Thursday, April 29, 2010

Travels through Europe: Turkey

I caught the bus from Alexandropoulis to Canakkale in Turkey. As soon as I crossed the border I was impressed with Turkey. My experience there was that the people had such pride in their work and were very friendly and happy and helpful, enjoying showing tourists their country. I went to Canakkale and was directed to the hostel. The hostel was closed for the off season but they gave me a room at their associated 4 star hotel for the hostel price. Ahhhh bliss!

The reason for visiting Canakkale was the proximity to the Gallipoli peninsula which I went to explore the following day. I was planning just to catch a bus out and make my own way around but there were no busses and I had to join a tour. I was glad to have done so though as our tour guide was very knowledgeable and pointed out many places of importance and showed us the trenches which are still amazingly evident as huge ditches despite being so old. The first thing that struck me when I arrived on the Gallipoli peninsula is how forgiving the Turks are. Despite my countrymen having invaded their land less than a century prior and so many people from there side being killed or wounded in a protracted stalemate of a campaign that in retrospect had no effect on the outcome of the war, these people are welcoming and friendly and hold no grudge. This is particularly pointed at ANZAC cove where there is a moving memorial from the leader of the Turks during the invasion. The memorial is for the allied soldiers and I must share it with everyone since it brought a tear to my eye because the Turks had suffered so much defending their homeland:
"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives...You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country, therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie here in this country of ours. You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well"
Ah, the pointlessness of war. If only we were all so forgiving.

The next thing that struck me was how absolutely beautiful and peaceful a place it is. The views are stunning and I found myself pondering while walking around that huge graveyard how lucky I am to be able to explore the world and see such beautiful places without having to join a war effort (whereby the effect of war can destroy such beauty at the time anyway!).

The tour showed me the sights of the landings and places where specific battles took place. Our guide was very good and informed us on many different stories. The tour ended with me feeling utterly exhausted but organizing myself on a tour to Troy for bright and early the following morning.

Our tour of Troy was really fun. Our guide very funny. He taught us all about the 9 different cities of Troy having been built and rebuilt on the same site over the last 5500 years. Archaeologists can actually pinpoint which one was the Troy described in Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" due to the change of the buildings being more within the walls during the war and then the buildings suddenly becoming Greek in the following Troy after it had supposedly been destroyed in the attack using the Trojan Horse (I still think that natural selection has a part t play in destroying that civilization if the stories are correct - fancy bringing a bloody big horse inside your gates that is big enough to house soldiers. And right after an army had tried to get in over many many years).

After the tour of Troy I was exhausted. But the tour guide was then taking the group for a tour of the Gallipoli peninsula and invited me to have a lift with them so I could walk around. I pulled myself out of tiredness knowing i would be a beautiful walk and I could have some time walking around with my music playing (and probably singing since no-one would be around and I now knew where the tours stopped). As it happens, another guy from my tour the day before, Clinton, joined me for the walk so I had a lovely walk around in a beautiful setting with good company. I withheld the singing for his benefit.

The next day I headed to Istanbul knowing that I only had one day to explore the city because the British Airways strike meant my ticket was changed to two days before. Again I was lucky for company because I met 3 girls at the hostel who wanted to explore the major sites the next day as well.

So the next day we headed out to the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, the cisterns and the palace. Then in the evening visited the grand bazaar and the spice bazaar (where I found out here are yummy flavours of Turkish delight that I love!). The Blue Mosque was beautiful but I could not stay too long. I always feel a bit weird being in someone else's place of worship. The Aya Sofia was originally Christian but then converted to a mosque. It is now a museum and quite amazing. As with other basilicas I had seen, it is amazing to see such artwork in mosaic. But the use of marble was also stunning and mindblowing. But the cisterns were my favourite. It just looked like something out of Indiana Jones going underground to a place with a watery lake and huge columns holding the ceiling up. All in all it was a great day.

That night I had too much fun at the hostel an basically stayed up the whole night before catching a bus before 5am to the airport for my flight to London where I had 4 days of catch up and fun and organization before flying to Delhi, India.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Travels through Europe: Greece

I travelled over the border to Florina and wandered around for a while before catching a train to Thessaloniki. It was sooooo nice to come back to the warmth. Apparently there had been snow in Thessaloniki until the day before I arrived but the day I arrived it was beautiful sunshine. Looking out across the ocean I could see the mountains in the distance. I walked along the esplanade to the White Tower and soaked up the sun. I sat at a cafe and drank beer. the cafes were packed out beig the first summery day for the year. The cafe culture there really reminded me of Melbourne which is not surprising given the amount of Greeks living in Melbourne.

