The small-ish city of Serres

Having been in Θεσσαλονίκη (Thessaloniki) for a while, I figured it was time for a mini-trip. Since my Greek classes are a week apart, I had plenty of time so the search began. There’s a delicate balance to be stuck between accessibility (I prefer not to drive here) and availability of accommodation. The city of Σέρρες (Serres) met my criteria so off I went.

I booked my train ride out on a Monday. It wasn’t very crowded, and I think I was the only foreigner on the entire train (I certainly didn’t notice any others in my train car). I was pretty surprised by the scenery; it was the greenest I’ve seen in Greece. We even passed a lake! I think that area gets a lot more rain than the rest of the country. There were also some sweet views of the mountains that separate Greece from Macedonia and Bulgaria. Sadly, I was felt too awkward to pull out my GoPro and snap a few pictures…. I really need to get over that.

The city is easily navigable as there are only 100,000 residents. Everything I wanted to see was within 500 meters of my downtown AirBnB rental…including a couple blocks of restaurants. Score!

When I went out wandering the second day, I accidentally ran into the local museum. It’s housed within an old Ottoman structure that resembles a mosque. Admittance was (surprisingly) free! I spent about an hour learning about the history of the local area, and looking at ancient artifacts; some of which were from thousands of years before Christ.

While wandering around, I also snapped a few shots of old buildings, and places of worship. I seemed to be the only person interested enough to break out a camera. I’d officially escaped the throngs of tourists!

Something else I really appreciated was how much easier it was to practice my Greek. When I apologized to my server at a restaurant for my shitty Greek, she didn’t immediately switch to English! She slowed down, and pointed at the ingredients she was asking if I’d like in my gyro. Thank you random person for aiding my language journey.

After a couple days, it was time to head out; I had Greek classes in Thessaloniki to get back to. I think I would have been OK with staying there for a few more days though. My CouchSerfing app said there were people that were available to hang out in the evenings. And I liked the slow pace; it’s a very chill city.

If you get a chance, I’d say it’s worth at least a day of your attention. If you like a lot of action while you travel, you’ll probably get bored pretty quickly though.

Hopefully, this was helpful. Until next time, safe travels….

One by land…still one by sea

I’ve noticed that relatively well maintained fortifications tend to become prisons later on. At least that was the case with the places I’ll write about today. It’s sad, but history often is.

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The White Tower

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The first one will be recognized by anyone that’s been to Θεσσαλονίκη (Thessaloniki): Ο Λευκός Πύργος (The White Tower). A tower was originally constructed on the site as a Byzantine fortification. Later on, the Ottomans built the current tower which is thought to have been built in the early 1500s.

During the Ottoman rule, it was used as a prison, and was called the Red Tower. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this name was due to the executions.

When Thessaloniki was ceded to Ελλάδα (Greece), a prisoner white-washed it in exchange for his freedom, and it got its current name. White being a symbol of purity was meant to cleanse (but not forget) the misery the tower evoked. Now, it’s viewed as a symbol of the city.

It’s open for visitors, and quite a few tourists (both foreign and local) visit it (especially students that get in for free). It was good to go inside, and look around. However, the plaques are all in Greek. As much as I enjoy learning the language, my skills aren’t good enough to read museum exhibit signs. If you want to visit, see if you can get a local to go with you and translate. Actually, I might be able to bribe one to do that another time…. An idea is born.

A far less popular destination is Επταπύργιο (Eptagyrgio Fortress). I stumbled upon this while I was wandering around the άνω πόλη (upper town) of Thessaloniki. Hardly anyone was there. I suspect this is because 1) no one knows it exists, 2) it’s a long way up, and walking there is a workout.

Travel hack: if love less crowded, but still history packed places, take the hike and find this.

The walls that are part of the ακρόπολη (acropolis or citadel) were built in Roman times. It’s believed the remaining walls were built in the 12th century (during Byzantine rule). Then, it passed and was maintained by the Ottomans as a fortress.

