Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It's a small small world

What a difference a day makes. Nissyros is the antithesis of big, loud, touristy, expensive Kos. It's so beautiful here... exactly what I picure in my mind when I conjure up a Greek island. Mountainous, small, quiet, friendly people, great food, scooters, winding cobblestone streets, gorgeous sunsets, white houses with blue shutters all against a sapphire blue Mediterranean Sea.
I'm staying in a little hotel overlooking the harbor. It used to also be a restaurant but Nick and his wife are getting older and don't want the hassle. When I arrived and checked out one of the rooms and came back downstairs. Nikos was having dinner and I was admiring the food and asked about what kind of fish he was eating... next thing I know I have a plate of fresh fish in front of me with salad, green beans, tomatoes, fresh brown bread and a bowl of steaming hot bean soup... no charge! We got to talking and it turns out that Nick's brother used to own a restaurant next to the Sweet Shop on center square in Easton many years ago! How's that for a small world. Amazing.
Up on the terrace outside our rooms overlooking the harbor I met the very animated Jorgen from Ulm, Germany. Over a bottle of fine red Greek wine Jorgen explained that he has been coming to this same hotel in Nissyros twice a year for the past 20 years. He told me all the places I should go and all the hiking trails and introduced me to another German couple who would be staying with us. Unfortunately Jorgen had already been here 2 weeks and was leaving tomorrow. After dinner, a beer and a bottle of wine we decided to take a walk into town. We took the long way up the hill and around behind the hotel. It was getting late and we had some beautiful views of the sun setting behind the fortress and monastery overlooking the village below. He took me to a couple of his favorite places where we had a couple more beers and a couple Ouzos and a late night gyro on the waterfront. A little drunk and quite stuffed I headed for home and a good night's sleep.
This morning I woke, had some yougurt, nuts and honey for breakfast and walked with Jorgen and Rezza about 20 minutes outside of town to the mineral hot springs. For 3 Euro you get to soak in these marble lined tubs in little private rooms for an hour. Nissyros is a volcanic island and there are hot springs all over. It was very relaxing... people actually come from all over just to soak in these waters for their curative powers. I don't know about any of that but it was nice enough that I think I'll head back again tomorrow!
That's all I have for now,

Monday, September 28, 2009


Ephesus as in letters from St. Paul to the Ephesians. And St. John (the guy who wrote one of the gospels) is entombed about 200 yards from where Im staying in Selcuk. St Paul and Mary (Jesus mom) lived out the last days of their lives in Ephesus. I never realized how much of the Bible actually took place in Turkey! Who knew?
The ruins are awesome... theres a 2 story library and a 25,000 seat amphitheater. There are also some beatiful roman era townhouses with the original tile floors, bathrooms and wall murals. There was an earthquake around 300AD that burried the homes and they were only discovered and excavated recently ... still pretty much intact. Its a great picture as to what life was like back then... amazingly not that much different than today.
Weathers been great. (I cant find the apostrophe on this keyboard!) Staying in a nice little hostel in Selcuk with lots of Brits and Aussies. Last night 5 American girls studying in Cairo checked in. And I ran into Gary and Ureka again. Theyre a nice couple I met on the bus ride from Konya to Antalya and they wound up coming to Olimpos with me for a couple days.
From Selcuk I said good bye to Turkey and hopped on the ferry to Samos island. Spent the night in a little town called Pythagorio.... for you mathematicians out there this is where Pythagoras was from. Very quaint little town with some cool ruins, a crusader castle from the 13th century and delicious gyros! Took the morning hydrofoil fast ferry to Kos where I am now. It was a lot bumpier of a ride than I imagined it would be. Made it to Kos in 4 hours. Kind of like sitting in a widebody 747 with a lot of turbulence. Kos is a big tourist town complete with cruise ships.... not my kind of place at all! Just killing time here until I can catch a ferry tomorrow to Nissiros.

Thats all for now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Whirling Dervishes and the southern coast

Left the Ilhara valley after breakfast and a nıce chat with Cenzig. We talked about the similarities and differences between life in Turkey and life in America... health care, family life, religion and the Turkish government's recent ban on smoking indoors in Turkey. Wow.
Got to the bus stop about half an hour early for my 10am bus... good thing since the bus came by at 9;30! Every time I think I have this system down I get another curve ball. Anyway made the bus to Aksaray and caught 11:30 bus for the 2 hour trip to Konya.
Konya is one of the most religious cities in Turkey and I was there on the last day of Ramadan....what a zoo! The entire city was getting ready for the coming 4 day celebration after Ramadan ends. The main street was transformed into a huge marketplace stretching for miles.

