a physical ticket and get a sticker for the tour. The third ring/underground tour was amazing. They let you out onto the arena floor where the gladiators fought. The tour also lets you down into the underground tunnels, as well as the top tier of the Colosseum. Hang on to your ticket into the Colosseum, as that is good the Roman Forum and Palatine area close by! You could attempt to walk it all in one day, or break it out over 2 days; but the ticket only allows one entrance into each landmark.

We decided on doing the Roman Forum the same day as the Colosseum. It is A LOT of walking around the old ruins of the Forum and Palatine hills, but it’s a sight to see one of the oldest city centers in the world. After a few hours of walking around the ruins, we walked up to another famous landmark, Trevi fountain. Trevi fountain is the largest Braque fountain in Rome. It was built in 1762 to supply Rome with water via the Acqua Vergine. Lots of tourists throw coins into the fountain. The proper way according to the 1954 movie Three Coins in the Fountain is for the coin to be thrown using the right hand over the left shoulder. It is said in the movie that if you make a wish to return to Rome once you throw the coin, you will.

Once I made my wishes at the fountain, we headed back to the hotel via subway to freshen up and meet up with a big travel group at Tonnarello. Tonnarello is an excellent Italian restaurant near the Tiber river. I had the cheese and pepper pasta, a traditional Roman dish. The pasta was good for the 8.50 euros it cost!

Return to Iceland

I finally had an opportunity to return to Iceland after I heard some coworkers talk about going to see the northern lights. We made some plans and decided to go to Iceland in the middle of January.

The flight to Iceland on Icelandair was uneventful and on time. The flight attendants hand out a big bottle on Icelandic water on boarding for everyone, which was greatly needed and appreciated. One thing that catches some travelers off guard is that Icelandair does not have free food onboard their aircraft. The non-alcoholic drinks are free, but if you want food, that will cost extra. I did not mind the extra 9 euros for a hot sandwich and chips.

We arrived early in the morning, as most flights into Iceland from North America do. Getting the rental car was pretty easy, except the fact that you had to walk outdoors to an outdoor waiting area for the rental car bus to pick you up in cold! It was about 33 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived into Iceland! We rented thru Budget rental car, as that was the cheapest I could find a 7 person car. If you do travel with 7 people to Iceland and expect to fit all your bags in the car, forget it. We luckily only had 6 people traveling on this trip. The problem is that the 6th and 7th seats fold up to give you an above average trunk space if you have 5 people. If you use the 6th and 7th seats, there is no trunk space at all. We ended up packing in the back as best as we could with a couple of people holding on to their backpacks on the drive into Reykjavik.

On this trip, we were fortunate enough to stay at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica. This hotel near downtown Reykjavik and is nothing short of amazing. We showed up at the hotel around 8AM hoping for an early check in on 3 rooms. To our surprise, one of the rooms was in fact ready! They graciously gave us keys for the one room, which included lounge access for breakfast and appetizers in the evening. After we had breakfast, all of us went downstairs to see if the other rooms were ready, which they were not. I give great compliments to the front desk agent for finding us napping in the lobby to inform us that our other rooms were ready with keys in hand about an hour after we left the front desk the 2nd time. One of the biggest tips that I can not stress enough on international travel while changing multiple time zones is to adjust to the local time on the first day. Most of our were still tired from the trip in from Denver to Keflavik as it is only an 8 hour gate to gate flight. Most of the people in the group wanted to take a nap, so we all agreed to meet back up in 2 hours. If you feel like you need to get some shut-eye after a red-eye flight, make sure you take a short nap and not sleep in for a couple of hours, because your body clock could be thrown off versus what timezone you’re in. After a short nap, we got up to explore Reykjavik a bit.

Reykjavik has a lot of things to see and do within a walkable distance. Laugavegur is a very long street in the heart of Reykjavik with lots of shops and restaurants to check out. At one end of the street, in the shadows of the Harpa Concert Hall, is one of my favorite places, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. I have written previously about this location and I still am in agreement that this is the best hot dog stand in Europe. I enjoy it so much that I not only got 1, but 2 hot dogs! After some eats and a lot of walking, we called it an early night to try to catch up on some sleep.

Once we awoke in the morning, we headed out to check out Seljalandsfoss, a beautiful waterfall in the southern part of Iceland. Seljalandsfoss was also featured as a waypoint on one of the seasons of The Amazing Race. As a huge fan of the show, we had to go check it out. We drove about an hour and forty minutes to get to the falls, but we made a pit stop in the town of Hella. For those of you not from Northern California, we use the word hella as an adjective, so it was a pretty exciting experience for the group to be in the town. Seljalandsfoss is one of the better known waterfalls in Iceland that has a 197 foot drop that forms the Seljalandsfoss river, which is fed from a glacier in Eyjafjallajökull. (Yes, the same Eyjafjallajökull that erupted in 2010 that shut down air traffic in Europe) You can actually climb a set of stairs on the right hand side of the waterfall and walk behind it! It is about an hour and a half drive from Reykjavik.

