May 26, 2008

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

I could possibly be at an unexpected loss of words for the unforgettable experience Renee and I had in Plovdiv after a dreamy five hour bus ride through the countryside in the rain. We arrived at a clean but unfriendly hostel and managed an early evening walk through wet, dusk soaked streets and shared a delicious Mediterranean dinner at a restaurant in the old part of town in which we were staying and whose history outdates Rome, then winded our way back on the wobbly stone sidewalks in time for a good night’s rest in a dorm room with some testy Croatian and Finnish divas. The next morning greeted us with the crisp sun streaming through the oversized double pane windows and a breakfast of inaudible thoughts and conversation as we were crowded into the eating nook with a deafening, hormonal group of face-painting, Hungarian karate championship hopefuls mostly under the age of 17. We fought the acoustic onslaught with caffeine and were soon ready to explore another Bulgarian town that packs charm, beauty and history within it’s borders; an observation which prompted Renee and I to comment on how different and individually interesting each place we have visited has been from each other.
Without many pressing things to see other than a few churches and some end-of-the-year graduation ceremonies in the schoolyards, we decided to spend our time trying to immerse ourselves in local human culture and grabbed front and center seating at a cafe on the main boulevard in Old town to further study the Eastern European Fashion Phenomenon (EEFP). Once we felt that we had truly started to understand the full range of fluorescent color combinations and finite degrees of metallic, we took a break and darted off to the beauty salon where we pampered ourselves with a haircut and celebrated the successful finesse of the shears on our locks with a beer. It was here, among the girls primping for prom, that I realized no piece of gossip was out of my range and with the burning desire to decipher the meaning of the Mariah Carey photo on the cover of the Bulgarian editions of OK and Star magazine, I started to successfully teach myself how to read the Cyrillic alphabet- all in the name of knowledge of course. After the salon, the mood between Renee and I felt overwhelmingly ninth grade and we threw maturity to the wind and galloped up and down the shopping promenade in and out of dressing rooms trying on and photographing ourselves in the shiniest most garish green and yellow clothing combinations we had no problem finding. Nearly pee staining my yellow peddle pushers from stomach aching laughter I commented to Renee that this whole experience would really come together if we could somehow witness the impending prom night which hung in the atmosphere like glitter. The Orthodox Gods must have heard our call of prayer because when we followed the honking, whistles and cheers from down the street in the waning light of day, we were confronted with none other than (drumroll, please…..) Bulgarian Prom Night!
From what we could see, the adolescent rite of passage seemed to draw more attention than the Academy Awards and the event seemed to be just as important for the status-hungry parents as it was for the kids; expensive adult driven cars would parade teenagers popping out of side windows and sun roofs screaming at the top of their lungs like crazed sports fans. Renee and I made our way to the center of this high voltage crowd and kicked ourselves for not buying a dress and posing as sixteen year olds to gain entrance to the party but we satisfied our excitement at witnessing such an event by snapping our cameras at the masses like proud parents.
Our perfect night was topped off with a visit to a bar blaring Egyptian music that hosted a group of kids whose prom must have been the year before and the vision of one of them pretty much summed up our experience in Plovdiv; a young, thin, blond nineteen year old girl wearing an oversized, BLING-ed out Orthodox cross over a leopard tank top and tight black jeans supported by a Playboy Bunny belt over which she tied a jingly Middle Eastern scarf and was stiffly shaking her non-existent butt to the music while her glowing gin and tonic waited at a table nearby. If people watching could be an Olympic Spectator Sport, Renee and I definitely won Gold.

Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria

Feeling rested and refreshed from a few days in the countryside on the Black Sea coast, Renee and I were more than prepared for the uphill walks we would encounter on the quaint and winding cobblestone streets of the former capitol of Veliko Turnovo. We arrived in the late afternoon at a great hostel at the base of town situated close to the banks of the Yantra River and we immediately made friends with the other outgoing and interesting mix of international guests. A group of us set out for food and on the way I was quickly charmed by the stunning views of the well maintained red slate roofed houses stepped in ascending order up the picturesque green mountains. Dining on the edge of a cliff and drinking the local beers which are almost cheaper than soda and juice, the atmosphere and landscape were reminiscent of small towns found in Italy or Spain and spotting reminders of four decades under communist administration is virtually impossible to do; other than the obvious lack of priority or funding for the much needed lawn-cutting and tree-pruning services in the city parks and a visit to the rather austere looking building of the Art Museum in which after ringing the bell and purchasing a ticket from the matching personality of the woman in charge we were non-verbally chided for an invisible injustice of which we couldn’t quite figure out other than, perhaps, the fact she was born with a moustache and we weren’t.
The next day was spent wandering the streets photographing images of the town such as lace curtains hanging in windows and the fragrant rose gardens of the neighborhood homes and visiting Tsarevets Fortress, which houses a chapel that the inventive team at Bulgarian Tourism, much like the folks over at the Cistern in Istanbul, turned what could have been a dark, damp stone interior into a vibrant and energetic showcase of commissioned modern artistic interpretations of biblical events and important saints.
While taking an ice cream break on the front lawn of the University, Renee and I started to get a taste of the prevailing Eastern European fashion sense of which we found obsessively entertaining and which boasted the major “it” trend of the moment - extremely wrong-dye-lots of bright yellow and green fabrics– yes, that means, perhaps, a combination of skin tight yellow jeans with an equally bright green satin shirt and maybe silver stilettos of which we witnessed no one walking properly. I am no fashion diva but I will go as far as to say that unless your name is Kenny Kenny, green or yellow jeans of that intensity should be a general no-no.
Renee and I ended our stay with a fun impromptu party at the hostel in the evening and a collection of fond memories that seem to be occurring with great frequency as we travel through Bulgaria; a country which was not on my original itinerary but one that I feel so fortunate to experience before it becomes a major tourist hub.

May 20, 2008

Varna, Bulgaria

Most of the time you can predict the type of place you are planning to visit and what energy requirements will be needed to sufficiently explore it. I knew Olympos, Turkey would provide rest time before landing in Istanbul which would be many days of power walking on limited sleep. But when I added a spontaneous detour to Bulgaria with my new Australian friend from the Turkish yacht trip, I had no idea what to expect. Renee had done the prior research and was disappointingly about to scrap it from her itinerary when she casually said, “and it’s only a ten hour bus ride from Istanbul”. For most people that would seem like a long journey anywhere being as it took me about the same time to fly from the United States all the way to Egypt, but after a few months on the road and a collection of countries under the belt your sense of time becomes distorted and my reply became, “Oh, it’s only ten hours? well, in that case, sure I’ll go to Bulgaria with you!” And so we hatched the plan to meet up in Istanbul five days later to catch the overnight bus to Varna.
We landed in this small port city on the black Sea coast and got a taxi to a well reviewed hostel about ten kilometers outside of town situated in the quiet residential neighborhood of Zvezditsa which is tucked away in the peaceful countryside. Walking into Gregory’s Backpacker Hostel felt like taking an old friend up on an open invitation to come relax and spend time at their summer chalet and after clocking similar traveling itineraries, Renee and I immediately threw down our bags and harmoniously agreed to start doing absolutely nothing. We both didn’t realize the degree of our exhaustion and when such a splendid rest stop was laid out before us we jumped at the opportunity to have not much else on the agenda but sitting on the back patio, reading and writing, while watching neighbors tend to their gardens or “shooing” away Webster, the house cat, while eating a homemade lunch of bread, tuna, cheese and olives bought at the local market.
I was inspired by the industrial landscape I saw the previous morning when getting off the bus and I decided to set my alarm for 4:45 a.m and take the only available mode of transport, a bicycle, into town to photograph the shipyard. Riding downhill through the beautiful Bulgarian countryside at sunrise was one of those moments when all the pain and sadness I ever experienced in life melted away and for the next half hour it was replaced by complete bliss. I took my photographs and rode into the city where I was immediately itching to get back to the country retreat so I smartly avoided the uphill journey and boarded the local bus with the bicycle. I don’t seem to have much luck on buses because the driver, a bit annoyed with my transportation being hauled by his transportation, kept stopping the bus on random stretches of road, signaling for me to get off. But I knew I didn’t break any ticket machines like in Syria and had paid the full fare so, this time, I was standing my ground and there wasn’t much other than possibly spontaneous combustion that was going to get me off that bus.
Renee and I spent the afternoon in town walking the streets looking at the unimpressive architecture, visiting the impressive Archaeology Museum and Orthodox church and topping it off with some cocktails at a South Beach style beach club prime for people watching. It was refreshing to get to a coast that is still fairly untouched by mass commercialization and even though we were a bit before the official season it had a pleasant local feel. We were happily back at the compound by early evening enjoying some local Bulgarian beer with the fellow guests and the entertaining hostel owner and even though our intentions were to leave the next day I think we both knew we had one more day of relishing the art of doing nothing.