Gott run.... bus on the way... will finish up later.

Back again....
Konya is the religious center of the Mevlana order of Muslim monks for lack of a better word. They were quite important back in the day and wielded considerable political power. Attaturk banned the order in 1925 but allowed some locations to continue as part of the cultural heritage. The Mevlana order, known as the whirling dervishes for their trancelike spinning dance, was founded by Rumi who is entombed in the Mevlana museum in Konya along with his family and other high ranking dervishes. He preached tolerance and acceptance of all and is very highly regarded in Turkey.
You can see whirling dervish show at various places in Turkey, but they're generally expensive, short and put on just for tourists. The show I saw in Konya was free at the Konya Cultural Heritage Center. I think I was the only (American) tourist in the place. It was quite a ceremony, most of which I didn't really understand since the opening remarks and explanation were in Turkish. They wore white flowing robes and it was quite a sight when they began spinning. There were 5 of them and they spun around, one hand raised to God and the other pointing down to earth, for about 45 minutes while their left foot never left the ground. Pretty amazing feat.
Left Konya and headed to Olimpos down south on the Mediterranean coast. Stayed there a couple days wandering through Lycian and Roman ruins, sea kayaing and swimming in the sea. The hostel I stayed in was $20 per night including breakfast and dinner and the food was great... probably the best I had in Turkey.
From Olimpos I headed west along the coast to Kas and Fethiye where I spent the night and then on to Selcuk where I am now.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ilhara Valley and bus rides

I'm really starting to get the hang of travelling by bus. Woke in Göreme, took the shuttle to Nevşehir. From there a bus to Aksaray, which is a pretty large city and transportation hub with a population of 400,000. Crazy place, total chaos and anarchy at first glance, but after taking a ddep breath and getting some help from the locals I found the dolmuş to the Ilhara valley. It was quite an interesting rıde with about 45 people stuffed into a 30 passenger bus. I was lucky enough to snag a seat and Yusef helped me out by grabbing my pack and storing it safely for me in the luggage compartment at the back of the bus.
The long dıstance busses have been great... very clean and modern with assigned seats. Single men are never seated next to a single woman, always 2 single men, 2 single woman, or a family. They also have 'flight attendants' that assist passengers, serve water, tea or nescafe, and pass out little snacks all for free. One annoyance is that most of them have televisions and they are usually played blaringly loud, but my foam earplugs come in handy for that! The rule about same sex seating also applies to the smaller minibusses and dolmuşes as well, even though there are no assinged seats. I've been on minibusses where we've all played musical chairs to accommodate a single woman. The other thing I've noticed is they are very respectful of a single (Muslim) woman and the elderly. I've seen men and young boys give up their seats on many occasions so an elderly woman could sit.
Ilhara Village is hardly a vıllage. I stayed at the Akar Pansion... a sort of modest hotel, but clean and adequate enough. Upon arrival Cenzig cooked me up a delicious local dich for lunch. Finely chopped pieces of beef with tomato and spicey peppers... sort of like a stew. It was delicious and just what I needed after traveling all morning. After lunch I headed straight out for the trail. Ilhara valley is a deep canyon cut by a river (not sure the name). Maybe 100 - 200 meters deep and very beautiful with abandoned churches and dwellings dotting the cliff faces. It was about a 20 minute walk to the trailhead but 5 mınutes into the walk a kid on a scooter stopped by and offered me a lift! The trail was beautiful and I hiked for several hours down and back. On the way back a farmer called me over from his field and handed me a fresh ripe tomato as a gift... very generous. Very unlike Istanbul! I was definitely out in the country now. Had dinner back at Akar's with a bunch of French tourists and went to bed. Slept soundly after the long day's hike.
Tomorrow Konya and the whirling dervishes!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Magical Cappadochia