I ate in a lovely Greek restaurant that gave me free beer and free dessert when I tried to pay my bill and leave so I ended out staying there listening to the music and enjoying the flamboyant atmosphere until about 2am. It was great.

I caught a train to Alexandropoulis near the Turkish border. It took about 7 hours to get there. And that was the express train. Trains are not very speedy in Greece, I got there in the evening and ate out and caught a bus over the border into Turkey the next day.

Travels through Europe: Albania

Passing into Albania I soon saw the dome shaped bunkers left since Hoxha's rule. They are dotted around the landscape every now and again. There are ruins of a castle outside Skodra that look really intact.

The taxi got me to the minibus just before it took off. I did not have any Albanian money at that point so luckily the driver took euros. The drive was over two hours and it was on bad roads and people dove wherever they wanted to on the road. It really reminded me of being on a matatu in Kenya. After a long day of travelling I had pretty much decided I was going to treat myself to a night in a nice hotel if there was something easy to find. And I did. 100m from where the minibus dropped me was a 4.5 star hotel and it was such a lovely treat. I rested up with the plan to check out Tirana the next morning and figure out what I would do next. I had a vague plan to head into Macedonia.

The next morning I headed into the square i central Tirana in a downpour of rain that really affected my mood. The grey skies, cold weather and rain just made me want to get out of Tirana ASAP. I saw the square which is the major attraction and realized it was difficult to find out for sure, where and when to catch a minibus towards the border of Macedonia. I decided to catch a bus to Korca in southeastern Albania and was told by the hotel concierge how to get to the minibuses that go there. Just catch any yellow bus from behind the mosque in the square he said. Well every yellow bus I approached said they didn't go to where I wanted to go. Disheartened I felt like I would be stuck forever in Tirana. But then I was approached by a lovely guy who spoke English (uncommon in Albania) who asked me where I wanted to go. He took me to the correct bus, got on it with me, paid my fare and would not let me pay him back, took me to the private minibus places which are really nice and are basically a group taxi that don't cost too much. He did not want any payment and got nothing from the driver he took me to (and there was no increase in my fare compared to the other people there so I am sure of this). He only did it to be nice. It was such a lovely thing to do and really improved my mood.

The drive took me through beautiful mountainous scenery of Albania with farmland visible low down in the valleys. As we approached the huge lake at the Macedonian border we were well and truly above the snow line. I started to rethink my plans of going into Macedonia realizing that everywhere would be snow covered and I was not in the mood for snow and cold. And any hikes I would want to do (such as the one up to the monastery I had read about) would not be possible. I decided instead to go to Greece and get to Turkey earlier so I had more days there.

Korca itself was dead quiet due to time of year. It was cold but the people were warm. Again noone spoke English and I found I had to speak German to get by (and my German from school is pretty terrible).

I was getting to the point where I longed for warmth and tourists such that I had someone with whom I could have an English conversation. I had spent so long by myself with my own thoughts and ponderings and I really missed dialogue.

And so I headed to Greece the next day.

Travels through Europe: Montenegro

I had read that Kotor in Montenegro was a particularly beautiful place so decided to have a stop there. I was not disappointed. Kotor sits at the end of what for all intents and purposes I will describe as a fjord. It is not actually a fjord but looks enough like one that that is what I will call it. It is a town on a fjord surrounded by mountains. Again I felt like I was in Norway. But for a fraction of the price. Kotor, like Dubrovnik, has an Old Town: a walled town of narrow cobbled streets. The wall of Old Town Kotor actually carries on up the mountain behind Old Town and it is easy to climb the steps to the top which provided me with amazing views. It was great exploring inside the ruined forts of the wall as well. I felt like a kid. Once I climbed to the top I couldn't resist and climbed the mountain behind this as well for even better views of Kotor, the fjord and where it reaches the ocean and the surrounding snowy peaks. The trail continued and I really had trouble convincing myself to return to Old Town instead of exploring the path but I had no water and did not know if there were any dangers so eventually, reluctantly turned around.

I stayed in private accommodation in Kotor. It was basic but it was worth it for the cultural experience. The people were so lovely. Only their daughter spoke English but even if she wasn't home they wanted me to sit and drink Turkish coffee with them. I really am not much of a coffee drinker but it was ok and and it was fun spending time with these lovely people who kept wanting to give me extra food. The daughter was 27 and a lovely girl and we really enjoyed sitting down drinking Turkish coffee and then she would read my fortune in the coffee. She longed to meet a man with blonde hair and blue eyes which she obviously could not find in Kotor (but the men there were extremely good looking if you go for dark hair and dark eyes!) and we taled about men and love like we were teenagers. It was quite fun!

