Iceland’s Hakarl (fermented shark meat) isn’t as hard to eat as it is to pronounce

The shark meat dries for three to four months before being consumed.

The shark meat dries for three to four months before being consumed.


HELGAFELLSSVEIT, Iceland — I firmly believe much of Icelandic cuisine is based on a dare.

They eat whale in Iceland. They eat puffin. You’ve seen whales. Ever seen a puffin? It’s a cute, little black-and-white bird with a bright red beak. It’s meant to be photographed, not eaten. At one AirBnB, a traveler brought in a package of hardfiskur. That’s wind-dried haddock. Calling it “fish jerky” is an insult to all jerky. Picture spoiled carp with the general texture of shrapnel and you have hardifiskur.

But the greatest of the gross, the lowest of the lousy, is a food so vile its legend — not to mention its aroma — has reached every corner of the globe. It’s called hakarl. If you know Iceland, you know hakarl. You just didn’t know the name, nor can you pronounce. In Icelandic’s inane pronunciation guide, you say it HOW-kaht. That’s Icelandic for fermented shark. (At one time, it was called rotted shark. However, they changed the name after changing the preparation process not to mention for PR purposes.)

While talking to Icelanders around the country, they’ve all tried it. It’s an Icelandic holiday tradition, kind of like American fruitcake but much worse — if that’s possible.

As a food writer, I’ve had to hold up our reputation for getting down and dirty with the most disgusting foods that keep mankind alive. As a traveling food columnist for The Denver Post for eight years, I forced myself to down some foods that required a six-pack chaser: sheep penis in China (Chinese believe animal penis promotes virility which helps explain why there are 1.4 billion Chinese), four-inch-long flying cockroach-like insects in Cambodia called a kadam tuk (you dig into their back and scrape out their eggs), ambuyat in Brunei (a gelatinous matter found in sago trees with the texture of papier mache). People ask me what the most disgusting food I’ve ever eaten. I always say it’s a tossup between live beetle larvae in the Amazon (they actually move in your hand) and a bacon cheeseburger at Hooters (one lawyer from Atlanta wrote in and asked, “Hooters has food?”)

I was told and read that hakarl would, pardon the pun, hurl them all aside. Icelanders told me, “The only thing worse than the smell is the taste.”

Spoiled cheese. Urine. Cleaning fluids. The descriptions of the tastes alone made me want to keep driving as I passed the big shark sign indicating the cutoff from the main road.

I found the center of the hakarl universe on an isolated farm called Bjarnarhofn in the little region of Helgafellssveit. The Bjarnarhofn family have harvested Greenland sharks on the northern coast of West Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula for 400 years and is the leading producer in the country. The farm consists of a small museum ( and display room, perfect for tastings, although the bathroom is inconveniently located down the hall, too far for one little boy who blew chow after thinking the shark bit was a Jujube.

The museum is filled with knick-knacks from around the area: stuffed birds, ship wheels, model boats, old photos. On one wall are photos of fishermen next to sharks hanging up from boat hooks. The sharks are twice as tall as the men. And UGLYYYYYY! Greenland sharks don’t have the trademark pointy nose. They’re blunt faced, as if they spend their days underwater running into sea walls.

Greenland sharks are the fourth largest in the world, growing up to seven meters.

Greenland sharks are the fourth largest in the world, growing up to seven meters.

The guide is a little Italian woman named Maria Stella Faccin. She’s from Rimini and doesn’t miss Italy after living in this natural paradise that is Iceland. She was a bundle of enthusiasm and a wealth of information about the sad, dark, isolated world of the Greenland shark. She gathered us in front of a video screen and told us that the Greenland shark is the fourth largest in the world. It grows to seven meters and 1,200 kilos. It’s Iceland’s only shark. And here’s the catch: It’s the most toxic shark in the world.

Greenland sharks (they just sound mean, don’t they?) live in the North Atlantic between Greenland and Iceland. They swim three to five kilometers deep, meaning the water that nearly paralyzed my hand on the south coast is even colder, between 30-40 degrees. To protect itself from the cold, the shark produces a natural antifreeze. Also, its urine circulates through the body to keep it warm, although Icelanders frown upon freezing tourists who do the same.

Both are highly poisonous.

“It is so toxic, if you eat it fresh, you die,” Faccin said. “No question.”

So these shark farmers, instead of buying them in the ground for weeks as was the old tradition, ferment the sharks for six to nine weeks in a fermentation room. Then they hang them in a special drying room for three to four months. After that, they are ready to eat. No cooking. No browning. No frying. Nothing.

Raw shark sushi, sans poisons.

“It forms a brown crust which makes it look like it’s smoked,” Faccin said.

This is one of Iceland’s oldest practices, something that has nearly died out the last 70 years. In the 14th century, they were prized sources of — get this — electricity.

The Greenland shark has an enormous liver. It makes up 1/10th of its entire body, meaning the liver weighs 100-150 kilos. If you boil it, you’ll get oil. That oil was sold all over Europe to light street lamps. In the 1910s alone, 32,000 Greenland sharks were killed. However, when the advent of electricity took hold, the Greenland shark wasn’t needed.

Iceland hasn’t hunted sharks since 1950.

So why did I see sharks hanging from hooks in photos around the museum? Maria said the farm uses only sharks accidentally caught in fishing nets.

“Why don’t the fishermen throw them back?” I asked, forgetting that it’s not exactly like throwing back a brook trout.

She said the shark’s odd breathing system doesn’t allow them to stay stationary. When they get trapped in nets, water can’t flow into their gills and they drown underwater.

How they became food is a little like the first guy who ate milk. Can you imagine how brave he was? Think about it. Some farmer told a guy, “See that thing hanging under the cow with the spigots sticking out? Squeeze one of them and drink whatever comes out.”

In the 16th century, fishermen buried the leftover shark parts underground to dispose of the meat — and also the smell. One day someone dug up the shark . It was all dried up. He ate it. He didn’t die.

And a disgusting Icelandic eating tradition was born.

It is sold to restaurants all over the country but Icelanders really only eat it at some traditional holiday feasts. It’s to remind them that they are Icelanders and have a reputation for eating food unsuitable for UNICEF.

“Shut up and eat your puffin, Thor.”

I asked Faccin about the Greenland sharks’ current status as “near threatened” despite being protected by the European Union.

She said, “We only do 60-80 sharks a year on average. We’re the only farm in Iceland. Some do one shark a year. On a world basis, that’s not many at all.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, Greenland sharks are also threatened by climate change and diet, as increased development in the Arctic areas has put more waste in the ocean. Little is known about the Greenland shark as they spend so much time at such depths where marine biologists can’t record numbers. The WWF is backing the University of Windsor’s efforts to tag and track them as part of the Ocean Tracking Network which works with marine biologists around the world.

In Greenland, the shark is used for emergency dog food.

“All it does is get them drunk,” Faccin said.

On the wall are some of the things found in sharks over the years: the skin and bones of a polar bear, a partially digested seal, the tail and skull of a baby whale.