Woke this morning and checked out of the 7 Brothers Hotel with the intention of heading to Göreme for the night, which I had already seen yesterday. I instead took Fatih's suggestion of first heading south from Nevşehir to see the underground city. It turned out to be a great suggestion. I left my backpack in Fatih's good care and took a local dolmuş (minibus...literal meaning = stuffed!) the 18km to Kaymalki. I got off the bus and immediately headed in the wrong direction, but a friendly local pointed me the right way. As we walked together and talked a bit (he spoke decent English) I realized this man was Fatih's uncle... one of the 7 brothers! I told him my story of being sick and staying in his hotel and he brought me to his other brother's sandwich shop and offered me a cup of tea. We talked a bit more and offered to show me his carpet shop (very industrious family!) and some more tea. I thanked him for his generosity and told him I would stop by after touring the underground city.
As luck would have it I ran into a Romanian family on holiday at the entrance to the Kaymalki underground city. I had met them at the hotel the night before, had breakfast with them that morning and we said our good-byes. Well, they were negotiating with an English speaking tour guıde for a private tour of the city. They had agreed to 30 lıra for the 5 of them and invited me along (I asked actually) to defray the cost. So it cost me 5 lire for a private tour and some good company! The city was amazing. Several thousand years old, used by various civilizations as a hideout during times of war. There are over a hundred underground cities in the region and this one housed up to 4,000 people for months at a time. It went 8 levels down into the earth and had family living areas, an enormous kitchen complete with bakery and dishwashing areas, bathing areas, a winery, communication holes to other levels and, of course, several churches. It was surprisingly not stuffy at all down there because of the many ventilation shafts and the underground river running beneath it. The tunnels and stairways were a lot of fun. There was even a connecting tunnel to another city miles away.
After the tour I stopped back to the carpet shop to say hello and get an education on Turkish hand made carpets. It was very nice... very low pressure. Then back to the bus to Nevşehir to pick up my pack and on to Göreme for the evening.
I stayed in a beatiful little boutique hotel high up on the rim of the canyon that encircled the village of Göreme. My room was actually in a cave and had a private bath... very cool. The views from the terrace were spectacular. It was late afternoon and I had the place to myself (most folks were still out for the day on various package tours). I felt like a sultan stretched out comfortably on luxurious pillows, sipping a local red wine and playing with two cute little kittens. I thought to myself the only thing that could make this more perfect is if Kelly-Jo were here to enjoy it with me. Later that night I went to the hotel's hamam for a sauna, hot bath and massage... a perfect end to a perfect day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The Cappadochia region in central Turkey was formed from the eruptions of 2 volcanoes about 350 kilometers apart. The overlapping layers of lava up to 150 meters thick have been eroded by wınd, rain, sun and snow for millions of years leaving a very surreal landscape. Lots of fairy chimneys and mushroom shaped formations. On top of that the area has been inhabited for a few thousand years and there are all sorts of cave dwellings, churches and even monasteries carved out of the soft rock. Sort of looks like a cross between the Badlands of South Dakota and the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo Indians.
I pıcked up some sort of bug on the way out of Istanbul so I've been layıng low for a couple days in Nevşehır which is the area's largest town. Not a tourist town at all... plenty of good doctors and pharmacies here. I got a prescription and I'm feeling much better now... appetite back to normal. Most people who visit Cappadochia stay in Göreme where I'm heading to tomorrow, but this little unplanned detour into Nevşehır has been rewarding. By chance I'm staying in a small 30 room family owned and operated hotel called 7 Brothers. They just finished renovating the place and are still working out the kinks. One of the brother's sons, Fatıh, speaks English and pretty much runs the place. I looked like death warmed over when I arrived but they've taken very good care of me. While I was sick I couldn't stomach the normal Turkish breakfast of cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, unidentifiable meat product, olives and bread. My body longed for some bland cereal, milk and orange juice so I went to the grocery store and got some. There aren't any refrigerators in the rooms so they let me keep the milk in the restaurant's kitchen. I don't think they drink much cow's milk here, certainly not in their tea, but when I explained I wanted milk in my tea they insisted on warming it up for me first so as not to cool the tea down! It's still Ramazan here so they fast all day and eat around 7pm just after the evening call to prayer. Fatih, his cousin and the girl who runs the front desk all sit down together for a family style meal in the lobby every night, and every night they invite me. Quite a bonus! Delicious home cooked meal and great conversation.
I went on a bus tour yesterday to see some of the surrounding valleys and rock formations... there's really no way to describe it without pictures so you'll all just have to wait until I get home. As I said earlier I'm heading on to Göreme tomorrow to stay in a cave room in a hostel or hotel... not sure which yet. Hoping to do a little hiking and a lot of relaxing. The sun has finally come back out after hiding for a solid week so I'm glad for that. That's all for now...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'm back!

