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Posts from the ‘travels’ Category

Magic through the Mist in Amsterdam


our arrival – not magic

Amsterdam greeted us with heavy rain that turned to hail, right at the moment of uncertainty when we were trying to figure out how to reach our apartment using public transportation.  As the raindrops got harder and heavier, we groupthunk our way to the taxi stand and hopped in.  Luckily the place was close and the cab cheap.

Then we (mostly Todd) had to lug our heavy bags up the steep narrow stairways to our apartment.  Classic Amsterdam homes were mostly built by shipwrights and include some features that you might recognize from ships, like stairways that seem like ladders leaning against the wall, with very narrow steps.  Our place also had a hook installed outside of the top floor front window, which was used to load large items into the home when they wouldn’t make it around the stairway corners.  Homes were also built very narrow, as they were taxed based on their width on the street, like shotgun houses in New Orleans.

Here are a few pictures of our place and others:

We had a very laid-back relaxing week in the city, which was partly due the rain but mostly because our apartment was so comfortable.  When we did get out, we did lots of walking, eating and shopping, but not so much straight-up tourism.  With the leaves changing colors for fall and the canals as backdrops, we walked almost everywhere.  Because we stopped so often and took lots of pictures, occasionally we had to hail a cab or call an uber in order to show up to our reservations kind of on time.

We did manage a walking beer tour.  We met our guide at the biggest beer store in Amsterdam, where they had an impressive array of bottles from most of Europe and even a shelf of American craftbrews.  We were happy to see that some of our favorites from San Diego were well represented.  Heineken ran the beer industry in Holland for a long, long time.  People took loans from Heineken in order to open bars, but then committed their bars to serving only Heineken beers for the lease period.  Nowadays there are some small Belgian breweries popping up with their own brews, and a general excitement about the American and Belgian craftbeers.  My favorite was a scotch ale, which apparently was the standard Holland beer before Heineken took over and started popularizing whatever you all their stuff.

Our beer tour guide also bought us a ginevre (Dutch liqueur) on our way from one brewery to the next, which is what most of the pictures in the gallery below show.  This is one of the oldest bars in the city, and was really small with people drinking from their tiny glasses spilling out onto the street.


Our attempts at tourism also included a visit to the Rijksmusuem, where we saw many works of the Dutch Masters, including the Night Watch, which is featured as the central work at the museum, kind of like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.  The Night Watch, in my humble opinion (and I’m no art critic) is way more interesting than the Mona Lisa from just about any perspective.  They’ve done a lot of research into the painting, and in 2008 even identified the actual people who stood for the painting.  My heart quickened its beat when I entered the Hall of Masters at the Rijksmuseum, and I remained blown away for hours after we left.  These guys really knew how to work the brush.


After the museum closed, we took a close-to-sunset canal ride, where we took even more pictures of the canals from the water.  Because we were among the last people to board the boat, we ended up in the back, outside, with no audio narration.  It was a beautiful ride through a beautiful city, but all of the history was lost to us.

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We had lots of amazing food, including a tasting menu at De Kas, which is Dutch for greenhouse.  The restaurant is inside an old park greenhouse in a residential area of the city.  Now they use the greenhouse to grow veggies for the restaurant, and source the rest of the food from in and around Amsterdam.  We had the three course lunch, which included lots of veggies, a salad with fish and beet syrup, and a fish main.  The dessert was one of the best spins on yogurt that I’ve ever had, especially since I’m no yogurt fan.  Since we were some of the last diners, they also brought us the extra wine to finish – score!

Since we loved it so much, if you’ve made it this far, I reward you with ANOTHER gallery of Amsterdam street pics.

First, the bikes.  It’s a huge bike culture, with bike lanes everywhere.  Instead of looking out for cars, you have to look both ways twice for bikes.  I had more than a few run-ins with them and never quite learned my lesson.


