24 Hours In: Istanbul!

Our whirlwind of Europe is finally coming to an end – final destination Istanbul, Turkey!

After 22 hours of busses, trains and planes we arrived to Istanbul welcomed by a steep hill and many cobblestones. Note to self: don’t fly into Sabiha Gokcen International Airport in the future.

Connection from Gokcen Airport was achieved through an hour plus ride on a coach (14 Turkish Lira, TL) and two train / tram rides (4TL)…or we could have taken a private transport for ~90TL.

We arrived somewhere near the touristy Taksim Square on a steep hill next to the deepest construction pit I have ever seen. There are buildings under construction everywhere.
Navigating the cobblestones and taxi packed sidewalks, we slowly made our way to Taksim station – tantalizing aromas of sweet, spicy and fragrant combined for an unforgettable combination. This is my first impression of the city, and one I will likely not forget. Melody wanted to sample the wares from every restaurant we passsed. Everywhere we walked we have received a cascade of shouts offering taksi rides or a sampling of foods and drinks. For the easily overwhelmed, this is not the place to visit.

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The metro system in Istanbul is, by and large, efficient and effective. There are your standard metro ‘subway’ type cars, street trams, and even ferries…all of which you can take a ride on for 4 TL. For this purchase price, you receive a little plastic coin about the size of a nickel. There is an option to purchase a metro card, but our pleasure for walking meant we did not go this route.

With our little coins we took a short connector ride underground and then a slightly longer ride on an overground street-car, reaching our hostel in good spirits.

Even at 11pm, there were many shops open and crowds of others milling about. In the short walk we were hailed no fewer than 20 times for dining – did I mention you get shouted at?

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December 7, 2015

 

 

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Travel Diary: The Adventures of Mailing a Postcard in Dublin

This short story is proof that mundane tasks can turn into an adventure with the proper person. Mailing a postcard is not as easy as it sounds. Dublin is the only place where we found a sign that said post, much like the one below, that directed us into a supermarket.

Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.
Courtesy of Breaking News, Ireland. Ever so small and kind of easy to miss.

We pass a sign that looks like this and peer in. This is a supermarket; that can’t be right. So we’re walking around South Dublin looking for a post office. A real post office, one that would be green with ample harps and lots of other Irish things. We keep seeing oval green mail drops in the street anxious to receive our mail, but as our postcards do not yet have stamps affixed to them, we can not send them on their merry overseas journey.

Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.
Though the post office signs are small, the mail drops are really hard to miss. Daily collection varies from 4:00 to 5:30pm.

After about twenty minutes, we turn around and search again for this tiny sign and go into the supermarket. Everything about this feels odd. We’re in the Donnybrook market, and I see what looks like the beginnings of the warehouse. There are people milling about, so I follow the path all the way to the back of the store. There are those long clear plastic flaps right in front of me, and to the right, I see a two-person queue (that’s a line for my American audiences). Right in this tiny L-shaped, dimly lit area is a post office. There’s two tellers behind bulletproof glass. I go up and ask them for five international stamps, please, which they have to print. She comes back and tells us it’s six euros.

Not a problem, a bargain I think, for such a long journey, and Mark swipes our credit card, which promptly gets declined. The employee sees the error and tells us, debit or cash only. At this point, Mark uses the debit card, and that also gets declined. At this point we didn’t have any cash – so I start to worry. The employee clarifies: “Irish bank cards or cash only.”

Weeeelll, that kind of changes things a bit! We ask where the nearest ATM is, across the street, and walk over only to find out it’s Out of Order. The next ATM is a good ten minutes away, and we have twelve minutes to get our postcards in the mail for the 5:30pm pickup. What a maddening deadline. The next twelve minutes is us running to the ATM, waiting eons to withdraw cash, running back to the post office disguised as a supermarket, waiting in a now very-long queue to pick up our postage stamps that we quickly affix to the postcards and bid them adieu as we drop them promptly at 5:29pm.

Mission. Totally. Accomplished.

The Evolution of Our Travel – So far.