It's been a while since my last post... been having some technical difficulties but I think I've got everything worked out now. (Thanks aunt Vıc). I'm down in Cappadochia now but I'll bring you up to speed on where I've been the past few days. Mike from Munich decided to travel with me from Istanbul to Ankara, Turkey's capital. I was glad to have him along... he's very frıendly and outgoing and always has a smile on his face. He's a magnet for meeting people. Anyway, we took the red eye bus out of Istanbul at 10:15 and arrived in the Ankara Ottogar at 5am. Trust me, I'll never do that again. Actually it was a really nice double decker bus less than half full but you really can't get a sound nıght's sleep sitting up (at least I can't). So ıt's 5am and we're at the bus station a few kılometers outside of town so we ask a taxi how much it would cost to take us to the Ulus district where the museum is. First they told us $25 US. We hemmed and hawed and began walking away and they ımmediately came down to 20 Turkish Lira (about $14 US). A Turkish college student overheard the conversation and told us if we waited another hour the metered rates would come way down, but better than that he pointed out the FREE minibusses about 50 feet from the Taxi stand that would take us to the same place! Needless to say the taxi drivers were not at all happy with this guy and let him know it. We thanked him and went off to find some breakfast in the station.
On the minibus we met a friendly Turk who spoke English like an American. Turns out he was a translator for some American contractors and then he worked in the travel industry. He gave a tip on a good hotel a short walk from the museum. They let us check in at 8am which was really cool. Took a quick shower and short nap and headed out.
The Museum of Anatolian Civilization in Ankara has got to be one of the largest collections of prehistoric art and objects in the world. Anatolia is the region in and around central and eastern Turkey. Their collection begins with the Neolithic period which begins about 10,000BC. Some of the stuff was so beautiful İt's hard to imagine it was made 12,000 years ago! The really cool part was the dividing line between history and prehistory. In school you learn about Mesopotamia, the Assyrians and the Hittites and all that ancient civilization stuff. But to actually see a 5000 year old clay tablet with cuneıform writing on it was pretty cool. Some of the tablets even had clay 'envelopes'. There were wills, marriage certificates, wharehouse inventories... regular everyday stuff. There was one beautıful piece etched on a bronze sheet... it was an ancient peace treaty. And another one was a letter from the queen of Egypt to the queen of the Hittites thanking her for her hospitality and gifts during their last visit. Amazing stuff.
Other than the museum and Attaturk's Mausoleum there's not much to see in Ankara. We climbed the hill next to the museum to an old ruined castle and watched a bunch of kids flying kites from the castle walls. Some of them were very friendly and we swapped magic tricks and smiles without any common spoken language. Had a bottle of local red wine with dinner that wasn't half bad and headed back to the hotel for an early night. Tomorrow morning İ'm heading to Cappadochia and Mıke's heading west to Izmır.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Islam, tea and stuff

The muezzin's call to prayer ıs broadcast 5 tımes a day from every mınaret at every mosque ın all of Islam. It's an eerıe soundıng sıngsong sort of waıl to my unaccustomed western ears. The first time I heard it I was sittıng between the Hagia Sophis and the Blue Mosque sipping a cup of tea. When the call began a huge flock of pıgeons was scared up rıght ın front of me, blockıng out the sky. It was a moment that wıll stay wıth me for a long tıme to come.
I'm learnıng a lot about the Muslım faıth here in Turkey... but that's what travelıng is all about... learnıng. It's Ramadan so they fast all day and can't eat until sundown and the evening call to prayer, then you better watch your fingers because they really dig in! Sultanhamet square is full of families with huge feasts spread out on pıcnıc tables, park benches, the lawn, anywhere there ıs space just waıtıng to break theır daıly fast. This goes on every day for the entire month long Ramadan celebration.
Tea ıs big here. Everyone drinks it in little glass cups. Black with sugar. Turkish coffee is for the tourists, at least here in Istanbul. My hostel is tucked down an alley amongst a bunch of restaurants just off the main drag and Ali delıvers tea all day long for 50 cents a glass. He pops out of a doorway across the alley wıth trays of tea and I don't think he ever travels more than 50 paces in any one direction. This small area alone keeps him busy all day long! Just flag him down and he'll delıver a full hot glass of tea and stop by later to pick up the empty glass.
One annoyiıng thing here in Sultanhamet is the hawkers. They are relentless... 'yes please, my frıend', 'can I ask you a question?', 'would you like to see my menu?'. Nonstop. It really wears you down after 4 days. I suppose it's not as bad when you get out of the tourist areas. If you go into the Grand Bazar or the Spice Market you are just asking for ıt... but that's to be expected. The markets are amaziıng, though. They have stalls for everything... souvenıers, clothıng, gold, silver, tea sets, backgammon stes, buttons, rıvets, drills, dog food, pets and on and on and on.
I was out wanderıng today wıth a guy named Mike from just outside Munich, Germany. He has decıded to come with me to Ankara for a couple days, Turkey's capıtal cıty. We'll head to the Otogar (bus station) tonight and buy a ticket for a night bus to Ankara that will arrıve tomorrow mornıng. From there we'll fınd a hotel, drop off the bags and head to the Natıonal Museum of Anatolian Cıvılızation and the tomb of Ataturk, Turkey's 'George Washıngton' who unıted and modernızed Turkey ın the 1930's. He dıd away wıth Islamıc law and is consıdered a national hero. From there İ'll head to Cappadochia on Sunday. I'm not sure if Mıke will join me or head back to İstanbul. Talk to you all later,