And some other random shots:

Athens Graffiti Gallery

I know most people fall into  opposing camps on the matter of graffiti: they either love it or hate it.  I’m firmly in the street art lovers category.  I understand that it’s not always appropriate, like the instance my friend always cite of tagging in Florence.  However,  I feel graffiti, the artistic, non tagging kind, can do a lot for an otherwise boring neighborhood or brutal communist-era block buildings.  Plus, when done well, it often adds to the sense of community in a neighborhood.

That said, Athens is a pretty interesting place all on its own, and probably doesn’t need any graffiti.  Luckily, for the fans like me, the artists are everywhere.

This gallery is on the hill itself, smack dab in the middle of a beautiful pedestrian/scooter area:

A Few Days in Greece (More Reports from My Summer Adventures)


The strongest memory of my first trip to Athens, in 1996, was my godmother telling my mom that she was taking me to live sex shows all over the city.  After my mom’s shock and our laughter, we told her about all the frisky cats  doing their business on the streets.  This year, I’m sad to say that we didn’t see a single free sex show on the streets of Athens.  And I almost forgot the rest of what I had seen in Athens eighteen years ago, which makes me think that travel has a half-life, somewhere between 15-20  years.  So, if you’re not going back somewhere because you’ve already been there, maybe enough will have changed in two decades to change your mind.

This time Athens was less lively, but that may also be due to the financial crisis.  Despite the crisis, Mom and I still found restaurants full of people enjoying themselves.   The only obvious sign of economic problems, at least to a tourist, were lots of empty storefronts.  We stayed in an airbnb apartment in a residential neighborhood, and walked to tourist areas, where there were shops and hawkers aplenty.


view from the museum cafe

We were really impressed with the the Acropolis Museum.  It wasn’t there in ’96, and it’s an amazing improvement that definitely enhances your visit.  The opening hall has transparent floors, so you can see some of the ruins below as you view the prize collections of Athens.  The top floor has the frieze and other carved adornments that remain from the Acropolis – it’s incredible to see them up close and get the background for their stories.  I also have to mention the cafe – we had an amazing meal there while admiring the view of the Acropolis – I almost like looking at it from afar better than when we saw it up close!


we walked over these ruins on the way into the Acropolis Museum. The building has many glass floors so you can check out what lies beneath.

Later we hiked up the hill, which is a lovely walk through grassy lots, random piles of old rocks, as yet unassembled, and beautiful trees and shrubs.  The landscape makes the slightly uphill walk really enjoyable.

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Here are some of the random rocks that we saw:

On the way back down the Acropolis Hill, we saw the Agora and a great view of the Temple of Zeus, which was already closed when we tried to see it earlier in the afternoon.

I also visited Dephi back in ’96, but don’t remember much more than the theater.  The Delphi Museum was remodeled since then and is also worth the visit – Greece definitely has Turkey beat in terms of museum design and presentation of information. It’s well laid out and does a great job explaining the phases of worship at Delphi and its various treasuries.  Towns throughout Greece kept some vaults at Delphi during Hellenic times, some of which are still sort of standing today.

Here are some the offers found from treasuries around the site:

When you visit, you really appreciate the site of Delphi, and how well the ancient Greeks picked a holy spot.  I wish I could describe the combination of the breeze, the sunshine, the pine scent and the hum of cicadas that we experienced while climbing through the site – it was heavenly!

The rest of Greece was a bit of a blur.  Mom and I had plans to stop at Corinthia on our way to catch the ferry to Italy, but decided against it as we both like sleeping in the morning, and I was a bit stressed about getting through the ferry boarding administration process.  It’s a little more difficult to board a ferry with a car  Usually you have to go to one office to pick up your tickets, then another to get your boarding pass.  Sometimes they want to inspect your vehicle before you drive it on.  In Patra, once we found an office with friendly workers, it wasn’t that challenging of a process.  We picked up our tickets, then our boarding passes, and then finally found the right port (there’s a new one, further down the road), where we would board, eventually.  Once the stress was assuaged, we found a nice cafe in a pedestrian zone in Patra to enjoy a little more Greek-style frappes and food before we hopped to Italy.