Istanbul, Turkey

The road from Ephesus led to Istanbul and I arrived in the very early morning on the overnight bus and was immediately thrust into you-can’t-scam-me mode when the taxi driver tried two tricky stunts to score himself some extra Turkish pounds, which after traveling through five countries in two months couldn’t penetrate my Gullible Guard. I was dropped off at a hostel in the touristy Sultanahmed district and because the popular destination of this city is reflected in it’s prices, in an effort to conserve cash, I chose to recreate my college days by lodging in a dorm room with four other people of which, luckily, only one of them smelled like wet socks. After some breakfast and coffee I hit the streets with an agenda to take a momentary break from antiquity and visit the Museum of Modern (yes, modern) Art and on my way started to get my bearings and hone in on the vibe which I found to be incredibly easy going and attractive.
Walking through the different neighborhoods of this bi-continental city felt like putting on a favorite pair of jeans fresh out of the dryer; I was instantly comfortable with the layout and the flow of the people. There is a lot of ground to cover as it is dissected by two wide rivers and spans two continents and passing from Europe to Asia with no border control can add unlimited amusement. I spent most of my time exploring the neighborhoods banking the Bosphorous river; passing through busy shopping promenades in Taksim while stumbling upon the opening of a photography exhibit and weaving through charming side streets stopping to rest with tea and Baklava at one of the many cute cafés to watching the sunset bathe the river and multitude of minarets rising from the skyline sumptuous hues of amber and gold.
Istanbul houses some pretty famous and spectacular sights, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya among them. The Blue Mosque gets all the attention in a city that has mosques in the same frequency as Starbucks in the United States; one is around the corner from the other that is down the street from the one that neighbors the other which is five feet away from the last. Although it is beautiful inside I am not quite sure why it is the most popular as I found some of the other lesser known mosques to be just as lovely. If you sit in the surrounding park at any of the prayer times you can be witness to what I labeled “Battle of the Mosques 2008”; The Blue Mosque will start with an ear- crunching call to prayer followed by a pause that a nearby mosque uses as a gateway to blast their equally deafening call to prayer followed by a pause that the Blue Mosque then takes advantage of and after a full ten minutes of this battle the only call to prayer you can hear is the one inside your head begging for them both to stop. The close by Aya Sofya should be a must on any traveler’s to do list not only because it’s interior beauty almost brought me to tears but, as a friend pointed out, it is very conveniently a church turned into a mosque turned into a museum and where else can you get three attractions bundled into the price of one. An unexpected favorite on the popular tourist trail was the Cistern which is a cavernous, underground, out-of-use water storage that was built a really long time ago by I forget who. Through good design and attention to atmosphere, they cleverly turned what could have been a fairly underwhelming destination into a contender to become a UNESCO World Groove Site by lighting the symmetrical columns in a disco themed color arrangement while wafting a Muzac version of Donny Hathaway’s “Where is.the Love” from the speakers. Now that’s inventive!
For as much as there is to do during the day there is an equal amount to do at night and Istanbul balances it’s attractions perfectly. One night was spent dining at a bustling restaurant providing live Turkish music and, after, people watching in one of the many nightclubs. The next evening a lovely new friend and I discovered a fantastic local jazz club that hosted a group playing an eclectic mix of international rhythms that so inspired a member of the audience that she broke out into an impromptu belly dance routine entertaining us all. We followed the music trail to a small bar with traditional gypsy beats and ended the night sipping wine while watching the rain fall on the quiet streets from a big, open window.
Bouncing around this beautiful and energetic city for four days visiting the many mosques and museums, exploring new neighborhoods, listening to live music, taking photographs and relaxing in the warmth of the hamam, I feel as though I just barely scratched the surface of all it has to offer. The vibe was so smooth that it has become one of my favorite urban destinations so far and with it’s very own edition of New York’s Time Out Magazine it seems perfectly legitimate to warrant a return trip to start uncovering the many layers of Istanbul.