As we wait at Varna Airport* in Bulgaria to board a flight toward Istanbul, Turkey for a connection, I cannot help but think about just how much our travel plan has changed since we began planning.

What was originally to be a 48 day, non-stop movement blast of every country in Europe has become something much more satisfying.

We are currently 80 days in, with a scheduled 68 more on the calendar. Wow.

We may not have visited every country yet – in fact we have only been to 16 – but the things we have experienced more than make up for that.

A quick overview of where we have been and what we have done so far:

July 8 – 15: London, England – Crown Jewels, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, British Museum, Jewish Museum (Melody), National Gallery (Melody), Imperial War Museum, Beefeater Distillery, London Overground / Underground, Tube Strike, Long walks to our AirBnB (learned from this mistake), fined 20 GBP for not buying proper ticket on tube.

July 15 – 21: Oslo, Norway – Overpriced pub night first night, Pier 41, Historic Oslo, Drove up to Lillehammer, Port of Oslo, Took bad pictures of Opernhaus, had most expensive quesadilla of our lives (post about that here), overall felt very financially abused, Experienced what it is like to have a dog that has an indefinite amount of energy,

July 21 – 28: Glasgow, Scotland – Took bus from Edinburgh to Glasgow and picked up rental car, learned that speed is in MPH, not KPH, went to Glengoyne Distillery, drove to highlands (Ft. William & Glencoe), hiked up to waterfall, stepped in marsh land up to our knees by same waterfall, saw Glasgow and had a great burger, went to Edinburgh and were a little underwhelmed, visited Museum on the Mound (free), Glen Nevis Park, Contributed to Yarn Project at Renfield St. Stephens Church.

July 28 – August 6: Dublin, Ireland and Northern Ireland – Temple Bar, Trinity College, Giants Causeway, Watched an aging dog (Lucky) with medical problems, spent a couple days at vet with Lucky due to said problems and learned that vet care is quite awesome in the middle of the night, Hiked in Wicklow Mountains,

August 6 – 7: Brussels, Belgium -Delirium Bar

August 7 – 11: Paris, France – Louvre, Eiffel Tower (day and night), Champ de Mars, Luxemborg Park, Notre Dame Cathedral, Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre, Had to walk home at 1:30 AM 10km because metro closed earlier than we thought.

August 11 – 14: Prague, Czech Republic – Walking tour of Prague, Astronomical Clock, Charles Bridge, Gastronomy Museum, Old Jewish Quarter, Jewish Cemetery, Old Town Square, beers along the river, Old New Synagogue, beers in the street, Black Angel Bar ( great craft cocktails in a speakeasy environment), Franz Kafka statue, St Cyril & Methodius / Heydrich Terror Memorial

August 14 – 29: Helsinki/Artjarvi/Oramatilla, Finland – Taught at Finnish School (Melody), carved 3 walking sticks, picked a LOT of cherries, picked black and red currants, picked gooseberries (had no idea these were a thing before), attempted a bike ride, aborted bike ride, laid foundation and placed bricks for BBQ relocation, raised elevation of ground around greenhouse, trimmed apple and cherry trees for days, resurfaced a table, used an infrared heater for table, drank lots of homemade cider / beer, learned to make mead, helped make mead, learned some Finnish, experienced a Finnish birthday party, taught modded Minecraft to someone in another language, SAUNA!!!, adapted our favorite recipe for use in Finland, set the world right during late night drinking sessions.

August 29 – 30: Copenhagen, Denmark – Nuhavn, attempted walking tour twice, failed to locate walking tour twice,

August 30 – September 1: Berlin, Germany – East Side Gallery, Humboldt University, Walking tour of Berlin, Jewish Holocaust Memorial, Hitler’s Bunker, Brandenburg Gate, visited Hotel where Michael Jackson hung baby out of window, Checkpoint Charlie, straddled former Berlin Wall. Volkswagen showroom.

