Archive for February, 2008

Istanbul, Turkey

Karie on Feb 14th 2008 01:25 pm

Our time in Istanbul was split into two parts. We spent a full day there on our way to Cappadocia, and a few more days on the back end. They say that Istanbul is “where the east meets the west” – both literally & figuratively, and that couldn’t be more true.

We found that most people spoke English in the city, and in many ways it was not too different from other major cities we’ve visited. Turkey is currently working very hard to join the European Union, so it makes me curious if the larger cities are embracing the “ways of the west” more than they might have several years ago? Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, there was still a feeling unlike anything else we had experienced in Europe. We definitely observed some cultural differences, despite the western influence.

Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, and while probably not as “extreme” as many other eastern countries, you do notice some differences, such as there being fewer women and children out and about. It is also customary to hear the “call to prayer” 5 times per day. The call is broadcast from speakers on the minarets of the many mosques, and can be heard everywhere, including in our hotel room at 5:00am. Some shops briefly close while the owners head to the nearest mosque or prayer room, while others go about their business but respectfully turn down music or anything else to distract from the time of prayer.

We experienced another culture shock while walking through the Grand Bazaar – the world’s oldest & largest market, housing over 4000 shops. The shop owners and workers are… aggressive, to say the least. If you can withstand the harassment long enough to find something that you want to purchase, then you’re ready to take on another cultural trait – the bartering.

The general rule of thumb is to never pay more than ½ of their original asking price. While neither Scott nor I are master negotiators, we were still able to pick up a few small things for what we think were good prices. However, I have heard of people getting ripped off, so beware. I wouldn’t recommend visiting the bazaar on your first day in Istanbul. Explore other shops throughout the city to gauge prices first (on common items such as souvenirs, jewelry or pottery), and then visit competing shops within the bazaar before making a purchase.

There are many interesting sites in Istanbul, including Hagia Sophia (which has been both a Christian Church and Muslim Mosque, and is now a museum), and the Basilica Cistern. The Cistern, originally built by Constantine, holds 80,000 gallons of water. What an elaborate well! Fans of the classic James Bond films might recognize the photos.

One of our other interesting ventures was to the Topkapi Palace, which features what it claims to be the arm & skull of John the Baptist, the rod of Moses, and the turban of David. I found it strange to stumble across these things right in-between the circumcision room and the harem. What a mix of history and questionable information all in one place.

On our last day, we took a ferry across into the Asian side of Istanbul. It was really more about the experience of bridging continents than the particular activities on the other side. Even though we had already driven into Asia on our trip to Cappadocia, it was still a cool experience to step onto a boat in Europe, and 20 minutes later, stop off in Asia.

Overall, Turkey was one of the most fascinating places we’ve seen thus far. I think that the country is a bit misunderstood – at least it was by us – but in the end, it far exceeded our expectations. In fact, if we didn’t have a nonrefundable plane ticket back to Barcelona, both of us would’ve liked to have stayed longer. After meeting people and hearing stories about other places they had visited throughout the country, I think we could have easily spent a couple more weeks exploring. Definitely add it to your “must see” list.

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Eagle Creek Story - “Love on the Road”

Karie on Feb 13th 2008 10:04 am

Just wanted to share something kind of fun…

Eagle Creek (the makers of the backpacks and some other travel gear that we use), asked us to submit a story about “Love on the Road”, and they selected our story to be featured in their Valentine’s Day enewsletter!

Here’s a picture of the email that went out to their subscribers, and you can Click Here to read our story on Eagle Creek’s website.

Eagle Creek E-Newsletter

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Cappadocia, Turkey

Karie on Feb 11th 2008 03:50 pm

Cappadocia was one of the most interesting, actually surreal, places we have ever been. The story begins with the tale of our first overnight bus. We have done overnight planes and trains before, so we pretty much knew what we were in for. However, what we didn’t count on was being smushed into the very last row of a bus that was 100% full, and felt about 100 degrees.