I visited the nearby town of Budva on the coast which had a very small Old Town. I tried black risotto, a specialty of the countries of that area. It's delicious. I highly recommend it.

After 3 nights in Kotor, I took a bus to the town closest the to the border with Albania hoping to meet a bus from Tirana. There was no bus that day and the town was not very pretty. A taxi into Albania was the same price as the night's accommodation so I chose that option which made for a nice journey. The closest Albanian town was Skodra and the taxi took me all the way to where the minibus was about to depart for Tirana.

Travels through Europe: Croatia

To be honest I didn't spend much time in Croatia. I got to Rijeka and took a bus the next morning for a 12 hour trip all the way down the coast to Dubrovnik because pretty much everything I read suggested this was the best place to go. Other places had ruins to see and such but I was pretty much ruined out after Italy so pushed on and saw the whole coast over the 12 hours. Also went through snowy mountainous areas. The coastline was stunning. It was a really windy day and the winds were causing amazing ripple patterns on the water. The wind was so strong that there was spray from the ocean which would have been about 50m or more below the road on which the bus was travelling.

After about 7 hours on the bus, I was pretty much looking forward to reaching my destination. I got to Dubrovnik after 10pm and made my way to the hostel. It was unfortunately closed. This was actually a lucky break though because I ended out staying in the middle of the walled Old Town in a private room with bathroom and also a communal kitchenette downstairs. It was basically 4 star and I was told to make myself at home and it was 20 euro a night. I stayed a couple of nights and explored inside the walls of Old Town with its marble streets the next y. Then walked around Dubrovnik. I checked out the option of diving because I couldn't resist but the water temperature was still only 11 degrees celsius and there wasn't anything open for that. Even the 5 star hotels were closed for the off season. So quiet. I climbed the hill in the centre of town and admired the views from there of the beautiful Adriatic coastline and islands and also the view of Old Town.

It was beautiful that is for sure but the next day, I took a bus to Kotor in Montenegro and the beauty there was breathtaking.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Travels through Europe: Slovenia

I left Venice and caught an early train to Gorizia where Italy borders Slovenia. I went to the railway station on the other (Slovenian) side of town in Nova Gorica. Immediately I loved the Slovenian people and had a good feeling about Slovenia. There was no actual passport control on entry or exit for a start so no stamp taking up space on my cramped pages.

The people are so friendly and lovely. Very helpful. And it feels so safe. Beautiful countryside with rivers of aquamarine and snow-peaked mountains as I headed up to Bled in the Northwestern part of the country by the first national park in Europe.

I fell in love with fairytale Bled straight away with its clifftop castle and mirrorlike lake home to a small island on which stands a quaint little church. I immediately felt free smelling the country air. I ended out having 6 days in Bled hiking the surrounding hills. With the friendliness of the people, the landscape and in some cases the architecture, Bled reminded me very much of Norway. Walking along, listening to "Narum" on my iPod, I felt like I really was back in Norway (except for 1/4 the living expense!). Several times I nearly spoke Norwegian, one of the few languages the people there actually didn't speak (most people are fluent in Slovenian, English, German and Italian). Except for one day, the weather was perfect while in Bled. When I first got there, the lake was 1/3 covered with ice. The mallard ducks and white swans would walk along the top of the ice and one day I saw a small boy and his grandmother throwing bread onto the ice for them. It was a lovely sight. When I left, most of the ice had melted.

Thinking that leaving Italy I would be free of the presence of pizza, I was wrong. There is Italian influence in the food in all the countries I visited until Albania so my pizza habit continued. I would walk all day around the beautiful countryside of Bled then relax with a pizza and pint at the end of the day. Ah he life!

It was the off season and so I was the for the most part only tourist in Bled. No crowds and I got to spend my time alone on walks in nature. It was so nice to have this time to myself. Although, after 5 days, I did start to feel the pangs of longing for English speaking company with whom I could share my experiences.

So even though I sometimes felt like stopping my whole trip and just staying in Bled for 5 weeks, I did move on. I took the train to Postojna to see the caves there which are a UNESCO site. I was wondering whether I should really bother since I had toured the Princess Margaret Rose caves sooooo many times. But Lonely Planet said they were worth a look so I went along to check them out. And they blew my mind.