September 2 – 6: Rome and Vatican City, Italy – Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Sistine Chapel, Church of St. Augustine, Vatican Museum, Villa Doria Pamphilli,

September 6-9: Naples, Italy – Beautiful decorations in subway stop, couldn’t find a cab to save ourselves, Pompeii, driving in Naples (YIKES!), drove along the Amalfi Coast (didn’t quite reach Amalfi), experienced fairly rude service overall at every restaurant we went to (save one).

September 9-10: Sorrento, Italy – Due to weather unable to do our boat tour in the morning, got ripped off by cabbie for ride to pick up rental car, ate a burger for lunch and skipped dinner, had our first bad AirBnB Experience, drove along the Amalfi Coast (still didn’t quite reach it), fell asleep hot, unconnected (no wifi) and hungry.

September 10-11: Rome, Italy – took lovely train ride back to Rome from Naples, had some confusion reaching our hotel (there are two Best Westerns by the Fiumicino Airport), walked along beach, learned that restaurants literally do not open until 8pm by the beach, had best dinner of our Italian trip.

September 11 – 25: Sofia/Popovo/Varna, Bulgaria -Stayed at our first Hostel of the trip in Sofia (excellent experience), took bus to Popovo (not a great experience), met Joe and Julie our hosts and had a nice dinner, expanded and repaired a stone path that was damaged by the pigs, learned to cob, cobbed a part of a wall, milked a goat (Melody), harvested Maize, shucked Maize, de-kerneled Maize using hand crank machinery (excellent!), used long-drop toilet (wha?!), had traditional Bulgarian dinner (very fun and awkward as a foreigner), found old communist radio, learned about old communist radios, walked across train tracks to get to our train, visited Bulgarian version of Walmart (hint: not as big, nor as well stocked as you would think), laid garden beds, held chickens, pet sheep (Melody), straightened out a pig’s tail, trained the dogs to sit, adapted our favorite recipe for Bulgarian food availability, saw the Milky Way – every night, fought to get internet for Melody’s school / students, bought clothes at a ‘second-hand’ store, learned how to make bread (Melody), made bread (Melody), painted with Lime / coffee mixture, went to Bucharest, Romania to pick up a friend, showered using a wood-burning water heater, bathed in the kitchen sink, picked walnuts / hazelnuts, took train to Varna (much better public transportation option), stayed at second hostel of trip (excellent people, excellent city), went to Bulgarian ‘night club’, set feet in the Black Sea, ate very cheaply, lamented how expensive The United States really is, went to Primorski Park, drank really really cheap beer, discovered that beer is sold in 2L bottles for the equivalent of $1.39.

September 25: Istanbul, Turkey – learned that you don’t need a visa to connect in Istanbul, learned that Istanbul airport is REALLY busy, learned Turkish Airlines is a very nice airline to fly (new favorite), slept at airport waiting for our connection, vowed to return to actually see Istanbul.

September 25 – 26: Toulouse, France – met our first friendly French person.

September 26 – Present: Seix, France – Met Peta and Keith, our new HelpX Hosts, assessed project and learned it would be much more difficult than originally anticipated, removed existing retaining wall for garden bed, sorted stones, dug foundation for new retaining wall for garden bed, sorted stones, poured foundations, sorted stones, laid part of wall, sorted stones, chipped stones, smashed stones, stones, sorted stones, laid more wall, weeded a garden bed while Peta and Keith sorted stones, laid remainder of retaining wall (phew!), dug foundations for new steps to be laid next to retaining wall, poured concrete and laid steps, had concrete that was laid around pavers ruined by HUGE hailstorm, climbed Mount Mirabat, experienced first rate doctors help with medication for less than $30 (Melody) after hike up Mirabat, sterilized a lot of pots (Melody), went to downtown Seix, visited Foix (didn’t make it to the castle sadly), observed pigeons instead of visiting castle, tended many garden beds (Melody), washed A LOT of dishes, first indoor clothes dryer of trip, celebrated birthday with wonderfully made cake made by Peta, had delicious meals prepared each lunch and dinner,

Overall, we have experienced many times of magnitude more than what we thought we would. We have learned, sweat, bled, laughed, smiled and drank ourselves around Europe in a fashion that we feel grateful and satisfied about.