“So you can tell,” she said, “they’re not squeamish.”

Hakarl is mostly served during Icelandic holidays or family gatherings.

Hakarl is mostly served during Icelandic holidays or family gatherings.

It finally came time to try one. I suddenly regretted eating such a huge breakfast in my AirBnB in Stykkisholmur 20 minutes away. Sitting in little glass bowls were small white rubbery squares. Next to them were little pieces of bread. What, we’re supposed to eat it like an hors d’oeuvre?

“Eat it with the bread,” Faccin said. “It takes some of the taste away. But then try it without the bread.”

I tried the first method and all I tasted was bread. The shark was merely a rubbery texture. Then I tried it without garnish. I braced myself, like awaiting a shot from a needle the size of an epee. I put it in my mouth and chewed.

It wasn’t bad. Really. It wasn’t disgusting at all. It smelled a bit like ammonia but the taste was kind of smoky, much more smoke than urine. (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.) Maybe I didn’t get a particularly pungent sample. I tried another. Again, decent. I had another. I was starting to develop a taste for something Gordon Ramsey couldn’t keep down.

“See? It’s not bad,” said Faccin who proudly says she eats it every day.

Me trying hakarl at the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum.

Me trying hakarl at the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum.

I wouldn’t serve it at my next terrace aperitivo in Rome but it definitely doesn’t deserve it’s, well, putrid reputation. At least, it doesn’t make my top five worst foods.

And at only 12 euros for the museum tour, it’s the best food bargain in Iceland.

Iceland’s geological wonders make reality look like science fiction during grand tour of island

Snaefellsjokull inspired Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" in 1864.

Snaefellsjokull inspired Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” in 1864.

(Second of a three-part series)

SNAEFELLSJOKULL NATIONAL PARK, Iceland — It sits along the side of the road like a spaceship from another planet, one that’s the size of a small town hovering menacingly over a major American city. Snaefellsjokull is not only hard to pronounce (it’s snay-FELL-syo-koot), it’s hard to comprehend. The mountain is only 4,744 feet high. In the Rocky Mountains near where I lived for 23 years, that’s a pitcher’s mound. But it’s the shape. It is massive. It starts out in foothills and ascends forever until it tops out with a giant snow-capped crater.

Parked in my rented Chevy Spark at the side of the Ring Road (Rte. 1) in West Iceland, I thought how Jules Verne may have stood in this very spot in the 1860s. Hmm, he thought. This looks like the perfect venue for a science fiction book about a terrifying voyage to a steaming, desolate place no one would ever consider visiting. No, not Nebraska. He went on to pen “Journey to the Center of the Earth” using Snaefellsjokull as the journey’s entry point. The book helped Verne become “the father of science fiction” and make him the second most translated author since 1979, right behind William Shakespeare.

More than 150 years later, Snaefellsjokull still inspires the 2 million visitors who come to Iceland every year. It inspires people to hike, to paint, to dream. It also inspires people like me to write. After spending 12 days in Iceland, the most inspiring thing I can write about Snaefellsjokull is this.

Among all the geographic wonders Iceland offers, Snaefellsjokull barely stands out other than its size.

True. Iceland’s nature is a geological kaleidoscope filled with images that leave you open mouthed as you nearly drive off the Ring Road. Snow-capped volcanoes. Turquoise-tinted icebergs. Glistening glaciers. Lava fields. Molten magma. Puffin-covered cliffs. Half-destroyed islands. In a country the size of Colorado are enough geographic wonders to fill a volume of National Geographics. Iceland often only gets in the news when one of its 30 active volcanoes erupts and sends broadcasters scurrying to learn how to pronounce the damn things. But Iceland is more than Mother Nature blowing her fuse. You can’t compare it to one woman. Iceland is a beauty pageant, with spectacular sights at every turn.

I saw most of them. Here are just the highlights, broken down by region as I covered 2,101 kilometers. It was my journey to the center of Earth’s most remarkable geological nation.

The lava from Heimaey's 1973 eruption came dangerously close to wiping out the entire town.

The lava from Heimaey’s 1973 eruption came dangerously close to wiping out the entire town.


At 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 23, 1973, the little island of Heimaey (HAY-my) knocked the Vietnam War off front pages around the world. Only 5.2 square miles, it became a smoke-filled cauldron of molten lava. The island’s volcano erupted, sending fire 150 meters into the air. The earth on the island just 4 1/2 miles from the mainland split open. Island officials ordered an evacuation. By incredible luck, bad weather the day before kept every boat in the harbor, allowing all but 200-300 of the 5,273 people to get off the island. Only one person died. A man with drug problems used the panic to break into a pharmacy where he was overcome by toxic gases.

More than 1,400 homes were destroyed under 50 meters of lava. The volcano emitted smoke all the way until spring. About 1,200 islanders returned. About a third never returned to the island forever called the “Pompeii of the North.”

From the port town of Landeyjahofn, I took the 30-minute ferry ride to Heimaey where puffins, those cute, red-beaked birds who made careers out of crash landing on nature videos, stared at us from nearby cliffs. The town still has charm. On one of only three sunny days out of my 12, the little harbor and brightly painted boats looked peaceful in their protective cove.

But when I hiked up through the remnants of that 1973 explosion, I saw the dangers of living on a volcanic island. The lava field stopped just about 50 meters from backyards of dozens of houses. In the Eldheimar volcano museum is a preserved house buried by the lava. The family of four escaped but never returned. Scattered around the house were silverware, shelves and coffee cups. A toilet remained riveted in place.

It's picturesque but South Island's water temperature is 50 degrees.

It’s picturesque but South Island’s water temperature is 50 degrees.

On my first night on the road, I stayed in a charming AirBnB on a farm near the town of Vik. A long gravel road led me to a lighthouse with a breathtaking panorama view of the South Iceland coast. Way below me was a black sand beach that stretched all the way to a snow-capped mountain range. To my left was a perfect arch, carved by the sea, sticking out of the water like a giant wedding ring.

Further east lies Vatnajokull National Park, also known as Skaftafell after the nearby town. Vatnajokull is why they call it “Iceland.” It’s the biggest icecap outside the poles, covering 3,100 square miles, a little smaller and a lot colder than Puerto Rico, at an average of 1,300 feet thick. It covers 8 percent of Iceland. On a map it looks like someone took a knife and carved out most of Southeast Iceland, leaving nothing but a giant white hole.

In the summer, Skaftafell is Iceland’s Yellowstone. About 300,000 people a year come to walk the glaciers, hike the trails and camp in the wilderness. However, in May I practically had to myself the 2 ½-mile hiking trail to Skaftafellsjokull glacier. Of course, it probably helped that I chose a day in the mid-40s with a vicious headwind that made the relatively easy incline seem like the last stage of K2. About halfway up, I asked a descending couple about the glacier and the man started laughing. The woman said, “Windy. Much windier than here.”

I am struggling to stay upright here against the wind.

I am struggling to stay upright here against the wind.