Speaking Non-Stop English in Spain

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Last summer I took a break from a road trip from Turkey to Spain and back by booking a week of volunteer service at Pueblo Ingles (English Town) in La Alberca, a town outside of Salamance in Spain.

the whole group in the town square of La Alberca.  I'm in a the middle of the top row, in a hat.

the whole group in the town square of La Alberca. I’m in a the middle of the top row, in a hat.

Last week I did the program again, but this time in the mountains outside of La Corzola, in the northern part of Jaen, another region in Spain. Even though you do a lot of talking, and in English, participating in the program provides for a relaxing week and builds great friendships with incredibly interesting Spaniards and Anglos from around the world.


the teachers group at a pajama party. Sadly, I’m the one with the devil eyes on the bottom right.

The program is designed to provide an immersion experience where Spaniards can improve their English. As a volunteer, or Anglo, you’re expected to speak English for hours on end, in exchange for room and board and wine! It’s a pretty good exchange, and I suspect a lot of people would do it for the wine alone, even though it’s the kind you have to drink a lot of to really enjoy. The real benefit of the program, besides language, however, is the fellowship and friendship that emerges in just a few days. When you spend nearly every waking hour with a small group of people, and incessant talking is enforced, you’ll either get very close to each other or quickly run out of things to say. Luckily, I’m a talker, so even after a week of this, I feel like I could keep going.
We spend the day in one-to-ones or two-to-twos, and depending on what type of program it is (i.e. for businesspeople or teachers), helping the Spaniards prepare presentations or classes. Lots of other activities are scheduled in so it never gets boring. Each night, there’s an entertainment hour, which includes presentations on all kinds of things by the Anglos, jokes by the MC, and theater presented by a mixed cast of Anglos and Spaniards. Generally, there’s an activity after dinner or some simple hanging out, where the level and quality of English becomes more social. Because everybody is so interesting, it’s really hard to break away and go to bed, even though you know you have hours with them again the next day.
Since everyone must attend all three meals, the Spanish schedule can be hard to adopt for some Anglos. Breakfast at 9, Lunch at 2 and Dinner at 9 is late for most English-speaker’s schedules, but I adapted quickly. After a night or two or partying into the dawn hours, I was happy to sleep in until just before breakfast. We also got a siesta every day, from the conclusion of lunch until 5 p.m.
In La Alberca last summer, I either went to the hotel pool, napped, or took an excursion to a mountaintop monastery during siesta.

One of my favorite activities was the queimada, which is an ancient tradition of unknown origins (although it’s believed to be Celtic) of banishing evil spirits and welcoming good spirits from and to a place. It is performed by burning some spirits (the drinking kind) with sugar and spices while reading an incantation. I won’t say more about it, because I think each time the players lend a different sense of drama to the event.

me and a queimada witch

me and a queimada witch

I also learned a lot about my own language, English. First of all, we all have different ideas of what constitutes proper English, especially between the American and UK versions. The slang is interesting all the way around the world, as are the idioms. Each hour of talking, you’re supposed to review an idiom and a phrasal verb. First I had to figure out what a phrasal verb was, then sometimes ask around to find their meanings. If you haven’t already guessed, it’s a verb with an adverb or preposition that when combined provide a new meaning to the phrase. Here are some examples: ask out, give up, look into, etc.

If this sounds interesting, or you’re looking for a cheap week in Spain where you really get to meet some Spaniards, I strongly recommend applying for the program.  You provide your own transportation to Madrid and the program takes care of the rest.  They have kids, teens, and adult programs all over Spain, and a couple of programs in Germany as well.

Here’s the link to apply:

If I can swing it, I’ll be back for another round!

The Canaries: Spain’s Hawaii

For a combination of a birthday treat and to escape the winter in Ankara, I spent some time in Lanzarote, a part of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.  Like Hawaii, this is a volcanic island chain that still has a few active volcanos, a volcano national park, and a wide variety of beaches.

I stayed at an airbnb house just outside of Arrecife, the current capital.  If you contorted yourself while looking south, you could see the ocean from the house.  Unfortunately stormy weather prevented beach days when I first arrived, but this was actually a good thing, as I had to finish one last paper for school. Once the paper was done, the sun came out, at least for part of every day, so I combined beach time with visiting some of the island’s sights.