The quıntesential Turıksh evenıng

İ met a German couple at the Hostel and we had dınner together one nıght. İt's very tourısty where İ'm staying and it's been a real challenge to stay wıthin my budget. The food ıs very expensıve but İ've mangaed to keep my daıly spend to about $65 US. İf İ ate ın nıce restaurants for every meal that fıgure could easıly be $165. Part of the additional cost here is sightseeıng too... every time you walk into a museum ıt,s an easy $10 - $20. So İ decıded to treat myself one night and go out to dinner wıth this couple. We had a very nice meal seated on cushions in a cozy restaurant on a quiet alley. As ıt turns out thıs couple from Bavarıa spent a lot of money on lamps and rugs at the Grand Bazar earlier that day and the shop owner was goıng to meet them later that evening. İ'm not sure ıf thıs ıs a common practıce or ıf the shop owner was just lookıng to make another sale! Memhet Can was his name and he was very nıce and well dressed. He took us down a couple alleyways ınto an all Turkısh 'bar' where we smoked nargıle, drank apple tea, played backgammon and watched Turkey play Bosnıa for the World Cup qualıfıer soccer match. They didn' sell alcohol there. İ counldn't have asked for a more authenıtc evenıng. İf İ do nothing else ın İstanbul İ wıll be happy after that experience. More on tea, food Ramadan and other stuff later.... İ got things to see!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Istanbul - the bıg 3

After the relatıve sleepiness of Bulgaria, Istanbul is an assault on the senses. 15 mıllıon people live in this ancient city that was once known as Constantınople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. İ am stayıng in Sultanhamet, the most ancient part of the city. My hostel is less than a 5 minute walk to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace where the Sultans of the great Ottoman Empıre lived sınce taking Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453. All three are sımply amazing.
The Blue Mosque was buılt by Sultan Ahmet 1 (get ıt? Sultanhamet dıstrıct?) ın the early 1600's. It's one of the largest ın the world wıth a huge central dome, 6 mınarets and the other cascadıng domes balanced ın perfect symmetry. It' an awesome sıght ınsıde and out.
The Hagia Sophia was buılt in 537 AD by the Emporer Justinian and and was the largest church ın all Chrıstendome untıl it fell to the Ottomans in 1453. It was also the largest domed buıldıng for 1000 years untıl Brunneleschi (sp) buılt the one ın Florence durıng the Rennaısance. The Ottomans removed all the Chrıstian artifacts and turned ıt ınto a mosque. Then Ataturk turned ıt ınto a museum ın 1935. The interıor is simply stunning. Wıth ıt's huge soarıng dome it's hard to belıeve that ıt was constructed 1500 years ago. Sınce becomıng a museum much work has been done ınsıde to restore the orıgınal Chrıstıan 8th - 12th century mosaıcs that were covered over by the Ottomans. It' an amazıng mıx of Chrıstıanıty and Islam insıde now, wıth remnants of both exıstıng sıde by sıde.
Whıle both of these buıldıng are archıecturally amazıng the contents of the Topkapı Palace really blew me away. It was home to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empıre from the 1450's untıl the mıd nıneteenth century. You can vısıt parts of the Imperıal Treasury where they have ıntracately jeweled golden flasks, baskets of golfball sized emeralds and solıd gold candlesticks 3 feet tall (to name but a few of the ıtems on dısplay). You can also vısıt the prıvate quarters of the royal famıly and the Harem. But the most amazıng part was the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms where they house the rıght forearm, hand and skull of John the Baptıst. They also have the 4000 year old staff Mosses used to part the Red Sea, the prophet Abraham's personal bowl (common father to Islam, Christıanıty and Judeaısm), The sword of Davıd (Davıd and Golıath David), and the sword, tooth and beard of the Prophet Mohammed, founder of the Muslim relıgion. I don' know how you would go about proviıng all this stuff, you just have to take it on faith that ıt has been passed down and protected over the years. Even if only half is authentıc ( I belıeve it all is for the record) , it's a mind-blowing collectıon of relıgıous relıcs.
Also been tourıng some museums, went for a cruıse on the Bosporus out to the Black Sea and clımed the hıll to a ruıned castle. The Bosporus lınks the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmarra (whıch connects to the Medıterranean Sea) and splıts Istanbul into the European sıde and the Asıan sıde. It's a hugely ımportant waterway trade route that links eastern Europe and western Asıa to the rest of the world. I need some breakfast. That's all for now. Cheers,

