I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Vík: Iceland’s Southernmost Village

Hello from Iceland! I’ll be posting from here for the next couple of weeks as I explore and take notes for the second edition of our new guidebook, Rick Steves Iceland. There’s a lot to discover on this little island, and I look forward to packing you along. (Do you have traveling friends who are also dreaming of Iceland? Be sure to invite them to join us here or on Facebook.)

We begin in the tiny town of Vík, Iceland’s southernmost village. While most travelers’ Icelandic memories are a charm bracelet of jaw-droppingly beautiful natural sights, I enjoy visiting the workaday towns along the way — and showing them to travelers. These towns aren’t pretty, as it’s rare to find buildings here from before WWII. Most Icelandic homes are built more to resist the weather than to delight the eye. Still, on this ice-covered rock between Norway and Greenland (just a bit bigger than Maine, with 340,000 people), towns like Vík are real — and good travel is real, too. Join me on a quick tour of Vík with Stefan Valsson of Reykjavík Bike Tours.

By the way, guides like Stefan are easy to book anywhere in the world via Tours By Locals. I’ve used them in both hemispheres to book guides when I don’t have a particular person already in mind.

Video: Alone with the Old Man of Hoy on the Orkney Ferry

We just finished our Scotland shoot — three great new episodes are in the can. And that wraps up our entire Season 10 of Rick Steves’ Europe. A dozen new shows are coming your way starting this October. I am so excited to finally be able to share the fruits of this two-year-long project.

Saying goodbye to my crew, I enjoyed the relief of no more show production responsibilities. Heading south from Orkney, I hopped the ferry and pondered diving gannets, the Old Man of Hoy, and favorite ferry rides. What are some of your favorite ferry-ride experiences in Europe?

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Video: Orkney’s Prehistoric Wonders

Crouching down to squeeze through the passage of the most amazing prehistoric chambered tomb north of the Alps, I kept thinking, “For 5,000 years people have lowered their heads to enter this sacred space.” As our Rick Steves’ Europe crew was hard at work, I took a moment to grab this clip to share Orkney’s Maeshowe burial mound with you. Watch your head!

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Video: Blown Away by Orkney’s Stone Age

Orkney is blanketed with the stony remains of a thriving Neolithic community. And Skara Brae illustrates how these Neolithic people hunkered down in subterranean homes, connected by tunnels and lit only by whale-oil lamps.

I’m here with my crew, filming this underground village for one of three new episodes about Scotland. We made a point to have an hour here before the arrival of the cruise ships. Standing there on that desolate bluff, all alone with these ruins, I marveled at how all of this was accomplished without the use of metal tools. This was the Stone Age — before people learned to use metals. The Stone Age!

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Video: Kentucky Bourbon Aids Scotch Whisky at a Sweaty Cooperage

It seems everyone visiting Scotland tours a whisky distillery. But try to visit a cooperage as well. Last year, while working on my Scotland guidebook, I enjoyed the Speyside Cooperage (about an hour southeast of Inverness) and knew I had to come back with our Rick Steves’ Europe crew. We just did, and filmed what I’m sure will be one of the best sequences of the three Scotland episodes we’ll be releasing this fall.

Join me with this little clip, from the floor of this amazing workshop.

 

 

Here’s how we described the Speyside Cooperage in our script:

Of the hundred or so whisky distilleries in Scotland, about half lie near the valley of the River Spey. Its prized waters, along with a favorable climate and soil for barley, have attracted distillers here for centuries.

Along with natural resources (water and barley), a critical part of the Scotch-making process is quality barrels. The Speyside Cooperage welcomes visitors with guided tours. From an observation deck, you’ll watch master coopers making casks for distilleries throughout Scotland. Perhaps the single biggest factor in defining whisky’s unique flavor is the barrel it’s aged in.

The process is essentially the same today as it was centuries ago. In order to be water-tight, the oak staves are lassoed tightly by metal hoops, and tight-fitting lids are banged into place and sealed with a calking of freshwater reeds. Finally, the inside is artfully charred, creating a carbonized coating that helps give whisky its golden hue and flavor.

The United States actually contributes to the character of Scotch whisky because most of the casks used in Scotland are made from the staves of hand-me-down bourbon casks from Kentucky. It’s impressive to see the intensity and focus of the coopers — who are paid by the piece.

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