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All the different cloud patterns signalled crazy weather

My first site was the Mirador al Rio, a northern viewpoint overlooking the islet between Lanzarote and Graciosa, a small island holding a fishing community of 500.  Like most vista points at the corners of land, this one was extremely windy!  I could only stay outside for a few minutes before I was shivering and my lips were chapped.  Luckily, all of the tourist sites on the island have cafes built in, so I was able to sit and warm up with some cafe con leche and still admire the view. The cliff is a tall 450 m curve into the ocean – much more impressive in person than the photograph below.

On the way back I stopped at Lagomar, which was the cliffside home of Omar Sharif. After filming on the island, he fell in love with the place and built a home here and then, according to rumor, he lost it in a poker game.  With balconies, pools, and sitting areas built into all of the nooks and crannies of the cliffs, this place must have seen some amazing parties.  Now it’s a museum, bar, and restaurant.  Although I didn’t get there in time to see the interior, I wandered through the yards and then enjoyed a few local beers in the bar, which is set back in a cliff chasm.  I had a lot of fun listening to electronica, which usually isn’t my favorite kind of music, and watching the lights from a disco ball dance around the cliff walls.  Is this what tripping out is like? I wondered while ordering another beer.  The whole place also has lots of cool metal art scattered around.  I always want to buy these things from the metalworkers at county fairs back in the States, but am usually short on funds or a means of getting them to my place.  So far, my collection only includes a clock made from used parts.

I was really excited to browse the market in Teguise, which is the island’s old capital.  Unfortunately, it was mostly stalls full of junk and knock-off purses.  There are tons of Irish and British expats who live on the island, so a whole part of the market was dedicated to real UK food shipped weekly.  I had no idea chips were so important!

The volcanic nature of Lanzarote provides lots of interesting features in the landscape.  Along with all of the rocky beaches, I really liked Jameos del Agua, which is a long lava tube that actually goes into the ocean.  You can visit different parts.  Cesar Manrique, the island’s native son architect, designed the tourist attraction to blend with the volcanic rock and make the most of the site.

The sun came out while I was relaxing by the pool at Jameos, so I headed down to the coastline.  The waves were really incredible and a couple of surfers were having a ball riding them in.

Although I wasn’t surfing, sitting on the beach and watching the waves while was mesmerizing for me.  The sunshine didn’t hurt either!

While waiting for the sun another day, I visited Timanfaya National Park, the volcanic area in the western part of the island.  Once you get to the park, you have to take a park tour bus to explore the landscape.  I had read that they let you out for pictures, but unfortunately these days they only stop, so you can’t help the glare on your pictures.  The twisty turny mountain road is narrow and looked pretty dangerous, so I guess it makes sense to forbid tourists to use it.  The last eruptions were in the 1730s, but you can still feel the heat of the volcano today.  The restaurant even offers food cooked over the volcano!

My favorite town on the island was Golfo, a two road village on the West Coast.  Along with beautiful coastline, its main industry seems to be fishing, as aside from a village store, the whole place is lined with seafood restaurants.  I snagged a table right on the water’s edge, and ordered my favorite Spanish tapas: gambas al ajillo, or shrimp in garlic.  I don’t usually mindlessly eat bread dipped in oil, but this is the kind of meal that you’ve got to lick up!  After stuffing myself with the shrimp, and the island’s mojo, red and green sauces, I tried to finish a whole fish as well – it didn’t happen, but was well worth the effort.  One of the island’s specialties is wrinkled potato.  I had these my first night, and couldn’t quite appreciate their difference from boiled potatoes.  But the potatoes served alongside my fish were an amazing combination of roasted and boiled textures and tastes finished with a salted crust.  I recommend trying them, but probably only at a more authentic place (i.e. in Golfo and not in Playa Carmen).

While I was eating this guy came down to the ocean to clean a fish:

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So then of course these birds all came to see what was going on:

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My new friend visited me a few times – he was the only cat I saw on the island!