When I reached the glacier, it looked a giant, icy river descending from a mountaintop before petering out just before the North Atlantic. As I leaned into the wind trying to keep my balance, another hiker took four shots of me before he finally took one without his hands shaking.

The day got colder. I drove farther east where just off the Ring Road is the Jokulsarlon lagoon with the most remarkable sights I’ve ever seen. Floating all through the lagoon are icebergs. They are icebergs of every size from large buildings to chairs, all floating peacefully in water that feels colder than the dark side of Mars. From the ridge above it, the icebergs had an odd turquoise tint as if they were backlit. They had fallen off Breidamerkurjokull, a section of Vatnajokull, and take their sweet time on their way to the North Atlantic. The journey sometimes takes about five years.

Icebergs in Jokulsarlon lagoon.

Icebergs in Jokulsarlon lagoon.

I scurried down the embankment to the black sand beach. Huddled in my hooded windbreaker that flapped in the vicious, icy wind, I dipped my hand into the water. My fingers throbbed for five minutes. Your body wouldn’t last that long if you fell in. And this is late May.


If you read Part I of my Iceland blog, you’ll know that Iceland is the fourth most expensive country in the world and has exorbitant taxes that would shock pre-revolutionary France. I pondered this as I carefully maneuvered my car up steep mountain roads strewn with gravel and dirt. “Hey, it’s great they get paid maternity leave,” I muttered under my breath as I negotiated a hairpin turn with no guardrail. “But how ‘bout paving a road or two?”

Once in East Iceland, I got off the Ring Road. Suddenly the road looked like something out of the nether regions of Nepal. Ruts. Dirt. Rocks. I zigzagged up hills, passing cars too afraid to slip backward over a ravine. I wrote a government contact in Reykjavik asking, not in these words, “Why am I paying $13 for a beer because 75 percent goes to taxes yet I’m driving on roads that would piss off Julius Caesar?” She wrote that with only 330,000 people, Iceland has only 130,000-160,000 taxpayers, and “priority is vital. Having paved roads for very few people (was) not seen as being important.” But she added, “with growing tourism it is of course no longer the case.”

While the tourism department tries convincing the government to do something, bad roads are nearly impossible to avoid in East Iceland, mainly because it’s so worth seeing. Look at a map and the east coast looks like dozens of little fingers sticking into the sea. Those are all fjords. The Ring Road goes up, down and around the peninsulas like ribbons around Christmas packages. Everywhere I drove I had fantastic views of the frigid North Atlantic, lapping up against rocky shores, nary a village insight.

Puffins nest in the little harbor of Hafnarholmi every summer.

Puffins nest in the little harbor of Hafnarholmi every summer.

But once veering inland to follow a shortcut, I ran into problems. The Ring Road was built in 1973. Locals tell me before that, most of the country’s road looked like the one that made me more nervous than descending the French Alps during the Tour de France. Then it began to rain. I saw cars spinning their wheels trying to negotiate hills.

My trusty Spark made it but then came another shortcoming of the Icelandic road system. I couldn’t find a gas station since leaving that morning. My gas meter flashed red, torturing me for 30 minutes with the idea of being stuck in the Icelandic mountains with no gas. I rolled into Egilsstadir, East Iceland’s biggest town, on fumes.

East Iceland is getting off the beaten path. I spent a night in the little port town of Seydisfjordur, tucked around an inlet and surrounded by beautiful snowcapped mountains. I woke the next morning and negotiated gravel roads seemingly longer than the Appalachian Trail to the little harbor of Hafnarholmi. Past a few fishing boats stood a viewing platform overlooking a huge outcropping rising from the sea just off shore. Covering the bog-covered cliff were hundreds of birds. This is a prime viewing area of the puffin, the slapstick clown of the bird world. From 10,000-15,000 puffins nest here during the summer and pose for anyone with a big telescopic lens.

Me at the bird lookout.

Me at the bird lookout.

They share their home with kittiwakes, kind of a gull with gray wings, and eiders which look like black and white ducks. I packed a lunch, took some photos, watched the puffins shake rain off their feathers then ate at one of the little picnic tables.

I’ve had worse table settings.

My hiking trail with Hverfjall in the background.

My hiking trail with Hverfjall in the background.


North Iceland … it just sounds cold, doesn’t it? Foreboding. Isolated. Desolate. All true. But oh, it’s a magnificent mix of stand-alone volcanoes, natural hot springs, bubbling magma pools, lava beds, snowcapped mountain ranges and whale-filled bays. Bring warm clothes, comfortable hiking shoes and a swimsuit. You may not need go anywhere else in Iceland.

My AirBnB owner in the village of Reykjahlio, on the banks of the beautiful Lake Myvatn, works on a search-and-rescue team and knows every hiking trail in the region. He sent me on a 6-mile hike on a trail called Namaskard, named for the modest mountain you must climb to reach the end of the trail.

This part of Iceland is one giant cauldron, thanks to a series of volcanic eruptions over the eons. They erupted as recently as the 1720s and then in the 1970s when a series of fissure eruptions known as the Krafla Fires lasted nine years. The end result is land where smoke twirls up from molten magma in ground I toured from safe walkways with badly needed guardrails.

This is true fire and ice. I started the day at Viti, a giant 1,000-foot-wide brown crater with a crystal-clear blue pool partially filled with icebergs. The hiking trail around the rim, and the spectacular vistas of this giant blue pool, provided a good warmup.

My hike started on a lava bed that stretched to the horizon. I was walking through an area where just 300 years ago was one sea of molten lava. The hard, maroon rocks are disorienting. The only path is barely a foot wide.
The hike isn’t very high. It isn’t very hard. But it is absolutely in the middle of nowhere.

And there was no one else.

The only people I saw were a young French couple who hiked to a snowfield where the trail disappears. They returned warning me not to get lost. I did find the trail on the other side and found myself in the center of a geological paradise. I sat down on a tuft of grass next to the lava, munched on a sandwich and trail mix and looked out at the mountain range to my right, the sea to my left and in front of me, standing like a fortress in the sky, was Hverfjall. It’s not even 1,500 feet high but it is majestic in its symmetry. Stretching 3,400 feet across the top and covered in snow, it looks like Kilimanjaro got tired of Global Warming and moved north.

Myvatn Nature Bath

Myvatn Nature Bath

I completed the hike in only 2 ½ hours, good enough to pamper myself with a trip to one of Iceland’s famed thermal pools. Myvatn Nature Bath, five minutes from my AirBnB, opened in 2004. It has two big pools of 95 and 99 degrees and a big Jacuzzi of 108. It’s naturally heated by the bubbling ground and, at $44, is a bargain compared to the larcenous $61 charged down south by the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s greatest tourist trap.

I met the same French couple from the trail and we sat on ledges talking French cuisine, U.S. politics and travel as we stared out at the snow-capped mountains beyond. Maybe Myvatn Nature Bath is where they should hold the next G7 Summit.

The quaint harbor in the West Iceland town of Rif (pop. 160).