After the drive back from Seljalandsfoss, we went to the Blue Lagoon. There are a lot of mixed feelings out there for going there. Some will say it is overly touristy, as the lagoon itself is not natural. It is man-made that holds the geothermal water after it is ran thru generators to create electricity and energy from the nearby Svartsengi power plant. There are some that also had issues with its dynamic pricing system for reservations and that you MUST have a reservation to get in. We were lucky going in early January as it is very low season for tourism in Iceland. We were able to book tickets the night before. As I write this passage on February 9th, there is only 800pm, an hour before closing, available on February 15th! There were some late entry times about two weeks out, so book way in advance! The Blue Lagoon is currently expanding to have another lagoon sometime this year to help get more people in, as Iceland is currently going thru growing pains as tourism has double from 2010 to 2014. As for me, I think the Blue Lagoon is a must see location at least once in your life. When you check in and get you locker, it is customary the shower off before you get in the lagoon! Try to make sure you bring your own towel too, as there is limited space to hang towels at the lagoon and all the towels being rented out look exactly the same. Yes, you may feel the silica mud when you walk thru the hot water in the lagoon, but you definitely do not want to pick this up and put it on your face! There is a little hut that you can swim up to that has fresh silica mud and algae mask if you paid for the upgraded ticket. They also have a swim up bar with drinks to enjoy in the lagoon as well. We were there for about 3 hours in the twilight/evening hours. Once you leave the lagoon for the day, be sure to rinse your hair with lots and lots of conditioner, as the silica will make your hair stiff and difficult to manage!

The next morning we did the golden circle tour, which has no meaning or roots in Icelandic history, just a nice marketing name! The golden circle tour encompasses about 300 kilometers, or 190 miles, starting in Reykjavik and circling around the southern uplands and back. The day we went was the coldest day on the trip, about 18 degrees fahrenheit or -8 celsius. It is a beautiful sight though to leave in the morning darkness driving to the first stop of Þingvellir National Park and seeing the sun slowly rise over the mountains. Þingvellir National Park was the site of the Alþingi (assembly) of parliament in 930. There is a continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates that is slowly pulling away from each other that can be seen at the park as well. It is about a 40 minute drive from Reykjavik. The next stop about 50 minutes from Þingvellir is Geysir. The Great Geysir seldom erupts, but the nearby Strokkur geyser is a lot more reliable, erupting every 6-10 minutes with an average height of 15-20 meters. A few more minutes up the road is Gullfoss. Gullfoss is a big, beautiful waterfall dropping 32 meters over two tiers. When you approach the waterfall at first, it appears as if the river just drops off in the earth itself. It is really a powerful sight to look at and be a part of.

Once we were back in town, we decided to head into downtown Reykjavik to eat at one of the more highly reviewed restaurants, Fish Company. Fish Company is an upscale seafood restaurant with a wide variety of different seafood dishes around the world. They list the country of origin along with the seafood for that dish, so if you want to get a different cuisine taste, you can. I went with the fish of the day from the local waters of Iceland, which happened to be 3 different fishes plated with different sauces and veggies. The presentation and quality for the price was very reasonable compared to other seafood restaurants.

On our last day in Iceland, we had just enough time before our late afternoon flight back to Seattle to check out Hallgrímskirkja. Hallgrímskirkja is Lutheran church and is the largest church in Iceland at 73 meters high. You can go to the top of the tower to their observation deck for 900 ISK. Keep in mind that the only way up is one very small elevator that only holds 6 people at a time. We did not go to the top, as the wait was about 45 minutes to get on the elevator! There is also an amazing statue of Leif Eriksson in front of the church that predates the construction of the church itself. It was a gift from the United States to Iceland in 1930 to celebrate the 1000 year anniversary of the Alþingi. We only had so much time to check out the surrounding area before we had to head to the airport to head home.

Why did we chose to go to Iceland in the dead of winter? We wanted to have the best chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis. The Aurora zone is usually pretty small, but it can reach down to cover Iceland in a glow of polar light depending on any geomagnetic storms or solar activity. There is never a guarantee to see Aurora Borealis, and we did unfortunately struck out. At least on Icelandair on the flight home, there was always a guarantee to see the northern lights. I looked at those LED lights dancing on the ceiling of the aircraft, dreaming of another day coming back yet again to see the Aurora Borealis in person. Til next time Iceland.