Don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

*Started post on Sept 25, posted on Oct 10.

24 Hours In: Things We Learned in Copenhagen

Actually, things we wished we knew.

Note: Nudity and questionable language.

1: That our hotel had complimentary shuttle service to AND from the airport, so we didn’t need to spend $40 for two tourist transport tickets.

2: Google maps is as helpful as a foreigner giving you directions in a foreign language. It doesn’t have the correct coordinates for the free walking tour- not even close. It also incorrectly estimates travel time between destinations. This is the second time it has lied to us.  Think it has a bone to pick with free walking tours.

3: If you’re looking to go to Malmö, Sweden, because you also love the idea of lunch in one country and dinner in another, the last bus BACK to Denmark leaves at 6pm. Color us disappointed. Also, that ticket there and back is 100 Danish Kroners (DKK).

4: Don’t tip here. They make enough money, honestly. And there’s a service fee included basically everywhere anyway.

5: I wish we knew about the lack of authentic food. Totally disappointed by the mass Americanism and English speakers/ signage everywhere. It just felt too close to home. Not exotic enough. Perhaps we’re a bit jaded from Finland. We felt cheated, culturally. Remember how I was lamenting the absence of fried chicken and peanut butter? Both of these are here. I don’t even know what Danish food actually is. Where is it? I had a croissant with jelly in the middle. I was told that’s a Danish. They say a good measure of a city is by its food: I’m underwhelmed by a KFC and a two story Burger King. /rant

6:  Public nudity is acceptable, maybe as a spectacle but even still. Sitting in the über touristy part of Nyhavn and this (drunk) guy runs out of a party bus and swan dives into the canal. Cool right? I thought so. Then dude reappears, totally naked, runs through a crowd and jumps into the water again. People start half clapping, mostly staring, some laughing. Dude gets out of the water and just kinda walks back to the bus with his bros slapping his ass and grabbing his balls. Maybe a bachelor party? Can’t tell. That’s Copenhagen for you.

The bus in question. Feast your eyes on the naked man off the side.

It’s Okay! You Can Skip the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel

I can’t believe there’s not more blogs promoting this. I really don’t understand why it’s on so many people’s life goals lists (Please tell me in the comments). It’s like millions of people suddenly become devoutly Roman Catholic and suddenly care about the lineages of the popes, what the popes wore, what they did and didn’t do, who they did and didn’t kill, and an even greater number of people pretend to really, really like art.

If you’re not on a pilgrimage to fulfill a religious preoccupation, you can skip the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel for any of the following reasons:

It’s expensive

16 euro if you dare wait in the queue (are you insane?) or 20 per person if you pay online. It’s a 4 euro convenience fee to pay online. You still have to stand in a line to pickup your tickets from the ticket counter. Then you shuffle.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

And sweat, sweat, sweat. This is Italy which means there’s no AC in this building. It’s very old and AC is new. I’m not sure where the 4 euro fee is going, but it’s not going into cooling the building where the average number of visitors is more than 15,000 a day. This isn’t an area with wide walkways or an air current or even somewhere to stand off to the side. Throughout the entire walk through the museum, shuffle shuffle shuffle, which reminds me, I can remember taking exactly six real steps. There’s nowhere to really admire artwork, so actually,

It’s visual overload. 

Every room is ornately painted or carved from baseboards across the ceiling. EVERY. ROOM. You begin walking and trying to take in the beauty and enormity of the artwork, but you can’t because these IDIOT GUIDES and their flock of 20-30 something tourists walk right in front of people that are clearly trying to take a picture or admire artwork. You ask them, mi scusi, a photo? and you get the most disgusted look and a 15% chance of someone actually moving. Two hours later, by the time you get to the Sistine Chapel, you are so tired of seeing 16th century art that your eyes kind of glaze over and Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam, becomes an actual snoozefest. Speaking of Michelangelo…

The Sistine Chapel is last room of the entire museum. 