The quaint harbor in the West Iceland town of Rif (pop. 160)


The town of Stykkisholmur is a little port town that sits at the end of a peninsula jutting north into the sea. It’s where you take the ferry to Westfjords, Iceland’s back of beyond frontier in the far northwest. Stykkisholmur is where you take some of Iceland’s best boat tours. It’s where I based a one-day drive around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, a one-stop shopping tour of geological Iceland.

West Iceland is more inhabited than the East and North. Its fishing villages and port towns look like paintings in an outdoors store. Not only did Jules Verne discover this remarkable corner of Iceland but so did Hollywood. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was filmed here. It’s about a quiet, shy man who gets in touch with his inner adventurer and sets off for Iceland. The film shows him skateboarding past Kirkjufell, the 1,500-foot mountain that seemingly comes out of the sea. Its steep green walls and narrow top make it look like an outdoor cathedral.

Driving around the far western end of the peninsula I got a good 45-minute view of Verne’s Snaefellsjokull before stopping in the charming little town of Arnarstapi. There I stopped in a simple coffee shop where I had a not-so-charming $5 cup of coffee I had to serve myself and ignore the Icelandic cod for $35. But it’s not far from a lookout where you can see the sea in all directions.

Heading back to Stykkisholmur, I thought I’d never come back to Iceland again. It is just cost prohibitive. I felt like I should leave the country wearing a pork barrel. But Iceland should be on any true traveler’s bucket list. The geography is too unique, its history to, well, explosive. It must be seen to be believed. However, I will return in my own way.

I’m ordering “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

Iceland: From Great Depression to Hottest Destination on Earth — but bring your credit card

Hverfell crater across Lake Myvatn in North Iceland is one of the country's many majestic landmarks.

Hverfell crater across Lake Myvatn in North Iceland is one of the country’s many majestic landmarks.

(The first of a three-part series)

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Have you ever driven at midnight with your lights off? How about taking a sunset stroll at 11:30 p.m? I love sunrises. Try one at 3 in the morning.

This time of year in Iceland, the light is always on. You see things you can’t see anywhere else on Earth: driving a long, lonely highway into a string of snow-capped volcanoes; icebergs floating in a crystal-clear lagoon like ice in a blue daiquiri; puffins, those funny-looking birds always crash landing on “The Discovery Channel,” staring at you from a cliff as you pull into an island once nearly destroyed by a volcanic eruption only 40 years ago.

The view from the Ring Road along the South Iceland coast.

The view from the Ring Road along the South Iceland coast.

In the last few years, Iceland’s light has shined all over the world. Temperatures in May might be in the low 40s but no country is hotter than Iceland. Since 2010, its tourist numbers have shot up like the geysers that pepper its countryside. In 1990, Iceland had 90,000 visitors. It has doubled in the last six years to where officials expect 2.2 million in 2017.

I was one of them.

The Viti crater in North Iceland is 300 meters across and was created by an eruption in 1724.

The Viti crater in North Iceland is 300 meters across and was created by an eruption in 1724.

I recently spent 12 days in the country, renting a car and driving around the island over nine days, covering 2,101 kilometers. My motivation to come here was twofold. Like the rest of the world, I’d caught wind of Iceland’s natural charm, both geographically and socially.

This is a country that, like me, is just to the left of Gandhi. During a terrific Walking Tour Reykjavik, I learned it has free public university education. It has free health care. It has paid maternity leave for the mother and father. Of Iceland’s 63 senators, 30 are women. Its annual gay pride parade attracts 80,000 people. Iceland only has 330,000. Iceland is not 24 percent gay. They’re the most open-minded people I’ve ever met. Icelanders are as big an attraction as the volcanoes and much less volatile.

Icelanders are among the most liberal people in the world. Here are me and two friends at Kaldi in downtown Reykjavik.

Icelanders are among the most liberal people in the world. Here are me and two friends at Kaldi in downtown Reykjavik.

But scenery is what I wanted to see. I wanted a landscape that makes you think you’re an extra in a science fiction movie one minute and a “National Geographic” special the next. I also had a free ticket from American Airlines to go anywhere it and its partners flew in Europe. From my home in Rome, European air travel is cheaper than trains. To Iceland, however, I priced flights at more than $400. I chose Iceland merely because it was the most expensive flight I could get for nothing. It’s the backpacker in me.

That was the last bargain I saw.

Me eating one of the few affordable foods in Iceland: a $4.50 hotdog (though Bill Clinton called it the best hotdog he's ever had.)

Me eating one of the few affordable foods in Iceland: a $4.50 hotdog (though Bill Clinton called it the best hotdog he’s ever had.)

Iceland’s exorbitant prices aren’t just astronomical. They are insulting. Beer $12. Local fish $38. Hamburgers $20. Coffee $5. AirBnBs $100. Gas $7.40 a gallon. Want an authentic Icelandic wool sweater? Great. Put away $200 for it. Every time I paid, I felt violated. Iceland is almost a cashless society. Icelanders pay everything with a credit card, from skyr, their delicious yogurt, to svidasulta, their disgusting head cheese. I assume it’s because they never have enough cash to pay for anything. I put a picture of a $13.50 beer on Facebook. A friend, Rick Reilly, wrote, “… so you drink it with a catheter?”

Fortunately, the best things in Iceland are free.

A church in West Iceland. Nature dwarfs this population of 330,000.

A church in West Iceland. Nature dwarfs this population of 330,000.

It is why I left Iceland with no regrets despite finding my yearly travel budget chart sporting a volcanic eruption cloud over it. It’s natural that Iceland is eye candy. It lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between two gigantic tectonic plates. The rift is 10,000 miles long and Iceland’s crust is a third of the usual thickness. That means it’s susceptible to volcanic eruptions. About 20 million years ago, practically last week relative to geological eons, this island suffered numerous underwater volcanic eruptions. Today 30 volcanoes remain active. It’s not hard to find molten rock bubbling in the earth like a slowly simmering soup.

I hiked two incredible trails into the heart of Iceland’s wilderness. In summer the Vatnajokull National Park is more crowded than the New York Marathon. In May, however, I almost had an entire trail to myself. It probably helped that it was in the low 40s and I was hiking uphill into a stiff headwind. So stiff, when I reached the massive Skaftafellsjokull glacier, I had to lean forward to keep from getting blown over as a fellow hiker tried mightily to take my photo without his hands shaking.

Skaftafellsjokull glacier in South Iceland.

Skaftafellsjokull glacier in South Iceland.

The next week in North Iceland, I hiked nine kilometers through a massive lava field, ascending Dalfjall, a mountain with panoramic views of the lava, an entire range of snow-capped mountains and the imposing Hverfjall, Kilimanjaro’s lookalike volcano. In the 2 ½-hour hike, I never saw another person. If I broke an ankle, I’d still be there.