The bus to İstanbul

İ'm back... these Turkish keyboards are tricky. They have another character similar to an i in the same position as our letter i. Needless to say İ locked myself out of my gmail account for 24hrs and then the internet connection here has been very spotty.
Anyway İ woke Friday morning ın Sozopol at 7am to catch the next local shuttle back to Burgas, which is the closest large town where İ could catch a bus to İstanbul. İt was pourıng rain, but İ figured İ was ın good shape... İ had an early start and the 2 bus companies that sold tickets to İstanbul were located right next door to the public bus statıon. İ arrived at the tıcket counter and asked for a ticket to İstanbul. The gırl behind the counter replied 'Ne'. here we go again. At least she could speak some Englısh and dırected me 200 meters up the street to the 'new' location. Apparently my 2009 guıdebook dıdn't know they had moved 2 years ago! Anyway I walked about 10 minutes ın the pourıng rain and arrıved at the ticket offıce about 8:30am only to fınd they don,t open tıll 9. Half soaked, İ ducked ınto the nearby Luxor Hotel to dry off and enjoy a cup of tea whıle İ waited. İt turns out the fırst bus wasn't until noon so İ trudged back to the Luxor wıth 3 hours to kill and ordered a full English breakfast which was actually quıte nice. I wited out the 3 hours playıng sudoku, reading and writıng a bit in my journal. By noon I was bored out of my skull and headed to the bus stop. Well, thıs beıng Bulgarıa and all, the bus fınally arrıved at 12:30.
The fırst part of the trıp was actually quıte beatiful as we made our way south through the Bulgarıan mountaıns. Densely wooded rugged mountains, very sparsely populated... I don't think I even saw one house. Kınd of remınded me of Stokes State Forest in NJ but a little more rugged. Made ıt to the Turkish border ın about an hour. Bought my vısa on the spot for $20 US and after passport control and customs we were on our way in about an hour and a half.
The landscape seemed to change almost immediately ın Turkey. The rugged mountains gave way to gentle rolling hills and the green forest gave way to brown grasslands. We could have been ın Texas hill country.
A couple more hours of drivıng and we were getting closer to Istanbul. That's when the fun started... the babıes started cryıng, the driver turned on the TV at full volume and traffıc slowed to a crawl. Then we made about 15 little stops to let people off of our nonstop 'dırect' bus. It turns out this is a very common practıce here... bus drivers will stop just about anywhere to let you off.
Fınally pulled into the Istanbul Otogar, an enormous bus station lıke nothıng I have ever seen before. I made my way to the center, got some cash from an ATM that almost didn't give my card back and bought a ticket for the Metro. Rode the Metro to Askary statıon and transferred to the tram lıne to the Sultanhamet stop ın Istanbul. There were thunder storms here and as I was changıng ın Askary all the lıghts went out! Thank god the trams were stıll runnıng. Found the hostel faırly easily from the dırections on their website. By this time it was about 9pm and I was exhausted from a long day of traveling. Checked ınto the hostel by candelıght and made my way to theır rooftop terrace for a much needed beer. Half an hour later I was sound asleep.
Lesson learned. Anythıng can happen whıle traveling (and often does!). Stay cool and go with the flow because you can' do anything about it anyway. Istanbul tomorrow!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sozopol and the Black Sea