Finally, the Greeks turned it into a prison in the 1890s. The interior reflects this latter purpose as everything within the fort’s exterior walls was demolished and rebuilt. Walking around the inside started off normally enough, but then I found the museum.

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This plaque greeted me, and I instantly turned somber. Through the use of ‘modern’ photography, one’s able to create a far more vehement reaction than the ‘normal’ plaques and ruins I encounter in ancient civilizations. I was caught completely off guard….

And it was fantastic! I travel to learn, to grow, to feel. Mission accomplished…for now.

Tips and tricks for traveling in Iceland

I’ve been to Iceland twice now, and wandered around pretty much all of Reykjavik (not that that’s hard, but…). I’ve also talked to quite a few fellow travelers at the hostel I was staying in the last time I went so I think I’m fairly qualified to give a few pointers.

  1. Do not take the tours. They’re expensive, you’re traveling with a butt-load of other people, and you’re stuck on their schedule. If you want to see the fantastic, natural beauty that is Iceland, rent a car. You’ll thank me later.
  2. Use the IRCA app. The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has an app that tells you all about road conditions. It’s highly accurate. If the app says it’s dangerous, don’t go driving there. The last thing you need is to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, and wait the hours it will take for someone to rescue you; that is if you manage to call an emergency number of some sort. Iceland outside of Reykjavik is isolated.
  3. Book your bus tickets with a return trip. If you don’t rent a car at the airport, book both your bus tickets at the same time. This trick saved me a few dollars.
  4. Don’t book all your nights in Reykjavik. If you’re renting a car, and traveling around the island, it’ll take you a few days (even if you didn’t stop for anything). So it’s a good idea to book a couple places around the island. Even if you just want to run around the south side and get to the diamond or black beaches, you’ll probably need to get a place in Vik.
  5. Book your Icelandic Sagas tickets in advance. I was like “I’m in Reykjavik. I should go see this Icelandic Sagas play thing I keep seeing adds for.” Then I discovered they were booked until after I was going to leave. That was probably the biggest disappointment of my whole trip. The rest of it was pretty awesome though so it didn’t get me too bummed.
  6. Do not go to the Blue Lagoon. If you want hot springs, there are more than you can count outside Reykjavik for free (well, minus gas). Or if you don’t want to leave town, go to any of the ones listed here, and it will be way cheaper and almost just as good. I have some friends that went to the Blue Lagoon, and said it was worth it. I think that was their coping mechanism for watching their bank account drop like a rock.
  7. Make your way to the Perlan. The Perlan (pearl in English) is an amazing structure. Even if you don’t go to the ice cave in the basement or eat at the restaurant on the top floor, you should at least hit up the balcony and take every panoramic shot your camera can hold. The whole city’s visible for free.
  8. Do not pay for the tower in Hallgrímskirkja. This is the church that’s visible from everywhere in town. Do go there and have a look around, but do not pay to go up the tower. If you want a fantastic view of Reykjavik, see #7 above.
  9. Visit some museums. I’ve reviewed a few of them in my ‘A few Icelandic museum reviews’ post. There are a bunch more, though, that I’m sure are also quite good.
  10. Buy your groceries at Bónus. I thought I’d be clever once and go to a non-chain, local grocery store thinking it’d be cheaper. It was actually the opposite. Plus, Bónus has a larger selection than the similar sized grocery stores. $0.35 packets of ramen noodles were a serious budget saver.
  11. Keep your eyes peeled for grocery deals. Once when I was grocery shopping, I saw one of the employees stocking bananas; and everyone was grabbing them. Soon, only the expensive bananas were left. Another time, I found $1 instant oatmeal cups (trust me, this is actually a fantastic deal for Iceland). A few days later, they were all gone. I totally should have grabbed more.
  12. Check out the graffiti. There’s graffiti all over the city, but there’s this one tunnel that goes under 49 at Langahlíð that’s covered wall to wall. I’m pretty sure most tourists don’t know it’s there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few locals didn’t either.
  13. The Aurora Borealis. If you’re there in winter, you should definitely try to see this. Drive out during the end of the day to one of the hot springs in the middle of nowhere. Soak yourself at night while waiting for the lights. That way if you don’t see them (which is a strong possibility), at least you got to enjoy a hot spring and the trip wasn’t a complete waste.