Afterward, I drove to one of the dozens of natural thermal pools that Icelanders frequent as part of their normal routine. The Myvatn Natural Bath, named for the beautiful lake dominating North Iceland, has two pools of 95 and 99 degrees, plus a large hot tub at 108. Each pool has comfy ledges where I sat staring at the snow-capped mountains and smoke drifting up from nearby simmering magma.

Myvatn Nature Bath in North Iceland has three pools ranging from 95-108 degrees.

Myvatn Nature Bath in North Iceland has three pools ranging from 95-108 degrees.

I took a ferry to Heimaey, the island nearly leveled by an eruption in 1977. I stood on a high viewing platform on the far northeast corner of Iceland and saw an arboretum of Icelandic bird life covering a cliff sticking out of the sea. I walked along a lagoon and picked up chips from icebergs the size of yachts on their slow journey to the North Atlantic.

I will cover my adventures in a later blog. It still astounds me that only nine years ago Iceland was in the throes of a crippling financial mess. How’d it get to the hot spot of 2017? Start with the global financial crisis of 2008. Remember how it affected the U.S? In Iceland, it represented its Great Depression. The market value on the Icelandic Stock Exchange fell by 90 percent. The external debt skyrocketed to 50 billion euros. The krona dropped 35 percent to 340 to the euro (it’s 110 today). Interest rates went up 15.5 percent. Unemployment tripled.

“It was so bad people thought we might not have groceries to buy,” said Ashildur Bragadottir, director of Visit Reykjavik and who worked in a major bank at the time. “Every store would be empty. It was really, really catastrophic. People were just crying. Many people lost their houses, cars.”

Reykjavik, always under construction, wants to double its number of hotel rooms by 2022.

Reykjavik, always under construction, wants to double its number of hotel rooms by 2022.

I talked with her in Reykjavik’s artsy City Hall on the banks of Tjornin, a man-made lake where I spent a lunch hour feeding sandwich bread to geese. Like most government officials, she’s absolutely giddy about Iceland reaching the top of the world in something besides liberal politics. The No. 1 destination in the world on Google Search last year was Reykjavik. A new domestic airline, WOW air, opened five years ago to offer cheaper flights within the country. Hotel rooms are running 95 percent capacity year round. In summer it’s 24-hour sunlight; in winter it’s the Northern Lights.

What happened?

Savvy thinking. When the krona dropped to 320 against the euro, Bragadottir said, “It was really cheap to travel to Iceland. We used it in marketing. Instead of saying we can’t afford to promote Iceland and Reykjavik, the city decided to put forces in promoting Reykjavik as a destination from abroad. Because it was cheap.

“And it worked.”

Then in April 2010, another catastrophe hit. About 75 miles southeast of Reykjavik, the volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted, cancelling all flights to and from many European cities for six days, stranding millions. The disruptions continued into May. But as with the financial crisis, it became a positive. Video around the world showed Iceland’s geography as a pretty backdrop to the gray mushroom clouds billowing out of the earth. Suddenly, millions became intrigued with the mountains, oceans, thermal baths and, yes, volcanoes, despite the apparent danger. Iceland became late-night talk-show fodder just by a compilation of TV anchors butchering the volcano’s name. (It’s pronounced AY-yah-fyad-layer-kuh-t. Don’t try it. You won’t get it right. Only Icelanders apparently have the jaw structure to pronounce the last syllable. After two weeks I couldn’t even say the Icelandic term for “How much?” Also, I was afraid to ask.)

Kirkjufell in West Iceland was featured in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Kirkjufell in West Iceland was featured in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Among those discovering Iceland was Hollywood. “Game of Thrones” is filmed here. So was the 2013 hit “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in which Ben Stiller is seen skateboarding in front of Kirkjufell, the majestic mountain in West Iceland shaped like a giant cathedral. Soon tourists began pouring in. The krona began to rise. So did salaries. Iceland’s average gross salary is $64,461 a year.

However, also rising was inflation. Iceland’s cost-of-living index is third highest in the world behind Bermuda and Switzerland. Iceland is the fourth most expensive country in the world. Add a tax rate that drops the average net salary to $43,358 a year and you have a populace that’s struggling as much as tourists. Prices were a constant theme among us. Due to $300 round-trip flights from Newark and $700 from Miami, Americans made up about two-thirds of the tourists I saw. I sometimes heard more English than Icelandic. Prices around the country were consistently 25-30 percent higher than those listed in my “Lonely Planet,” printed only two years ago.

Arctic char, a local fish, for $36 at Gamli Bistro in North Iceland.

Arctic char, a local fish, for $36 at Gamli Bistro in North Iceland.

We all found ourselves shopping in supermarkets. Bonus, one of Iceland’s budget food stores, became as sought after as a thermal bath. I found myself sitting in my car eating cellophane-wrapped sandwiches bought in gas station convenience stores. Of course, eating while looking out at Snaefellsjokull, the 4,744-foot volcano that inspired Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” wasn’t bad but that’s beside the point.

The point is Iceland is becoming cost prohibitive. There is no break. There are few options other than food trucks. Food and beer prices in small-town cafes are as expensive as restaurants in Reykjavik. Taxes are to blame for the high price of alcohol. The government places a 75-percent tax on all sales. Bars must charge high prices to make any profit. It’s why when I landed, I could tell the locals. They were mobbing the airport’s duty free alcohol department like refugees in a Costco, which, ironically, just opened in Reykjavik and 40,000 people signed up the first week. Reykjavik also boasts the world’s biggest IKEA.

The $20 hamburger at Narfeyrarstofa in West Iceland.

The $20 hamburger at Narfeyrarstofa in West Iceland.

One of Reykjavik’s most popular traditions is the Djammid. That’s the Reykjavik pub crawl where bars get hopping around midnight and continue packed until 4 a.m. However, the price of alcohol has forced locals into a new strategy. They buy their booze at one of the cheaper state-licensed stores and drink at home. When properly buzzed, they take an overpriced taxi, sometimes $50 from the suburbs, to downtown. Then they nurse two or three $13 beers until closing when they taxi back.

Combine the booze with food prices and I wonder how you date in Iceland: “Hey, beautiful. You busy tomorrow night? Want to come over to my place and drink a six-pack from the government liquor store?” What woman would say yes to that?

“We know it’s expensive but the living standard is really high in Iceland,” Bragadottir said. “Obviously, it’s expensive for the city and the companies in the city to have a growth in tourism. The investment need is enormous.”

Despite the costs, Iceland officials don’t think the upward tourism arc will end. Ninety-eight percent of tourists tell exit surveyors at the airport that they’d recommend Reykjavik as a destination. The capital wants to double its number of 4,700 hotel rooms by 2022. Marriott has started building the country’s first five-star hotel, scheduled to open next year.

But will the plans go up in smoke like the volcanoes that rock this country every time it gets comfortable. How much higher can the krona grow before it collapses?

“The economy is overheating,” said Jon Tomasson, who worked in tourism for years and owns the charming Nordur-Hvammur AirBnB where I stayed near the South Iceland town of Vik. “If the krona gets too strong, it’s hard to say. The problem is we’re a small nation with our own currency. It’s very difficult.”