Firstly on the tour, there is a little train that takes you at quite a fast speed about 2km into the cave system. Sort of felt like I was in Goonies or something but then the extensiveness of the caves started making me feel more like a Fraggle. 2km in, we got off the train and did a walking tour for over 1km. These caves were cut by the River Pivka and consist of about 4 levels of cave systems. The deepest being the newest and currently being cut by the River Pivka in one of the river's many subterranean excursions. We did not see that one. What we did see were huge galleries of columns, stalactites, stalagmites, straws and curtains. Very active in growth still. Some were white, some red tinged and some black tinged, depending on purity or presence o iron oxide or aluminium oxide. The tallest column stands about 40m and is estimated to have been growing for 350000 years.

These caves are also home to the eyeless salamander which is exclusively from that area of Slovenia. We got to see a of these a well.

I came out of the caves and had nothing else to do and it was a beautiful day so I walked to Predjama Castle 9km further on. A lovely walk and the castle was again fairy tale looking and it was nestled into the cliffside with a cave system underneath it. Very hungry when I arrived, I noticed the closed restaurant even though it was lunchtime. Off season travelling did involve some pitfalls after all! So I caught the free shuttle back to Postojna. The next day I explored the caves at Divaca after a lovely walk and seeing the sinkhole where the River Reka which created these caves sees the sun for a brief moment. The River Reka is mainly underground within caves except for 5 brief stints in the open air in Slovenia before going back underground until finally coming out again near Trieste in Italy. The cave system at Divaca was vastly different. Again some beautiful galleries but many formations looked like cement. I expect because they were ancient but not actively growing anymore. The largest column stood 30m high and had a diameter of about 4m. It was enormous.

The big draw card with this cave though is the huge chasm where the river runs. Walking beside the river and over a tiny footbridge, it really is awe inspiring. The ceiling is so high it is difficult to make out the formations and the river gushes along loudly 40m below.

I was very glad that I did make the trip to check out these caves.

It was afternoon and I luckily was able to catch trains to get me to my next destination, Rijeka in Croatia.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Travels through Europe: Italy

Arrived in Naples 14th February. Naples is a city less hit by tourism than others. There is tourism, don't get me wrong. The hordes at Pompeii attest to that (and this is the off season), but the Italian culture seems less affected. Very few spoke English and there were no maps or directions or tourist information (or if there was they didn't speak English!). There weren't the street stalls of tourist paraphernalia either. Instead, there was street pizza! And such good pizza it is! Walking down a street, I'd often pass a few Italians munching on pizza rolled up like a kebab in paper chatting to the stall owner. It was great.

I went to Pompeii and Herculaneum which are amazingly preserved. Amazing what hot pumice can do! Quite distressing seeing the plaster casts of the people of Pompeii. But especially a dog that was all twisted up and looked in agony. So horrific. I found myself feeling a bit less safe with Vesuvius looming above me. I wanted to climb Vesuvius but the mountain is currently snowcapped so it's not possible at this time of year. But a beautiful view. Looked like a mini Kilimanjaro.

I took a day trip along the Amalfi Coast. Being the off season, it is so quiet. No crowds of tourists at all. I met an Aussie guy called Rob and we got to Amalfi after a stunning bus ride around curving roads with steep cliffs. With the clear blue skies, the sea was a deep blue. So beautiful! I convinced Rob to join me going to Ravello, a village above Amalfi. The plan was to have lunch up there. Got there and everything was closed! But the views were amazing. Spent the next hour hungry climbing down MANY steps to Amalfi where we relaxed with red wine. It was difficult even to find a place there for lunch. So much was closed. Eventually feasted and left Rob in Amalfi and caught a bus back to Naples.

The next day I took a train to Rome. I got to Rome and checked in at the first hostel I came to. Don't know what it is about travel, but even though I was only sitting on the train the whole day (and some of that time I was sleeping), I rock up at destinations just knackered.