Scott had the very center seat, meaning there was nothing in front of him except the aisle way (at least until 2am, when more people got on the bus than off, so a little boy had to sit on the floor in front of Scott’s feet). Then there was one couple on Scott’s right, me to his left, and another lucky person shoved into the corner on the other side of me. We were all feeling a little cramped, and to make matters worse, Scott’s seat would not recline, so we were in for a long night.

I got a little sleep in-between the frequent stops, in which I always got out to use the bathroom because I never knew when my next chance would be. (ok, a quick note about that… we were now on the Asian side of Turkey, and the bathrooms were a clear reflection that this was more “foreign” than any place we had yet visited. A hole in the ground, a bucket, a water spout, no toilet paper, no paper towels. Yet they charged you .50 YTL (about .40 cents) to use it.)

Meanwhile, Scott was sitting straight up, miserably hot & uncomfortable. There was a man with his 3 sons sitting in the row in front of us, and you could tell they felt bad for us. They spoke no English (except one son who could say “What is your name?”), yet they kept trying to help us. The father always had something to say (in Turkish), and I’m certain it was all for our benefit, although we only caught about ½ of it. He tried to talk us into moving over and giving someone else the seat in the middle, but Scott did not want to curse anyone else with that atrocity.

So, the father continued to care for us as if we were his own… He must’ve given us 10 pieces of candy, which we could not refuse. We had heard it’s impolite to not accept when a Turkish person offers you something, but the fact is, it’s actually impossible. After a few pieces of candy we tried to politely decline, but inevitably ended up stuffing extra candy in our pockets. He later bought us a giant pretzel, instructed us to stretch our legs out, use pillows, and various other suggestions that we couldn’t understand.

They were a great family and we enjoyed trying to communicate with them. Then, around 4:30 in the morning, after being asked “What is your name?” a few more times, one of the boys in front of us leaned over and showed Scott how to recline his seat! If only he had done that 8 hours earlier!!! So, we were able to get a couple hours sleep before arriving in Cappadocia. But thankfully the unpleasant journey was not at all an indication of what was to come.

Cappadocia is known for its extensive underground cities, caves and “fairy chimneys”. Everywhere you look, these chimneys emerge from the ground, having been molded by a combination volcanoes, natural elements and people. Even our hotel was in a cave… with wi-fi! That’s when Scott knew we were in a special place.

Faruk, the owner of our cave hotel, Kismet Cave House, was one of the nicest, most hospitable people we have met. The only other guests in the 8-room hotel were his 2 nephews and one of their friends, as well as another lady from Australia. So, Faruk piled us all into his van and took us site seeing. Over the next few days, we ate meals together, sipped Turkish tea together, and hung out for hours just chatting. We felt like one of the family.

We were grateful for their help, as we quickly realized that it was very difficult to see Cappadocia on your own. You could rent a car, but even then it would be difficult to efficiently navigate to the various places of interest, which were quite spread out. However, with a combination of Faruk’s guidance and one day-tour, we were able to see some amazing things.

The “fairy chimneys” I mentioned were formed from volcanic ash, and the inhabitants of the area at that time carved homes and churches out of them. Over time, the softer minerals have worn away, giving the caves their whimsical shapes.

The Christians were actually one of the first groups to create and make use of the caves (although the area has since been inhabited by several cultures before becoming a part of what we now know as Turkey). They would hide in the caves and hundreds of underground cities while under persecution during the Roman invasion. There are literally hundreds of cave churches, dozens of which we visited, where they could worship in safety.

One of the most impressive sites we visited was the Selime Monastary, which some of you might recognize from Star Wars. Because of the erosion, entrances that used to be at ground level are now up high, which I think makes the experience even more spectacular. From down below, you would never believe what you were about to see. Kitchens, school rooms, and chapels, pigeon holes, all dug out of caves.

Scott & I were the first ones from our group to enter the largest cathedral in the monastery. There were huge pillars and frescos, and a light shining in from the windows above, beaming down onto the altar. We felt like we were in Indiana Jones, almost expecting the Holy Grail to be positioned perfectly on the altar waiting for us to be the first to discover it.