No surveyor at the airport asked if I’d recommend Iceland. I don’t know what I’d say. I’m glad I went. I saw geography that left me slack jawed like a little boy. But I paid a price: $2,350 over 12 days. That includes free airfare.

For the future? I’ve turned out the lights on Iceland.

Procida: Beauty and love in the Bay of Naples

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

PROCIDA, Italy — Italy has an innocence that can be forgotten when spending too much time in a city. Italy’s magic is in its sounds, colors and tastes. It’s not in its wealth or innovation, technology or military. It’s not the United States. It’s better, at least the lifestyle is.

Peel away the first layer of culture and see. Look past Rome and its monuments, Venice and its canals, Florence and its museums. You’ll see an Italy you dream about when you grind through your 10th straight day at the office or daydream after an old Italian romantic movie. It’s an Italy where villagers sit at sun-splashed outdoor cafes and talk about nothing, where fishermen mend nets on a quiet harbor, where boys play soccer in narrow, cobblestone alleys, where the smell of grilled fish and garlic permeate the air and where men have nothing better to do but fall in love.

It’s where I am right now.

The island of Procida doesn’t get much play outside Europe. The way it’s overshadowed by Capri 10 miles to the south, Capri might as well be Australia. But Procida (pronounced PRO-chee-duh) holds its own with Italians who see Capri as I do: an Italian theme park with better wine. Procida doesn’t have Capri’s vistas — and Capri’s do meet the hype — but it does have an Italian soul.

It’s why I took my girlfriend, the lovely and talented Marina Pascucci, to Procida for our two-year anniversary. She’s a Roman for Romans, a street-smart, third-generation Roman whom I can read like a Dante novel just by watching her hand gestures. But in Procida she softens. We both melted into the island culture like provolone on a pizza. Whether it was sitting on a marina sipping cold drinks or strolling the sandy beach or dining on ravioli so sensual we nearly forgot the gorgeous view of the harbor lights below us, Procida turned us into bit players in a romance novel.

Marina had never been to Procida. She’d only heard of it. She heard it was the anti-Capri, the place you go to get into Italy’s beauty without the crowds and remind yourself why you live in this gorgeous country.

There's not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci

There’s not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s shocking, really, that she was also on her maiden visit. Procida is so easy to reach from Rome. We took a 70-minute train ride to Naples, a short cab ride to the ferry dock and a 30-minute hydroplane to the island. Another taxi through the windy streets up Procida’s hill took us to a hotel right out of Italian Dreams magazine, if there was such a thing.

The four-star Albergo La Vigna is a combination spa, vineyard, garden and lookout over the beautiful Gulf of Naples. Our room opened up to a big courtyard with a little cocktail table and two chairs looking out over the sea. The courtyard abutted a big garden where paths lead under grape vineyards and past flowers of orange, yellow, pink and white. A short stroll leads to a fence with a spectacular sea view, made even more comfortable by the small table and two chairs, perfect for a bottle of wine at sunset.

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci

However, La Vigna’s big selling point is its spa. Twice we went to the front desk and blocked off an hour for ourselves to enjoy a private Jacuzzi and a Turkish steambath, topped with lounging on wicker lanais chairs and a cup of tea.

But we don’t travel to sit in hotels. It’s just that there isn’t a lot to do on Procida. That’s the point. The island is 1.6 square miles and has 12,000 people. You take in Procida from a seat on the sea. You drink it in as a chaser behind the Campania region’s delicious wines. After checking in and catching a breath after seeing the view from above, we descended the steep staircase from our village to Marina Corricella.

Couples can reserve La Vigna's spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Couples can reserve La Vigna’s spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci

For an idea of how idyllic Italian is this marina, they filmed “Il Postino” here. If you don’t know it, you should if you dream of Italy. It’s the 1994 film about a mailman (“postino” in Italian) named Mario who falls in love with a beautiful woman but doesn’t know how to get her to notice him. During his daily deliveries to the famed, exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, he asks him for the right words to say. The movie won the 1995 Oscar for Best Music and was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. Not Best Foreign Film. Best Picture.

The film is set in 1950 but today Procida looks pretty much the same. The pink building where Mario sits contemplating life without love is still there. Marina and I walked past it as we made our first stroll down the marina. It’s now a restaurant, christened La Locanda del Postino. It’s decorated inside with photos from the movie and star Massimo Troisi, who put off heart surgery to make the movie and after the last day of filming died of a heart attack. The building is one of a cascade of pastel buildings colored turquoise, green, yellow, white and orange. It’s like walking past a rainbow.

"Il Postino," starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Il Postino,” starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We took a seat at one of the many seaside restaurants with views of small boats bobbing up and down on the water. Fuego has red tablecloths and a touch of elegance but it’s definitely unpretentious, with pizzas priced at 4-8 euros. And it’s all Neapolitan-style pizza with the thicker crust featuring slightly burned edges from the wood-fire ovens that cook mankind’s favorite food to perfection. I had a lovely pizza of sausage, provolone cheese, cherry tomatoes, chili pepper and — and a first for me — a sprinkling of cream.

Next to us commandeering a long table were 26 Brits. They’ve worked for NATO in Naples for the last three years. Procida is their company getaway.

If food is big in Italy, it’s even bigger on the islands where seafood reigns supreme at cheap prices the cities can’t approach. In Procida, mussels fill entire soup bowls as appetizers. Calamari comes as thick as lobster tails. Shrimp pepper everything from salads to pasta. They’re on nearly every menu with interesting twists throughout the island, such as Crescenzo on the beach where I had the mezzo paccheri polpo and pecorino: thick, halved macaroni with octopus and pecorino cheese.

A night out in Procida.

A night out in Procida.

We had our first dinner at La Lampara, so romantic the tables should have blankets instead of napkins. It’s on the limestone cliff connecting the marina to the piazza above. Every table on the covered patio has a gorgeous view of the gently curving marina. The marina lights danced off the water, bathing the boats in soft gold.

La Lampara defies my theory that the better the view, the worse the food. My ravioli al sapore di mare (seafood ravioli) was ravioli stuffed with a ground mix of shrimp and ricotta cheese. It tasted like a tangy shrimp cocktail. It was simply the best ravioli I’ve had in a country that treats ravioli as works of art. Chased with a tiramisu sprinkled with lemon and a half carafe of local Falanghina Benevento red wine, La Lampara moved into my top five favorite restaurants in Italy.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.

After one day, I could see how Mario fell in love here. Procida drowns the senses with flavors and sights but also sounds. At one point in “Il Postino,” Mario records the sea lapping against the beach as part of a tape he makes of the sounds of Procida. I heard similar sounds the next day when we took a bus from the port to the long beach on the north end of the island. The bus took us through the heart of Procida few stop and experience. Little villages with names like L’Olmo and San Antonio and Centane had the same pastel colors lining the streets. Flowers were everywhere: on corners, on balconies, in windows.