And finally, here are some of the views of the west coast of Lanzarote.

A Taste of Christmas in Vienna


There’s no place like home for the holidays, but when home isn’t an option, and you live in a non-celebrating country, like Turkey, you’ve got to find the merry where you can.  My first Christmas in Ankara, I stayed in town and even went to class on the 25th. This year I decided to upgrade my holiday experience with a trip to Vienna and Budapest over the week of Christmas.

For a girl used to Ankara, which I would say is a modernizing city with a Middle-eastern bent, Vienna is a real treat. Even though I laughed when a friend compared it to a wedding cake, now I’d have to agree. The buildings are mostly gleaming white and beautifully decorated. There’s no trash laying about, and few leaves astray. While walking around, especially with the city all lit up for Christmas, I felt like I was in a fairy-tale.

Our first priority was Christmas markets, so we started with the largest at Town Hall. Lights shaped like hearts and snowmen hung from the trees leading to the market. The first booth we hit was the gluwein, hot spiced wine served in a real mug, and perfect for sipping while browsing the booths on a cold misty night.

You can buy all kinds of crafty gifts at the market – here’s a selection of what we saw:

Eventually we abandoned the market for the nearest beer house. Aside from the beer, I wasn’t too excited about the menu and chose what looked most decent, a Bergen sausage, without really knowing what it was. It was a lucky choice. Imagine a pork sausage full of cheese and wrapped in bacon, then cooked – amazeballs!

On Sunday I went to the Hofsburg Palace for a morning of culture.  First stop was mass sung by the Vienna Boys Choir.  The singing was absolutely beautiful, but because the boys are way up in the choir loft, you can’t see them until the end of mass, when they do an encore Hallelujah on the altar, kind of like a photo shoot.  Instead, I spent the mass watching some other guys, who I think are like grown-up choir boys, fooling around on the altar.


Vienna Boy’s Choir at the Hofsberg Chapel

Between the mass and my next event, seeing the Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School, I walked around the palace and enjoyed some more gluwein.  It was pretty misty, but for me it gave the city a nice, Christmasy feel.  In addition to the cleanliness, I loved the beauty of the palace and the statues.  I was surprised to see some Roman ruins right in front of one of the gates – they found them in the 90s!  I think it will be fascinating to revisit all of these sites over my lifetime and see what gets uncovered.

The Spanish Riding School is all about precision and discipline.  I won’t deny that the horses are stunning, and seeing them dance and pirouette was a treat.  However, I guess the American in me was waiting for a little more excitement, like jumping and cowboy-style rodeo tricks.  I should have known to expect an elegant European affair when the horses performed to classical music of Austrian composers and the announcer who explained each school in a crisp, intercontinental English accent.  Luckily I was able to keep myself occupied admiring the beauty of the horses and their riders.  Unfortunately you can’t take pictures during the performances, so here’s a before shot of the hall, and a few pics from the stables.

I spent the rest of the day wandering the city.  Vienna is pretty flat with nice sidewalks, so perfect for walking all day.  As I was getting ready for the evening, the notes of Deck the Halls came through my window.  Although I had to climb onto the windowsill to see it, there was a band walking the street and playing holiday tunes, while stopping in front of the gluwein stalls.  Vienna was perfect for getting into the holiday spirit!

As I was headed to another Christmas market on Sunday night, I stopped by to check out St. Stephen’s and noticed a long line and a guy at the gate.  After a few questions and trying to interpret a sign in German, I learned that there was a holiday concert there in a few minutes.  Feeling it a fortuitous sign, I joined the queue and then got to enjoy the cathedral with the accompaniment of beautiful music.

Another Weekend In Istanbul


Last month my best friend and I met up for a long weekend in Istanbul.  Since I have class on Friday and Girl Scouts on Saturday morning, Sara did all the big tourist sites on her own and then met me in Taksim Square late in the afternoon.  It’s hard to tell that the square was consumed by protests this summer.  Now it is clean and full of pedestrians going in every direction – a perfect spot for people watching while waiting on a friend.