And you’re supposed to be silent. All the signs before you enter tell you to 1) cover your shoulders, 2) cover up your super cute mini, AND BE QUIET. “Silence” is universal. But thousands and thousands of morons can’t keep their mouths shut and they keep whispering. So the guards shout SHHHHHHH! across the chapel and people think it’s funny so they keep talking. Again, you shuffle, and the museum guards make you shuffle in a particular direction. If you don’t shuffle that way you’ll be forced that way. Shuffle shuffle. All the sitting room will be taken, so you stand in a crowd of people that are smelly and sweaty and you just stare at the ceiling. No point in taking a photo. The ceiling is so tall you can’t zoom in far enough with any camera to get a fair picture of Adam and God. Speaking of which..

Take a picture of the Sistine Chapel and be prepared to get thrown out.

No one ever said #ShamelessSelfie with Michelangelo is a good idea. Signs have a picture of a camera with a line through it. No photo. And what do these idiots do? Hold their camera up above their head and try to take a picture, then act all surprised when they’re approached by a guard. Are you serious? How daft do you have to be?!

After you finish the Sistine Chapel, you’re guided through the histories of each Pope, what they did wrong and what they did right (all in Italian of course). At this point you’re just ready to leave. You came, you saw, you pretended to be Catholic or you pretended to know who Raphael was, and then you leave.

Want to have a good time at the Vatican? Don’t go. Just don’t. 95% of the people who go there are better off somewhere else.

If you insist on going, here’s my sage advice:

  • Buy the ticket online and deal with the 4 euro/pp convenience fee.
  • Enter the “group with reservations” line.
  • Go through security, put your bag on the line, and go straight to the left where it says tickets.
  • Show the wo/man your phone, get your tickets printed out.
  • GO UP THE RAMP. Do you really want to be stuck with a bunch of smellies on the escalator? No, you don’t.
  • Finally, at least pretend to be interested in something other than the Sistine Chapel, and divert if only for a moment to another room. We enjoyed the “Modern” Gallery right before the SC entrance.

Ciao.

24 Hours In: Things We Learned in Brussels

Bruxelles, a heavily blended capital city, location of the European Central Bank, and port of entry to the rest of Europe. With exactly 24 hours to eat, drink, and experience, these observations sum up our feelings about Brussels:

  1. In August, it’s hot. People said it was unusual, but it was so hot we decided to go out and drink instead of stay in our flat with no AC.
  2. Incredibly weighty French influence which no one in the UK or Ireland prepared us for. Totally caught us off guard to be greeted with a Bonjour/ Bon Soir. We expected a Flemish dialogue, some Germanic influence perhaps, but it was predominantly French.
  3. Drinking age is 16. While American high school students tweet about a drivers license, kids in Brussels are legally ordering their first brew with their parents. This is a limited drinking license as hard liquor is still prohibited for under 18s.
  4. Many embassy guards for the U.S. Frequent a bar called Roosters, which has two lovely bartenders – one named Kelly and the other Anna. They are incredibly funny and knowledgable about the area and their beers are reasonably priced too!
  5. I had a romantic fantasy that living above shops near downtown would be, in the words of Gretchen Weiners, so fetch. Early in the morning I’d wake up and head to the place right beneath my flat, grab a coffee, and begin my beautiful breezy day. The flip side of that dream is that at night, there are a lot of loud drunk people crowding the entrance to your flat, and you have to sneak in between them and open the door. It feels so odd having tons of complete strangers know where you live…
  6. Hardly anyone accepts American credit/ debit cards, even with a chip. We had to convert to euros because our cards kept getting declined. Come into Brussels with some cash, or find an exchange place, but please don’t exchange currency at the bus station,or airport. It’s a total rip off. 
  7. If you want to drink and talk to tons of people from all corners of the world, ask for the Delirium bar. It’s a narrow street with a dozen entrances to bars dedicated to one type of alcohol. There’s a tequila bar. There’s a vodka bar where you order a liter of vodka. All of them sell beer, but if you really want to prove your worth to yourself and all the strangers around you, order a two liter chalice of beer. Take time to wander upstairs, downstairs, around. You’ll find plenty of interesting things to see.
  8. The food district of Brussels is made of narrow streets crowded by outdoor seating and hosts standing in the walkway. As your eyes wander over to the menu, you’re immediately approached by someone and asked if you want to sit. I found this really revolting as they give you no time really to look at the menu, so we kept shaking our heads no and walked out of the restaurant district to a quieter, less pressure cooker type atmosphere.
  9. If you’re staying at an AirBnB here, please ask your host what floor they are on. We stayed on the top floor which I thought was awesome until we arrived and had to climb EIGHT, count them, EIGHT flights of stairs up and down to enter or leave this apartment.
  10. Want to make this known that I asked for tap water at a restaurant, was advised they “don’t do tap.” I told her bring the cheapest water, she brought me €6 mineral water. Sigh. 