We walked on the beach’s fine brown sand and I repelled Italian convention by walking into the dark blue sea in early May. Then I quickly walked out. It’s too cold to swim. Locals told me it’s swimmable from June through September. But the brilliant weather made it perfect for a completely suitable way to spend an afternoon in Italy: sitting on a beach towel and watching seagulls hunt for fish.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.

We walked along the boardwalk to the enclosed Marina Chiaiolella where we settled in at Chalet Vicidomini, a simple but romantic snack bar right on the marina. I had a cold beer and Marina had a bitter as we sat in the sun and stared out at the modest boats bobbing up and down in the water. This is the shoulder season, meaning the local joints are populated by Neapolitans, boat people and one couple from Rome: us.
Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida's Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida’s Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals say that Italy’s biggest recession since World War II hasn’t had an effect here. Advanced technology drove away its once-thriving shipbuilding industry in the 18th century and tourism has taken over what was once their biggest business: law enforcement. Hanging like a dead dragon nearly 300 feet up the cliff from Marina Corricella is an abandoned prison. Palazzo d’Avalos was built in 1500 for Cardinal Innico d’Avalos, but in 1830 it was converted into a prison and stayed active for more than 150 years. It finally closed in 1988 for the occasional guided tour but not before incarcerating tens of thousands of criminals and hundreds of guards.
This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The prison never appeared in “Il Postino” but looking at the boarded up prison windows, at least the prisoners had good views. You can’t miss its omnipresence as you climb the steep road to get the great views of the marina. But like the rest of the island, the prison is now at peace.

If you do come to Procida, here’s a tip: Return to Naples with enough time to eat at Da Michele. If you come to Italy merely to try authentic Italian pizza, Da Michele is a must. Started in 1870, it’s considered Italy’s first pizzeria. It’s also considered the best. Think about that. Think about how many pizzerias there are in Italy. That’s like being the best pub in Ireland.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.

I’d been there twice and wrote in my old traveling food column at The Denver Post that it was my favorite pizzeria in Italy. It still is. Just don’t expect ambiance or variety. Those left town generations ago. We arrived with our luggage after about a 15-minute walk from Naples’ ferry dock. As usual, a mob waited outside to get in. I took a number that had about 30 people ahead of us.
Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But the beauty of Da Michele is its simplicity. It only makes two pizzas: margherita (marinara sauce, provolone cheese and a sprig of basil) and marinara (marinara tomato sauce). That’s it. They’re 4-5 euros, depending on the size. Thus, it’s not like in the U.S. where they spend 15 minutes topping pizzas with everything from Sarawak pepper to a ‘67 Chevy. Our number was called in only 30 minutes.

We took a seat at the same table as another Italian couple. The waiters don’t even bother with menus. One came over and just said, “Margherita?” They came out in five minutes. While I love the healthy aspects of Italian pizza, with the thinner crusts, more natural ingredients, fewer toppings, I’m an American and I do like my meat. Sausage. Guanciale. Prosciutto. I like protein pizzas.

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But at Da Michele, less isn’t just more. It’s the most. The marinara sauce tasted like biting into garden tomatoes. The provolone cheese was so fresh I could’ve dipped bread in it. The best part? The bill for two giant pizzas and two beers in arguably the best pizzeria in Italy and, thus, the world?

Fourteen euros.

Da Michele is also only a 10-minute walk from Naples’ train station. Like Da Michele’s pizzas, life in Italy can be oh, so simple. And Procida is simply the best.

In Bruges: Medieval fairy tales do come true in one of the sparkling pearls of Northern Europe

At 2be Beer Wall. Bruges is a great weekend getaway for Marina and me.

At 2be Beer Wall. Bruges is a great weekend getaway for Marina and me.

BRUGES, Belgium — There’s a scene from “In Bruges,” the 2008 dark comedy about two Irish mobsters carrying out a hit, when hitman Colin Farrell laments about getting stuck with this assignment in a freezing town in Belgium.

“I grew up in Dublin,” Farrell says. “I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might interest me.”

It may be difficult to appreciate Bruges if you’re in town to murder someone while fighting demons from your past and a nasty fetish about dwarfs. Maybe Hollywood used Bruges as an extreme example of Farrell’s total indifference to the world around him. As his partner, played by Brendan Gleeson, says in exasperation, “You are about the worst tourist in the whole world.”

They call Bruges "The Venice of the North."' Photo by Marina Pascucci

They call Bruges “The Venice of the North.”‘ Photo by Marina Pascucci

After all, who can not love Bruges? Let’s see, you combine the best beer in the world with the best chocolate in the world, put them in the middle of a town that looks like a backdrop for medieval fairy tales and you have Bruges. If you don’t like chocolate or beer or scenery right out of an oil painting, you’re obviously an alien from another planet who can’t read Roman letters and aren’t reading this anyway.

So, dear reader, this is a love letter to one of my new favorite cities in the world. After 100 countries, dozens of capitals and hundreds of cities, towns, villages and truck stops, Bruges climbed near the top of the rankings. It’s not off the beaten path. The cobblestones on the narrow roads have been nearly beaten even from the 1.8 million tourists who pour in every year. But this is one of the planet’s magical places. It makes you stop, gasp and refuse to move, trying to soak in the views knowing it’s hopeless to find the words.

Then you go get a beer.

Our room and patio at Baert B&B.

Our room and patio at Baert B&B.

Marina, my uber photographer/girlfriend, had never been to Belgium. I had never been to Bruges. It’s the perfect weekend getaway from Rome: a 2-hour, 15-minute, $84 Alitalia flight to Brussels then an hour bus ride to Bruges (Brugge in Flemish) 10 miles from the Dutch border. We left Rome at 8:25 a.m. and by 1 we were sitting on the back porch of our B&B watching ducks float down a little creek below our feet. Baert, our charming B&B owner, left us in the minibar a big bottle of Brugse Zot, a beer so tasty I wanted to sniff and swirl it like an expensive Italian wine.

Bruges (pop. 117,000) is a beacon in a country slowly growing dark. Belgium is racked with a growing reputation of a breeding ground for terrorism. Brussels Airport officials have their description of the March 2016 terrorist attack that killed 35 down rote for all inquiring travelers — like me. The European Union, based in the capital, is crumbling like last week’s waffle. Brexit is pulling out the United Kingdom and France might elect a female Mussolini and leave, too. Strikes are everywhere.

But Bruges may be too charming for even terrorists to bother. The city managed to escape World War I and II relatively untouched, as if the Allied and Axis powers decided this is the one corner of Europe not worth turning into rubble. When we made the windy 10-minute walk to the city center, the Markt square (You don’t spell “charm” with an “e”) opened up like your favorite Christmas present.

The Markt from the Belfry's bell tower.

The Markt from the Belfry’s bell tower.