Hopefully, this has been helpful, and can save you at least a little money. While the airfare might be cheap, the country as a whole is anything but.

A few Icelandic museum reviews

Reykjavik is home to a lot of museums. They generally tend to be smaller than what we think of as museums in the US. By virtue of their size, though, they can cover far more topics than the mega-museums to which most of my readers are probably accustomed. I didn’t get anywhere close to seeing them all, but I’ll certainly tell you about the ones I did make it to.

Þjóðminjasafnið (The National Museum of Iceland)

This is possibly the most broad museum in the city. It covers pretty much all the settled history of Iceland. There are three floors with the exhibits on floors 2 and 3, and the gift shop and a cafe on the ground floor. As you ascend and progress further into the museum, you travel later in time.

The second floor starts with the initial settlement, and talks about how the Vikings got there and how they lived. This is around 700AD-ish. When you get to around 1000 AD, a lot of religious artifacts come in as that’s when Iceland was ‘converted’ to Christianity…sort of. Christianity in Iceland was a bit different than mainland Europe; especially in the early days. The thing I got the most excited about on the floor was an old bible written in Icelandic. The German girls I was with claimed they could understand some of the words in case there was any doubt Icelandic’s a Germanic language.

The third floor starts around 1600 AD. There are a lot of agrarian items before it transitions into the Medieval Period, and on into the present. My favorite part of this floor was the sweet looking contraptions used for telling dates and times; they look like a series of dials with words and numbers on them. I know, I’m weird….

Entry is normally 2000 ISK (Icelandic Krona) or roughly $20 (at this time). I’ll let you decide for yourself if it’s worth it. I thought it was, but some of the friends with me preferred the natural museums.

Landnámssýnigin (The Settlement Exhibition)

This exhibit is all about the early settlement of Iceland. They discovered an old longhouse, and excavated it. Then, they constructed a building over the top of it so people can walk around the outside, and look at the actual building…or at least what’s left of it. The wall around the outside is full of artifacts pulled from the longhouse and other areas. All of them are from about the settlement time estimated to be around 750 AD.

At 1650 ISK (about $16.50), I really liked this museum. Not only was it cheaper than the National Museum of Iceland, I’m also a bigger fan of the style and content.

Perlan (The Pearl)

This is one of the most fascinating buildings in Reykjavik. It’s situated on a hill overlooking the city with its glass dome. A spotlight can be seen circling around the sky from miles away at night. When you get close, you can see the outside illuminated by all kinds of colored lighting.

On the top floor, is a restaurant and gift shop. So if you’d like a fancy meal with a spectacular view, this could be your place. Or if you’re cheap like me, you can wander up to the 3rd-ish floor, and walk onto the balcony that circles the place for free! The whole city can be seen, and there are some truly spectacular photos to be taken…unless you’re me, and have GoPro issues…. I really need to get that sorted.

In the basement, there’s the only man-made ice cave in Iceland. It’ll run you 2900 ISK (roughly $29) to run through the maze-like tunnels. If you go when it’s warm, bring cold weather gear as they only provide coats which won’t provide adequate chill protection on their own.

Once you exit the caves, you arrive in a room with a gamified museum. There are senors that detect where you’re pointing so you can ‘tell’ the display what you’d like to know about. There’s also a lot of information about glaciers, and how much they’re melting. One even disappeared a couple years ago.

It’s a bit pricey, but you’re effectively getting 2 museums in one. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it.

Whales of Iceland

This museum also runs 2900 ISK (about $29). Or if you’re traveling with kids, you can get 2 adults and 2 kids in for 5800 ISK (the same price as 2 adults)! If you have kids with you, this is a must-see. There are giant whale figures hanging from the ceiling that you can take pictures with. There’s a play area that looks like whale bones for the little rascals. If you’re extra clever, you can trade off kid watching and reading the signs.