We walked from Taksim to our apartment from airbnb, which was in my favorite neighborhood, Cihangir, while watching what we could see of the sun setting over the Bosphorus through the buildings.  As usual I got lost a few times, while constantly checking google maps on my phone, but this was an excuse for us to get a few more hills counted on the fitbit.  Istanbul has been known as the City of Seven Hills from way back when it was Constantinople, but after walking around a bit, I’d say it’s more like 7000 hills!

That night I took Sara to my favorite fancy restaurant, Asitane.  I’ve talked about it before on the blog.  It serves food from the historic Ottoman Palace archives, and is currently offering items from the fall menus.  There are so many choices of meze that we had a hard time agreeing on what to choose for the two of us.  Luckily, the portions aren’t huge, so you can actually eat most of what you order if you decide to go big!  We had a chestnut/lentil soup, green bean fritters, baba ghanoush, some rolls with mastic (a weird touch, but it works in the bread), and quail on eggplant, as well as a nice bottle of Turkish wine.  Sara was really impressed when the waiter offered us each a jar of quince jam as a parting gift – so Turkish to me, but a nice touch.

Sunday was all about the Bosphorus.  We grabbed a quick breakfast down the hill from our flat, then walked along the water to meet some friends at the newly opened Maritime Museum.  Because Sunday was also the anniversary of Ataturk’s Death, the streets were lined with people waving flags and wearing pins and hats in commemoration.  The entrance to Dolmabahce Palace, where Ataturk died, was mobbed with people going to pay respects.  We also saw a couple of interesting displays.  Here’s one made of baklava – that’s Ataturk on the left.


The main exhibit hall of the Maritime Museum is full of galleons from the early Ottoman days to the end of the empire.  This is obviously where the renovation money went, as the rest of the museum is pretty disappointing.  Now that my Turkish is decent, I try to compare the info signs in each language.  On the panel describing the Ottoman’s sack of Constantinople, the English side was so bad that it actually didn’t tell the correct story!  This is pretty common all over Turkey but manages to disappoint me every time.  There are plenty of English speakers in the country to prevent these kinds of things.  Other exhibits in the museum, such as the much-touted Piri Reis map-making exhibit, are laughable with their lack of actual things to display.  It’s just a lot of panels and 3D video art that doesn’t quite fit the story.  Oh well.

Later we walked through a very lively part of Besiktas, and then took the ferry across the Bosphorus to Kadikoy.  The ferry, for the bargain price of 2 TL, is a great way to see the Bosphorus like the locals.  It’s usually a 20-30 minute ride and you get to skip the blasting bass music and weird sales pitches of the tourist boats.  At Kadikoy, we walked through the pedestrian area while Fenerbahce fans chanted cheers from restaurant to restaurant up and down the paths.  It was really impressive and one of those experiences of life in full blast where you just have to smile!

The next day we met friends for a great Turkish breakfast up in the Rumelihisar area, which is farther up the Bosphorus and where the Ottomans first gained control of one of the sea lanes into Constantinople.  The cafes there are famous for their breakfast spreads, and our choice, one of the many Kale Cafes (Kale is Turkish for Castle) was excellent.  My favorite part, as it always is at Turkish breakfast, was the kaymak and honey.  Kaymak is kind of like clotted cream, and goes excellently with fresh honey and warm bread.


a fisherman by our Kale Cafe Turkish breakfast place

Next stop was the Grand Bazaar!  Sara did some serious shopping.  We even briefly fell for a rug sales pitch, but really just used it as a break to sit down and drink some apple tea.  When we had more shopping bags than we could comfortably carry for the day, we headed to the Aga Hamam, which was built for one of the Sultan’s wives and recently reopened to the public.