Picture a square 10,000 square meters covered in cobblestones and lined with buildings dating back to the 13th century. It is closed to all but foot traffic and the occasional horse-drawn carriage. Towering over the entire square is the 83-meter-high Belfry of Bruges. The brick bell tower dates to the 1200s and took me more than 80 minutes to negotiate the 366 steps to the top: 60 minutes in line, 10 minutes of climbing and 10 minutes squeezing past seemingly all 1.8 million visitors descending a narrow spiral staircase that is a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare. But the panoramic view would attract anyone. Behind the square I could see windmills from the region’s growing turbine industry and red-tiled roofs dotting the countryside.

From the top of the spire, I looked down and saw Marina fiddling with her camera in the middle of the Markt. She was leaning up against a huge green statue along with various backpackers, couples and locals grabbing a smoke. They were likely oblivious that above them stood in marble Pieter De Coninck and Jan Breydel, the local leaders of the Bruges Martin, a nighttime massacre of a French garrison in 1302. Breydel, the namesake of the local pro soccer team’s stadium, and De Coninck led the way to an independent Bruges that has remained to this day. It was one of Europe’s leading trade centers in the 1300s and a century later had 200,000 people, double the size of London. During the Renaissance, Bruges became a center for Flemish artists, the rock stars of their day.

However, rising taxes, revolts and a port overgrown with silt plunged Bruges into a 400-year tailspin. Since the world wars, Bruges has reinvented itself with manufacturing of such industries as glass, chemicals and electrical goods. Zeebrugge, Bruges’ port (Bruges on Sea), has been fully operational for 100 years.

Bruges is back, like the daughter of a famous starlet, looking beautiful and cultured and wealthy.

Twenty boats take tourists around the canals.. No private craft allowed.

Twenty boats take tourists around the canals.. No private craft allowed.

There is no better way to see Bruges’ true beauty than by a canal ride. It’s one of the schlockier things you’ll ever do. You stand in line at one of the small docks along the canal where 20 small, packed boats take tourists clicking so many photos you feel like you’re in a field of crickets. But some things are touristy for a reason: They’re worth doing. This is.

Every house, every building, every structure in Bruges is different. “They’re all like us,” the driver/guide told us. The only thing uniform were the red-tiled roofs of the houses, giving Bruges an artsy symmetry similar to Tuscany or towns along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. St. John’s Hospital is still operating after 829 years and so is the smithery that opened in 1245 as is the fish market since 1821. We passed by the gargoyles ringing the 15th century Stadhuis palace and motored under many of Bruges’ 43 bridges, each one seemingly supporting a rollicking beer garden.

If a town can sparkle, Bruges does. It’s not the sun reflecting off the canal water. It’s not the laughter drifting over all the frothy beer mugs. It’s that Bruges feels like a medieval town without the tourist trappings that would turn it into a theme park, the canal ride notwithstanding. In Belgium, Brussels has a gritty edge to it. Liege has too much industry. But Brugge absolutely preens. It’s hard to find poverty in Northern Europe. In Brugge you sense the wealth but not the pretentiousness. Belgians are notoriously funny people. In Brugge, everyone seems as if they just walked out of a comedy club.

Franz Verplancke (far end) has held dinner parties every Friday for four years.

Franz Verplancke (far end) has held dinner parties every Friday for four years.

We got a first-hand look at the high-end Bruges our first night. What looked like another hair-pulling search for an obscure restaurant turned out to be one of the best dining experiences of our lives. Marina had found on The Fork, a terrific Internet source for international dining, a restaurant called Tire-Bouchon. As the taxi carried us past the larger canal that encircles the historical center like a moat, we could tell we were eating off the beaten path. We passed beautiful A-framed houses, well-kept lawns and nice cars parked out front. We were in the heart of residential Bruges.

We also took it as a good sign that the cabbie had no earthly idea where the hell Tire-Bouchon was.

He finally stopped at the given address. We saw no sign. We saw only houses. We knew we were close. A van parked out front of one home read “Tire-Bouchon.” Marina and I exchanged shrugs with the driver and I rang the bell. Opening it was a big, jolly, chubby man with a full gray beard. He wore a chef’s smock and a smile.

Franz Verplancke owns a wine store in Brugge and cooks on the side. Every Friday for the last four years, he has thrown a dinner party for more than just friends. He also does it for visitors. He travels to the south of France every month to collect ingredients, and the menu changes with the seasons.

We sat down at a big dining table sporting two pink candles and pink place mats with two older couples from Brugge. We feasted on a four-course meal right out of a Gourmet magazine field trip. He started us with a local cocktail made of Broker gin, tonic water and red berry syrup. Then came the courses:

Goat cheese salad at Tire-Bouchon.

Goat cheese salad at Tire-Bouchon.

Pork in its own juices.

Pork in its own juices.

* Capace beef appetizer with relish, tomatoes and two cheeses.

* Goat cheese salad with honey from chestnuts from the South of France.

* Pork stewed in its own juice with vegetables, (Verplancke said this was the first dish ever printed in a French cookbook.)

* Creme brulee.

They were all washed down with carefully paired French wines from some of his 321 bottles imported from South of France. For 27 euros each, the meal is as good a bargain as you’ll find in Europe.

Chocolate comes in all shapes and forms in Bruges. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Chocolate comes in all shapes and forms in Bruges. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As we walked around Brugge, however, we noticed something while stopping at chocolate shops seemingly on every corner. The only fat people we saw were tourists. How do Belgians fit on their bicycles with beer, chocolate and a cuisine heavily influenced by every fatty delicious ingredient known to France? We asked a bartender as we sat down for a pre-dinner brew before dining at Resto Mojo where I had baked cod with North Sea shrimp in a lobster cream sauce.

“We eat chocolate every day,” he said, adding that it’s quality not quantity in Belgium. “But we eat healthy. And we ride our bikes.”

Belgian waffles

Belgian waffles

Yes, Belgium has the ninth most bicycles per capita with 48 percent of the 7.8 population owning one. Bike racks in Bruges are as crowded as a teen-ager’s closet. The pubs overflow just as much, a remarkable marketing achievement considering how many bars doing business. This is a country that has 1,150 original Belgian beers. Go to a real Belgian pub and the ceiling is lined with glassware of every shape and size imaginable, each one formed specifically for the different ingredients in each beer. We settled into a corner pub above the canal called 2be Beer Wall. It serves 1,725 beers, not all Belgian, and all of them displayed on a wall the size usually reserved for gymnasiums.

We went outside and sat at a long steel table with umbrellas, listening to the ducks and the tourists floating down the canal. I ordered a medium Kwak, a terrific strong amber at 8 percent alcohol, relatively mild by Belgian standards. But nothing is small on the Belgian beer scene and they served it to me a flute-like glass about a foot and a half high, so big it came with its own wooden carrying case.

Belgium has 1,150 different beers. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Belgium has 1,150 different beers. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It made me think of the end of “In Bruges.” Gleeson throws himself out of the belfort, hoping his spectacular landing would warn Farrell that his target had turned the tables and was gunning for him. The ending was a sensational disaster for every character involved, even the dwarf. But then I thought, when the director yelled “CUT!” a lot of beer mugs and smiles soon rose over the canal.