I made it to the Black Sea.... a big check on my checklist. Sozopol is a quiet little town settled about 5500 years ago, the first settlement, in fact, on the Black Sea coast. The Old Town is on a tiny spit of land about 300 yards across that extends less than a mile into the Black Sea. Lots of winding cobblestone streets, cozy cafes and picturesque traditional Bulgarian homes. You can see the sea from just about anywhere and walk the entire penninsula in half an hour.
I'm traveling again with Carel. He bailed on the mountains south of Bachkovo and joined up with me a day later in Veliko Tarnovo. We caught a bus to Burgas and then transferred to a local bus to Sozopol. We immediately headed into the old town and found a fine room with an ocean view and private bathroom. It's very typical in Eastern Europe for older folks to supplement their income by renting rooms to travelers... we lucked out in this case. $22 per night for the room... that's $11 for my share! Right on the beach, clean and quiet.
The food is great here as it's been throughout Bulgaria. I tried some little fried fish for dinner last nite. They were about 2 inches long, whole, battered and deep fried... delicious. Washed it down with a nice cold beer from Burgas. Right in the same courtyard as our "hotel" is a little family owned restaurant with outoor seating. (I haven't found a place yet without outdoor seating.) Anyway, I had another delicious Shopska salad and tried the cold cuccumber soup in a diluted yogurt broth with dill and finely chopped walnuts... not my favorite soup in the world but very refreshing on a hot summer afternoon. I've also been eating lots of fruit. If you can't pick it off the trees there's a produce stand on every other corner selling fresh plums, strawberries, delicious peaches, grapes, apples, berries, all for pennies. I paid about 15 cents for the ripest peach I ever tasted. Tonight we're heading for a traditional seafood restaurant on the waterfront overlooking the marina.
Sozopol is a quiet town, full of vacationing Bulgarian families. The few local people we've run into that could speak either Spanish or English were very surprised to find an American and an Autralian here. Been spending most of my time reading, swimming, laying on the beach and wandering around town. This place is definitely not on the traditional backpacker/hosteler itinerary. We got lucky with the timing..there's a music, art and literature festival going on in town. Outdoor concerts, art exhibits and book presentations (for lack of a better word). We met a fairly well known (in Bulgaria at least) Bulgarian journalist who invited us to her reception tomorrow evening at 5pm. I have no idea what to expect but I think we'll go check it out.
Istanbul on Monday!!


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Veliko Tornovo

Spent the last 2 days doing a lot of hiking in the mountains around Veliko Tornovo in northeast Bulgaria. VT is a beautiful little city (pop 350,000) nestled along the edge of the canyon created by the Yantra River. Did a 7km hike to the Tranfiguration Monastery after a couple false starts. The trailhead was very difficult to locate and none of the locals speak english. One guy tried to help and we were able to converse in Spanish. He didn't know where the trail was, even though we found it a bit later less than 200 yards from his doorstep! I was hiking with Kat, a Fulbright scholar from Colorado who has been studying and working in Istanbul for the past year and a half. The first trail we started down was very narrow. It didn't quite seem right but according to the map we had we were in the right place. Well after 20 minutes or so we came out on the edge of a 1000 ft cliff above the Yantra River. We walked for a bit more, clinging to the cliff face and hoping things would get better. They didn't. The trail just sort of petered out and left us stranded precariously on this cliff over the river. Needless to say we turned back. Undaunted, we asked around again for directions... this time at Hikers Hostel Veliko Tornovo. They pointed us in the right direction. Much better! Great trail, great views, very safe and well marked. Even came across a shepherd tending his flock on the mountainside talking to someone on his cell phone! The mountains up here are much drier than in the south. It was very hot and sunny and I went through my water bottle in no time, so it was a real relief arriving at the monastery and refilling. The Monastery itself was nothing spectacular but the hike was well worth it. Hot, tired and hungry we decided to walk down to the main road (about another 3km) and catch the bus back into town.