It’s one of the largest in Turkey.  This was my first real hamam experience, and I wanted to do it at a tourist site so that someone would be there to shepherd us through the process.  Obviously, you couldn’t take pictures, so I’ll describe it briefly.  I’m not a big fan of exfoliation, so I was a little scared of the whole idea of getting a scrub-down by a hamam lady.  First we were given lockers and changed into thin plaid bathrobes.  Next we were led into the hamam and given an alcove to hang out in and wait our turn.  Everything is lined in marble, and around the alcoves and some of the main walls are sinks with small bowls inside.  You use the bowls to pour water all over yourself.  Everything is slightly steamy, so I guess sitting and waiting allows you to relax while your pores are opening.  Our ladies came and got us, then led us to another room where sinks on a small ledge lined one wall.  Here they scrubbed us down with a slightly rough mitt – it wasn’t at all painful.  Next they led us to the large marble platform in the center of the room, a octagon or bigger.  Every customer got a side, and they first gave us a bubble massage and then a deeper pressure massage.  Afterward, we were rinsed again, and led back out of the steam area of the hamam.  I thought that was it, and after enjoying my juice, I went into to change – I wasn’t sure where my friend had gone.  As I was putting on my boots, my hamam lady came and asked if I still wanted the massage – I thought we already got one.  It turns out the standard package is for a bubble massage in the hamam, and then another one on a standard massage table.  So I once again undressed and went for massage 2 or 3 – I was so relaxed that I didn’t really know what I was doing anymore!  I think it was a great experience, and since then I’ve gone to a more local hamam which I’ll talk about in a future post.  The only problem is that because the massage rooms are screened and not complete walls, during the regular massage I heard everything going on with reception, including a lady taking 20 minutes to decide whether or not she wanted to cancel her appointment.  The noise was less than peaceful.

Our final event was a dinner with locals in Istanbul that I booked through Intrepid Urban Adventures.  We walked through the back streets behind Sultanhamet and met a couple of families living in an apartment building.  While their mothers served us a simple meal, the kids all told us about their school and what they wanted to be when they grew up – a teacher, a doctor, and a barber.  It was neat to see how average Istanbullu live, since so far I’ve seen more of the expat or tourist side. We also had quite a connection as there were four of us there with Sara-ish names, and I was the first visitor they had that spoke any Turkish.

We ended the evening with a backgammon lesson and some nargile (sheesha or bubble pipe).

If you’re going to Istanbul, November is really a great time.  The weather is really pleasant and I think everything is slightly less crowded than the summer months.

Back to Blogging

Hey, remember me?

I’m that girl who used to write about living in Turkey and traveling all over the place.

As much as I really enjoyed sharing my adventures, this summer writing the blog while traveling with family and friends became the excess baggage that I tossed when I decided instead to maximize the time with friends and family.

So now I’m back, and I’m going to start detailing the trip from where I left off: paragliding off of Babadag, all the way to Spain and back – it really was an epic summer of travelling!

As I go through stories and what I remember from all the stops along the way, I’ll be peppering my tales with bits and pieces from life in Ankara.  Even if I managed to write daily, I don’t think I’d be able to keep up with all the surprises that I encounter here, even after living in Turkey for over a year – it really is a fascinating country!

While I get the next post together, here’s a teaser of what’s to come:

Not All Roads Are Paved, and Other Lessons I Learned While Driving Through the Balkans