We were able to do a lot of hiking and exploring throughout our time there (above ground, below ground, in valleys and caves), and we were endlessly amazed. We also did a hot air balloon ride, which is a very popular thing to do in this area. The balloons actually go down into the valleys amongst the fairy chimneys. Watching the sunrise as we floated amongst the hundreds of snow-covered formations will be an experience we will never forget.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially being only 400 miles from Iraq. It was somewhat of another world, but in a very good way. It was peaceful and the people were wonderful; it felt both civilized and imaginary.

If you ever find yourself anywhere near Turkey, it’s worth the painful bus ride to veer off to Cappadocia.

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Crete, Greece

Karie on Feb 7th 2008 08:56 pm

It was another early day heading from Santorini to Heraklion, Crete. In the summer it would be nice to take a ferry, but they are unreliable (or nonexistent) at this time of year, so we took a short flight. We only had one day in Heraklion before heading across the island it Chania, so we hit the ground running… straight to the gyro stand, through the open air market, around several churches, to the end of the harbor and back.

The main attraction of the area is the Palace of Knossos, or what’s left of it. The palace belonged to the Minoans who once inhabited the island, but were wiped out by earthquakes caused by the eruption of the volcano on Santorini. We weren’t able to visit the site of the palace, as it’s a bit too far away considering our time limitations; however, we did visit the archaeological museum which houses some of the artifacts recovered from the ruins.

Today’s Heraklion, as Scott put it, seems to be struggling to find its identity. It’s a large city, so there’s a mix of old, new, charming, and ugly. It’s the capitol of the best known island in Greece, yet it lacks that island charm that exists in the most of the other villages. However, I do have to give them credit for the fact that they put fries in their gyros, and for their fabulous cafés.

The Greek’s seem to think that Nescafé is coffee. In fact they advertise on menus like they expect the foreigners to be excited about it. Luckily, the cafés in Heraklion aren’t really as much about coffee as they are about sitting in plush chairs lining the sidewalks, basking in the sunshine, chatting with friends, or people watching… all of which happen to be among my favorite activities.

The next morning we took a 3-hour bus trip across the island to Chania. Chania was ruled by the Venetians for quite some time, and you can feel their influence throughout the old town area, particularly at the harbor. Ok, so the fact that it’s called “Venetian harbor” is a clue, but it gives itself away even without knowing the name.

In the summertime I imagine every restaurant along the harbor is packed with tourists, but in February, it’s mostly the locals enjoying a long lunch or a cup of their fake coffee. We also discovered a new favorite – “Greek toast.” It’s basically just a grilled sandwich with various options for fillings, but when you cover that Cretian bread in butter and grill it, it doesn’t even matter what’s inside.

In Chania we found the allure of Crete. We spent a few days wandering around the narrow streets, hiking through the hills in an attempt to find the very best view (which I think is impossible to judge), and a bit of geocaching.

While visiting Greece in the early Spring or Fall would be ideal (especially if you like hiking, as the best trails are closed for winter), I do think that we went at a great time. We were blessed with beautiful weather (just missing the storms that came before and after our trip), and I think the locals enjoy the tourists a bit more at this time of year. I’m sure tourists can be both a blessing and a curse, but we found everyone to be so warm & friendly, and we really got the feeling that they appreciated us being there. So, if you want time to chat with the locals and indulge in some freebies from generous shop & restaurant owners, the off-season is the time to go and make friends!

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Santorini, Greece

Karie on Feb 4th 2008 05:28 pm

Thanks to that 5:55am flight from Athens, we made it to Santorini before the sun.  Luckily our hotel let us check in early, so we were able to take a morning nap before heading out for the day.

We knew that February was not the best time of year to visit Santorini, and we were expecting some things to be closed.  March or April certainly would’ve been the ideal time for this trip, as it still beats the high season, but you’re likely to have a little more life on the island.  However, with the amount of traveling we want to do in the next 8 months, something had to come first, and we figured Greek Islands in February would be better than Poland in February!

So there we were.  I know there were other people in our hotel, but I don’t know who they are or where they went during the day, because we underestimated how much would be closed.  I had actually asked a few questions of the hotel before we booked this trip, but certainly not wanting to discourage any amount of tourism in their low season, I think some details were not fully disclosed.