Today Carel and I hiked to the little village of Abernasi about 4km from VT. It was another spectacular hike with great views looking back across the canyon to Tsaravets Fortress and VT. Abernasi is a beautiful little village with very traditional Bulgarian architecture. We stopped into a St Nick's church and had a great personal tour from the woman there. She didn't speak English but we were able to converse in Spanish. It was a 17th century Greek Orthodox church (as are all churches from the Byzantine empire) and looked like a large house from outside. We learned from our tour guide that this was because this area was part of the Ottoman Empire at that time and occupied by the Turks (who are Muslim). They allowed churches and some monasteries to exist albiet very discreetly. Inside was a kalidescope of images from the early 1600's. Amazing. Beautiful. Every inch of the interior was covered with colorful frescos, over 3000 images in all.
Lunch was rabbit stew, a half liter of local brew and a double espresso for the walk back. We sat on a shaded terrace with a nice breeze overlooking the Arbat Hotel's bright blue swimming pool. Quite a contrast to the brown stone buildings, hot dry brown grass and green trees. As with every restaurant in Bulgaria there were a couple resident kittens who we fed the last remnants of our rabbit stew.
Off to Sozopol on the Black Sea coast tomorrow for 3 nights and then on to Istanbul.
That's all for now,

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Food, Water, Accounting and such

I've been drinking the water in Bulgaria since I arrived with no ill effects. The tap water tastes great and there are public fountains everywhere to fill your water bottle. There are even public fountains up in the mountains on the hiking trails... those are especially cold and delicious.
The food has been fantastic. Bulgarians love their salads and meats and their tomatoes rival the best Jersey tomatoes. The Shopska salad can be had anywhere... a delicious mix of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, scallion, feta and grated farmers cheese. Enough for a small meal and all of about $2.50 US. Had some great pork shish-kebabs as well. Typical breakfast in the hostels has been bread, jam, cheese, yogurt, some unidentifiable meat, tomatoes, maybe some cereal or oatmeal and coffee and tea. Not what I'm used to but not half bad either.
As for money everything is really reasonable here. I've been spending less than $40 per day for everything... meals, lodging, transportation, sightseeing and incidentals. The local public busses are 50 cents and the intercity busses are less than $10. I expect that to change in Istanbul but for now I'm loving it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Bachkovo Monastery

I met a guy at the Hikers Hostel in Plovdiv named Carel from Amsterdam who is living in Australia. He's much older than me (8 days) and we hit it off pretty well and decided to travel a bit together. We saw all the sites in Plovdiv and decided to head south into the mountains to the Bachkovo Monastery, Bulgaria's second largest and most visited. It was easy enough to catch the bus and make our way to the monastery but when we arrived we learned all the roms were full. There were only 2 other hotels in 'town' and one was full and the other was closed! After much scrambling and talking to the locals (Carel speaks a bit of German) we determined the Eko Hotel isn't really closed... it opens at 4pm. So we had a few hours to kill and went for a hike up in the mountains behinf the monastery above the town. Stumbled on a 12th century church on a trail in the woods... absoulutely amazing. No locks, nobody around... open to any traveller who happens by. There were some beatiful frescos inside and out. The Monastery was beatuful... not as grand as Rila but definitely worth the stop. The hiking trails made the trip though.
On Tuesday we got up and went our separate ways... Carel headed south further into the Mountains and I headed north back to Plovdiv and Veliko Tornovo. Let me just say that public transportation in Bulgaria is nothing like anything I have ever experienced... either in the US or anywhere else. Bus schedules are just close estimates. I was told the bus to Plovdiv left Bachkovo every hour on the half hour, plus or minus 10 minutes. So I arrived at the bus stop 20 minutes early just to be safe, only to watch my bus pull away just as the bus stop came into view! So I figured no big deal, I'll wait for the next one. Then 5 minutes later this older guy pulls up in a minivan with 4 people in the back, rolls down the window and asks 'Plovdiv?' It was the same charge as the public bus so I hoped in and got a ride into town. It was about $3 for a 40 minute ride. Then after a taxi across town to another bus station I got my ticket for a 1:30 bus to Veliko Tornovo. A 4 and a half hour ride. Well, the bus left about 10 minutes early and only took 3 and a half hours and dropped me off in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of town where nobody spoke English. I met some nice people who figured out where I needed to go and they gave me a free ride to the local bus stop about 5 mintes away. From there I caught the local bus (50 cents) into town and got dropped in the main square. I paid some local guy about $1 US to show me the way to the Hostel beecause by then I was about finished mentally. All in all it was quite a journey.
I'm happy to say the hostel is fantastic. Very new and clean and everyone is very nice. I ran into a guy from Newcastle that I met in Plovdiv and we had dinner with a couple guys from Paris. Sorry if I'm rambling but it's been a long day and I had a few beers with dinner... I think it's going to be an early night.

More tomorrow!