  1. NOT ALL ROADS ARE PAVED.  And it’s really a better idea to stay on paved roads.  I actually learned this when I broke my transmission high in Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, but some lessons you have to “learn” over and over.  In many countries that we visited, especially Albania and Romania, “paved” meant that somewhere along the route, there was some paving.  The rest of the roads are covered in rocks, gravel, or dirt – amazingly, we didn’t get a single flat tire.
  2. YOUR GPS WILL NOT GET YOU THERE.  My TomTom was much more reliable in EU countries (Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria) and near useless everywhere else.  After crossing the border from Serbia into Romania, we were shocked to see even goat trails delineated on the screen when in Belgrade, the capital, only one road was marked.
  3. SO BRING A MAP OR THREE.  And look at it before you hit the road.  Otherwise you’ll be doing a lot of second-guessing, like we did, of where we actually were in relation to where we were going.  Frequently stopping and asking directions provides for adventures, but running into cold faces and no English can get a bit frustrating.  We finally came up with a formula of the TomTom and a couple of downloaded google maps on the ipad.  I also downloaded the google maps to my phone, so that once we hit our next destination we could see exactly where we were courtesy of cell tower triangulation.
  4. YOU HAVE TO PASS THROUGH CROATIA TO GET EVERYWHERE.  Because of it’s boomerang shape, Croatia is on the way to lots of other countries.  When we were driving from Sarajevo to Belgrade, we passed through a border checkpoint that we didn’t even know we’d go through (why you need to look at a map before you head out).  We thought it was Hungary, for whatever reason, until I finally recognized the Republik Hrvatska flag as we passed Customs.
  5. KNOW WHAT THE LOCAL CURRENCY IS and what it’s worth in relation to your native money before you hit the ATM.  If you didn’t do this, then go for one of the middle set amount buttons, and hope for the best.  We forgot to do this in almost every country, and ended up cash poor when it came to lunch.
  6. IF YOU’RE HUNGRY AND YOU SEE FOOD, JUMP ON IT.  In the most eastern countries, most establishments only served drinks and toast.  I guess everybody eats at home.  As much fun as it is to wander the streets and happen upon a great cafe, this is not so easy in Romania and Serbia, where we walked for hours looking for food more nutritious than bread.  Have an idea of where the food is before you head out to eat.
  7. THE BALKANS ARE BEAUTIFUL.  Despite the near-constant uncertainties and spells of being absolutely lost, the countries of the Balkans are great to drive through.  Most vistas are absolutely breath-taking!

Last Stop on Our Balkan Loop: Bulgaria

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Before taking a class on the Balkans last semester, I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about Bulgaria except that it’s capital was Sofia. I thought that it was the place of goulash, but that’s actually Hungary. In my class, I learned about the nationalism in the late 80s/early 90s, which manifested itself against the Turks who had been living in the country for around 500 years. It was a brief ugly time in Bulgaria’s history, where some Turks fled, some were forced to changed their names from Turkish to Slavic, and others resisted and formed a political party, the Minority Rights and Freedoms Party, which is still influential today. Like so many of the Balkan countries, it was fascinating to see the remains of Roman, Ottoman, and Austrian culture, mixed with Bulgaria’s own flair in each of the cities we visited.

In Sofia, I took a free walking tour and learned about the monarch’s attempts to save Bulgaria’s Jews from shipment off to the Nazis. Basically, as our tour guide said, he employed a long held Bulgarian habit of procrastination, and kept giving the Nazis excuses as to why he needed to keep them in country. Of course the story is not that black and white, but it is remarkable in such a difficult time. We also learned that the first freely elected president of Bulgaria was also a former monarch – I think for the first time in history!  During Communist times, churches acted as shops in order to continue operations.  The country’s symbol is all about lions, which were only ever in Bulgaria for Roman gladiator type activities.  Now it’s even the name of the currency, lev.

At the Rila Monastery, I learned a lot about the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The monastery is situated in green mountains amidst springs and waterfalls, whose music you hear from various corners as you explore the site. In the actual chapel, there are no seats or pews as I expected from my Catholic upbringing. Instead, worshippers all stand, and the entire mass is sung, as it’s believed that through the act of singing you’re closest to God. Although we couldn’t take pictures inside the chapel, I have a few from the outside.

My favorite part of visiting the monastery was visiting the kitchen area. At different times, the monastery hosted thousands of people, and the kitchen is equipped with a huge oven and other implements to support that. I was really fascinated by the interior of the rooms, though, with uneven stone-tiled floors worn down over the ages.

The church is also credited with preserving Bulgarian folk culture when Bulgaria was under occupation. Now the government takes care of that. Unfortunately we didn’t see anybody in traditional dress, except the monks, who wore long black robes. Since it was a bit chilly up in the mountains, they wore Adidas jackets over their robes! At dinner that night, we did get to see some folk dancers in all of their finery while enjoying traditional Bulgarian food – it was delicious!!!

By far, my favorite thing in Bulgaria were the sunflower fields we passed on the way out!

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