Apparently a lot of Santorini’s business owners don’t actually live on the island, so they go home for the winters & return during peak season.  And while it’s true that there is a bus stop just a few meters from the hotel, upon arrival we learned that those buses are few and far between at this time of year.

No problem, we’ll walk to Fira (the largest town on the island) in the rain.  We’re young, waterproof, and it’s only 10 minutes to find some open shops & cafes.  We had also read about hiking down to the port then riding a mule back up, and thought that sounded like an adventure.  We found the mules, but apparently they take winter jobs carrying concrete, not people (as the off season is when most hotels & restaurants undergo renovations to prepare for the crowds in the summer).

Despite 90% of Fira being closed, we still enjoyed a couple hours wandering the streets and admiring the Volcano, whose enormous eruption a few thousand years ago turned one island into a caldera.  Looking out into the lagoon, you can visualize the shape of the island before the eruption.  Santorini is now somewhat of a ½-moon shape, the island of Therasia once completed the cirlcle, and the center of the volcano rises up from the lagoon that now separates the two islands.  The view was breathtaking, and the rain had subsided, so we just took it in for a bit.

One thing we’ve noticed about Greece is that there are dogs everywhere, some with collars and some without.  Most of the time you see them napping in the sun, or just running around like they know where they’re going.  Being dog lovers, we find ourselves making up stories about them, where they’re from, what they’re thinking, or where they’re going.

We got to where we recognized a few dogs in Athens, which we determined to be “locals.”  Santorini was no different, except for one, which I named Scout for his keen senses and determination.  Scout is mostly Beagle, although purebreds don’t seem to exist here.  But one thing I know about Scout is that he can smell.  He started following us… he’d lag behind, then run ahead, but never veer too far.  After about a mile, we started to fear that we were leading him too far from “his territory”, so Scott tried shooing him away.  I wanted to give him a piece of salami as a parting gift, but Scott wouldn’t let me.

We thought he finally went his own way, so we continued walking for a bit, then stopped in a grocery store to prepare for a hotel room picnic.  After about 15 minutes we exited the store to find that Scout had tracked us down and was waiting for us outside the door.  He continued to follow us home and hang out outside our hotel for the day.  The next day we met Gilligan, the shaggy mut.  Scott insisted that I quit naming all the dogs, but after they spend an hour or two following you around, I think it’s ok to be on a first name basis.  Plus there were not many people to talk to, so Scout & Gilligan were the best companions around.  Ok, enough dog stories.

So the drizzly weather we had when we first arrived in Santorini quickly vanished, and the rest of the trip was nothing but blue skies & sunshine.  We rented a car one day and drove around the entire island, which was great.  We saw black beaches, red beaches, tiny villages, dozens of churches, and ended our day in Oia, at the northern tip of the island, which is reputed to have the best sunsets in the world.

We perched ourselves on a patio over the Oia Castle, along with about 20 other sunset seekers.  While I can’t necessarily say that it was the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen, I don’t think there’s a such thing as a bad one!  With the beautiful city behind you and the view of the volcano and islands off in the distance, we fully enjoyed the entire experience, and plan to return again… but next time it will be between the months of March & October!  That being said, at the price of $36/night for a hotel by the sea, I can say we definitely got our money’s worth, mule ride or not.

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Athens, Greece

Karie on Feb 1st 2008 05:26 pm

We had heard mixed reviews of Athens, many saying that the city is dirty & overrated.  Apparently there was a lot of truth to that (and probably still is in some parts of the city), but the 2004 Olympics gave Athens a rebirth.  Like any big city, it has both good and bad, but what I liked about Athens is that you didn’t have to venture too far to see all the major sights, so it made a city of 3.7 million feel quite small and charming.

Our friends Thomas & Kaitlin Gertz, who are currently on a 15-month trip around the world, visited Greece just a few months ago.  We have no shame in following someone else’s proven plan.  So before I go any further, thank you Thomas & Kaitlin for the referral to the gyros for 2 Euros!  Between the two of us we ate 7 in 2 days.  That had to be the best tzatziki sauce I’ve ever had.  God bless Sabbas on 86 Metropoleos.