I spent 2 full days in Rome. Again got fab weather. Spent the first day wandering around Rome (lost for the most part since I lost my map at the start of the day). I started at piazza del popolo and got a beautiful view of the city. From there I was able to find the Spanish steps ok since it is a straight line so the 2 signs I saw were a help. The thing about Italy is: they are very good at signposting directions. That is until you get semi-close to your destination, then the signs stop and you are expected to use zen navigation or something. It can be more than a little frustrating when you know you are close but have know idea and you know that the wrong turn could take you further away!! Sometimes you can get close enough that the tourist stalls can act as a hot-cold type directional marker. I left the beautiful Spanish steps (where by the way, along with piazza del popolo, there is a column covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Nothing is written anywhere, does anyone know the history of this or were they stolen?). From the Spanish steps I tried to follow signs to the Trevi fountain. That just took me in a wide circle to piazza del popolo! Mapless, I gave up and took the metro the two stops to the Fountain. I got out and saw the little Triton Fountain and was nearly misled into thinking it was Trevi. But soon figured it out. Triton is worth a look though. Best torso on that sculpture of all the sculptures in Italy (nothing on David's hands though! More on that later!). Eventually found Trevi Fountain by following the increasing density of tourist stalls. Much bigger and more impressive (but not as good torsos).

Next stop was ancient Roman quarter but decided to go back to the hostel for another map on the way. The colosseum is huge and beautiful and it is quite amazing that all those ruins are so intact as they are. Ancient ruins interspersed with modern day Rome. It once again struck me that it is lucky that people realized the value of such things and they weren't demolished to make way for a shopping centre at some point (ok so some ruins had been removed to make a road but there is a lot still standing!).

That evening I lost my map again while looking for the Trastavere section of Rome to have dinner. Eventually found it (trastavere, not the map) and its beautiful narrow cobbled streets. I had the best Gnocchi ever but that may have been due to hunger after wandering lost for so long! Found myself a bit drunk accidentally breaking into Roman ruins a bit later but we won't go into that detail...

The next day I was to go to the Vatican city. I went with Alice, an English girl I met at the hostel. The metro wasn't working so it was a disgustingly crowded bus ride to a stop that was close (although we were unsure of that fact at the time). After nearly paying an exorbitant price for a guided tour, we were in the security line and I realized I wouldn't get in without relinquishing the Swiss army knife in my bag. Knowing what was more important to me, I left. The buses were just not coming and I knew they'd be full so I walked back to the hostel. It was a beautiful day and I decided not to rush such that I could then return to the Vatican. Instead I enjoyed the beautiful sunshine and felt that God bad told me not to bother. Such a lovely day it was. That night I went out with hostellers Alice and Ally and enjoyed a beer or two and discussed topics important topics such as men and war.

The next morning I caught a bus to Assisi. Assisi is a beautiful stone village on the side of a hill with a beautiful view of the valley below. It is the home of St Francis, patron saint of animals who turned his life from that of fun and frivolity to giving everything to those less fortunate and apparently was very gentle with animals and also helped them, something strange for someone of his time. The town of Assisi has beautiful narrow cobbled streets and a very unhelpful tourist info guy. After much walking I found my way to the railway station in lower Assisi and caught the train to Florence.

To an Artsy Fartsy person, Florence is heaven. As all know, I am not Artsy Fartsy (except for my music appreciation), but even I loved the sculptures in Florence. It is beautiful. And as with all Italian cities, such a beautiful atmosphere. My sole reason for visiting Florence was to see Michelangelo's sculpture of David. I was told by my friend Emma that he will ruin all men for me since he is perfect. So why I visited I don't know. Since visiting him, I can't stop thinking I do want a man with hands like his. They are remarkable! Big and strong and perfect! Anyway, enough about that! That night I met 2 American girls (Meaghan and Jennifer) and got quite drunk with Meaghan. The next day we all went together to Pisa. There isn't much in Pisa except a tower that's a bit skew wiff. So I had lunch with Meaghan and Jennifer then headed to Venice.

Venice is all the pictures suggest. It is gorgeous. And no cars. Quite surreal really but also natural. I spent a day walking the narrow streets which can soon get you lost so easily (but by now I was holding onto my map firmly!). I caught a cheap gondola ride to gross grand canal and bought some fruit and pistacchios at a market then walked to the basilica of Saint Mark where I ate food in the square surrounded by pigeons who saw me as an easy target. I was amazed with the basilica. Many of the frescoes in there (especially on the domed ceilings), are made totally of mosaic. Quite amazing work!

I wandered around Venice soaking up the atmosphere, getting more lost, eating more gelato and listening to Italian composers on my iPhone. That afternoon I caught a boat to the outer islands of Burano and Torcello. Torcello is the oldest Venetian settlement but was abandoned due to decreasing trade and risks of Malaria due to its marshlands. I think there were 5 people in a bar there when I visited and that was it. Being the off season and late afternoon, it was like a ghost town!

The next day I caught a train to Slovenia. Italian part of the tour was over :(. But Slovenia is even better! :). But that is for the next installment!