If you’re planning a trip to Brussels, know that it’s a small capital city, and two to three leisurely days can cover the main attractions. If you have any questions about where to go, what to see, or what type of food to eat, send us a message! 

Mark and Melody

Choosing Your First AirBnB

AirBnB has been truly great to us and we can’t recommend them enough. Every type of lodging is available: tree houses, huts, beach cabanas, modern flats and castles! Search functions allow you to search for a private room, a shared space, or the entire home. The prices vary as much as the style, meaning there is definitely a listing for your taste.

For accuracy in prices and availability, put in the dates you’re looking to stay, even if they’re tentative because you may find a place you like that happens to have a flexible host. It’s no fun to get super attached to a listing only to find out it’s not available. 😦

Before booking, check the cancellation policy. Each listing has one: flexible, moderate or strict. Flexible means you can cancel no later than 24 hours before your intended stay for a full refund, which is best for more spontaneous bookings. Moderate means cancellation must be made five days (in host’s local time) before intended stay for a full refund.  If you’re planning to attend an event or you’re pretty sure you won’t change plans, this is an option. Strict is… Strict. No full refunds are offered for Strict cancellation policies.  Instead, a 50% refund will be given for cancellations made seven days or more before your intended stay.

We’ve found the hosts to be quite delightful and to ensure you get the most out of your stay without any misunderstanding, we always message the host before booking. We also crafted a template to familiarize you with the site and ensure you ask vital questions with a message like this:

Hello, My husband and I are traveling to London from September 23 to September 28- confirming you have these dates available. We are mainly looking forward to visiting Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Camden Market. We would like to prepare a couple small meals as well. We will be arriving from Heathrow at 7pm- would you be home at that time? What is the best tube route to your location? 

Thank you kindly. 

Most hosts respond within two hours as they are eager to confirm guests :). Generally, a more outgoing, interactive host will respond with a more detailed message. Ask for recommendations in their area. If you’ve any allergies, it’s good to note that so the host can accommodate. We had an instance where a review noted a pet but the host didn’t, so if pets are something you need to avoid, confirm before the booking. At a different stay, I was totally under the impression the host would be there, but he didn’t live in the area anymore; the house was a rental property. For a first time stay, you may want to ask if there will be other guests in the house.

For short stay travelers looking to maximize time, ask:

  • What do you find is the best way to get around?
  • Is Uber operating here?
  • What times do the trains/ buses run?
  • Additional charge on public transit during peak travel times?

For super savvy and aspiring long term travelers, ask:

  • How far is the nearest market and when does it close?
  • How far is the nearest pharmacy?
  • Do you have ample pots and pans, flatware and cooking tools?
  • Do you have a clothes washer if I bring my own detergent?

For families of four or more, we recommend:

  • Selecting “entire house” instead of one room as a search filter. More privacy, flexibility and importantly security.
  • Booking as soon as possible if you’re attending an event. AirBnB hosts will raise prices too, sometimes three months in advance.
  • Letting the host know the ages of your children, especially younger tots.
  • If you rented a car, ask where the car can be parked. 

Final note: Give a host with no reviews a chance. We did and had a lovely stay!

Have you had an experience at airbnb you’d like us to feature? Let us know! We would love to hear your travel adventures.

Mark and Melody