The 2nd great recommendation from Thomas & Kaitlin was our hotel.  No frills on the inside, but a great price in a great location, including a view of the Acropolis from our balcony.  What made this location even more desirable, for this week in particular, was that it gave us a chance to witness a very important part of Greek life and history.

Upon arrival to our hotel, we learned that the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church had died the previous day.  The church was literally across the street from our hotel, with an unobstructed view from the balcony in our room.  Thousands of people were waiting in 4-5 hour lines to enter the church and pay their final respects.  The line did not diminish all day and throughout the night.

The following day was the Archbishop’s funeral, so our morning began with an hour of serenading from the church bell tower.  We went out for some breakfast, then came back and watched, along with the thousands of devout Christians in the street below.  The ceremonial aspects, along with the overwhelming love and respect poured out from the people, reminded me a lot of watching Pope John Paul II’s funeral on TV in 2005.

The services began at 10:00am, so we were able to hear the singing and chanting in Greek coming from the church, while watching the inside perspective of the church on TV.   After about an hour and a half, the government diplomats and church delegates began to spill out of the church, starting with the Prime Minister.  They then carried Archbishop Christodoulos’ body through the streets, escorted by religious leaders, military, police officers, and private security.

The crowds roared with applause as they showered the Archbishop with roses.  In a Continent that’s not very religious in modern culture, Greek’s of all ages seemed to hold this man in high regard.  He was a controversial leader to say the least, but he did bring about some positive changes, such as encouraging the church to accept anyone that walked in the door, and reminding the people that they were welcome, no matter who they were or what they were wearing.

A lot of businesses and city parks and museums were closed for the day, but luckily we had seen a majority of the major sights on our first day.

Our plane had arrived mid-morning the previous day, so we dropped off our luggage, immediately found the infamous gyros, and headed for the Acropolis.  When I think of the Acropolis the first thing that comes to mind is the Parthenon.  What I didn’t realize is how many other historical sites were concentrated on or around that hill.

We spent several hours there, just admiring old stuff.  We were amazed at how well preserved (and/or carefully restored) some things were, and by the shear volume of ruins.  Unfortunately the Acropolis Museum, where they house some of the original artifacts for preservation, is temporarily closed.  It didn’t matter though; there is enough history to get lost in for days just by walking around.  It was just cool to literally stand on the ground where the concept of democracy originated, amongst so many other significant moments in history.

Scott had to work that evening, so the Acropolis and a bit of wandering pretty much took our entire day.  The following day, after the funeral, we hit the streets.  Again, a lot of businesses and city parks, monuments, etc., were closed, but most of the shops were still open.

One of the main areas of attraction in Athens is the Plaka, which was extensively refurbished for the Olympics, and is now a delightful series of pedestrian streets that connect all the major sites in the city – from the Temple of Zeus to the Acropolis.  We “miraculously” stumbled across another recommendation from the Gertz’ (of which we knew the name but not the location), so we knew it was a sign that we had to stop.  It’s true.  Crepes of the World has the best crepes in the world.  Sorry France.

We spent most of the day just wandering the streets, admiring the shops, and sampling more local favorites.  The weather was beautiful – a bit crisp but perfectly sunny, so we took advantage of one last snack stop for a frappé, which was actually invented in Athens, not at Starbucks.

We wanted to get out and experience some more fine Greek cuisine, but without breaking the budget, so we employed one of our favorite methods… “the hybrid.”  The hybrid involves sharing something inexpensive (often purchased at a local market) about an hour or so before dinner, so you never enter a restaurant on an empty stomach.

In this case we of course shared one more gyro, then took our time walking to the restaurant, arriving shortly before the live music was scheduled to begin.  We knew we had 20 Euros left in our daily budget, so we strategically selected a few “mezes” (aka, appetizers) to snack on and enjoy the ambiance.  I’m certain our bill was a fraction of every other table in the joint, but we had just as much fun.   Some may call it cheap, we call it budgeting brilliance!  Either way, it was a great way to spend our last night in Athens, and still get home in time to try to get some sleep before waking up at 3:00am to catch our flight to Santorini… which we realized after booking was at 5:55am, not pm.  Oops.

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