Even if you don’t have kids though, it’s pretty interesting if you’re into sea life. I enjoyed being dwarfed by the blue whale. Those things are massive.

Summary

There have to be at least a dozen other museums in the city. Hopefully, this has at least been somewhat helpful. And remember, museums are cheaper than the guided tours!

Stay tuned for my next post where I talk about some traveling hacks for this (currently) icy paradise.

Financial Friday 1

Welcome to the first installment of Financial Friday. In these, I’ll tell you what I spent on everything. Your spending may vary, but the general idea is for me to see if I’m meeting my budgetary goals…and a secondary benefit could be to show you about how much traveling costs (at least for me).

Travel

On Monday…. Uber from ‘home’ to the Greyhound station: $22.16. Greyhound bus from Indy to Chicago: $31.50. Uber from the Chicago Greyhound station to O’Hare Airport (Chicago): $37.11.

Overnight flight from Chicago to Keflavik: $139.98. Base price on the WOW flight was $100. A carry-on bag and a few taxes brought it up to the total.

On Tuesday, FlyBus from Keflavik Airport to the Reykjavik Bus Station, and back: $48.69. I saved about $5 by purchasing a round-trip ticket. Half of that for the inbound journey is $24.35.

I walked about 10 minutes to the hostel for free! I also walked all over Reykjavik to see things for free. Everyone loves free work-outs!

Accommodation

Bus Hostel Reykjavik, booked through Hostel World: $203.10 for 7 nights in a 10 bed room. As I don’t travel with a sleeping bag, I also had to rent a comforter (or as they call them, duvet) for $9.95. Add it all up, and divide by 7 comes to $30.44 per night.

Food

On Monday, I got a burger and fries at O’Hare Airport: $14.31. In retrospect, I realize this was the only meal I had all day. Not the best decision, but it worked due to a huge dinner the night before, and sleep deprivation while traveling.

On Tuesday, I got a large sandwich from a local deli: $10.70. I don’t know if it was just that good, or being really hungry, but that was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had! The deli’s called Bakarameistarinn, and it’s just across 40 from the Kringlan Mall.

I had an afternoon tea at Te & Kaffi: $5.72. It’s expensive, but it’s also how I relax. So, for me, this is probably the best value out of the whole day.

For dinner, I got a chicken, feta burrito from the Kinglan Mall food court: $16.11. It’s expensive, but I didn’t want to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach.

Groceries from the Bónus in the Kinglan Mall: $11.96. I got some bananas, instant oatmeal, butter, and eggs. So basically, the cheap stuff. All food in Iceland is expensive due to the (relatively) small population and distance from the rest of the world.

On Wednesday, I got a light breakfast from the hostel: $5.69. Travel tip: always check to see if your hostel offers free breakfast…preferably before you order something.

And I made another grocery run: $11.88. This time I got some tea, a few ramen noodles, and some pears…because fruit.

On Thursday, I just made another grocery run: $10.68. Shopping list: more bananas, more oatmeal, and yogurt. After all those grocery runs, I think I’ve got enough food to not spend anything on it for a few days.

Other

There’s always the obligatory travel insurance which comes out to $3.07 per day. And I lost my toothbrush. Purchasing one from the hostel was $3.62.

On Wednesday, there was the Þjóðminjasafnið (National Museum of Iceland): $19.88. On Thursday, there was the Landnámssýnigin (The Settlement Exibition): $16.50. More on what I saw there in a future blog.

Summary

Week 1
Fri Sat Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Total
Travel 230.75 24.39 0 0 255.14
Lodging 0 30.44 30.44 30.44 91.32
Food 14.31 44.49 17.57 10.68 87.05
Other 3.07 3.07 26.57 19.57 52.28
Total 0 0 0 248.13 102.39 74.58 60.69 485.79

So yeah, this is way over budget. Even the ‘cheap’ day as over $60, but then, no one said Iceland was easy on the wallet. Time will pass, I’ll hit up cheaper countries, and I’ll likely travel much slower, so the average should come down significantly.

I hope at least someone other than myself found this helpful. Next post: Icelandic museum review…or at least that’s the plan.