Ephesus, Turkey

Stopping off in Selcuk to visit the sprawling roman ruin site of Ephesus is on almost every itinerary through Turkey. My eyes were in slight withdrawal as it had been a good three days since the last ruin sighting and so, in an effort to quell these symptoms and continue comparing the degree of preservation between Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns, I made my way there in a caravan with my three new Australian friends.
We tried to arrive early as we had heard stories of how impossibly crowded it could become, but lucked out, perhaps because it was a Monday, with a more than manageable amount of fellow tourists which made exploring the sight really enjoyable.
We walked the road to Ephesus and arrived at the gates ready for an audio tour, of which I became suspicious when my device starting ringing and beeping loudly and was convinced the Turk working the counter was trying to detonate me after I handed him identification with my obvious Greek name. I luckily survived the attempted assassination and went on to learn the solid history about Ephesus from the audio tour such as the fact they have no clue when it was built or by who or why. They do know, however, that it was a vibrant city with a population of almost 200,000 complete with promenades, stadium, hippodrome, library, temples and hamam. It is situated in a peaceful green countryside and even with the large amount of ruins excavated it is estimated that there is still another 3/4 of the city to be uncovered.
At the beginning of a journey sights are contemplated with full consideration and timelines, dates and names seem very important, but after some time on the tourist trail it becomes necessary to lighten up, find some humor and not get too serious about sightseeing. My companions and I did just that and carried on a game started by my friend Tim in Egypt whereby you try to snap a photo of someone getting their photo taken to add to your anonymous “family album” or to capture the “Best Dressed” tourist. Much to our enjoyment, this site provided countless opportunities for both these objectives and after all our serious ruin picture taking was complete we competitively entertained ourselves by trying to capture the true essence of present day Ephesus.

May 14, 2008

Olympos to Fethiye

When planning this trip I had put in much time and attention to, obviously, where I wanted to go and how long I would spend in each place. It took about a week to start falling behind my unrealistic breakneck schedule and it took about two months to start rearranging the itinerary. After Olympos I was headed to Pamukkale and then Ephesus which is an eight hour overnight bus ride. So on the morning of my departure I was casually speaking with fellow travelers who had taken a four day yacht trip west, which is precisely the direction I wanted to go, and had great reviews about the experience. So I thought “Hmmm, eight hour overnight smelly bus ride to some dried up salt fields I can see in Yosemite or four days sailing the Mediterranean coast on a yacht?”.It was a really tough decision but I finally chose the boat.
These rides can be a crapshoot and there were stories coming back from the frontlines about getting stuck on the old person sleeper boat where the guests are in bed by nine and up at six or being grouped with a wild pack of hard drinking, hard partying nineteen year old college kids. So I was thrilled when most of our group turned out to be appropriately aged, intelligent and easy going which made my ride fabulous. Other than a third night meltdown by a noise sensitive German who wanted a five star cruise liner rather than a floating backpacker hostel things went very smooth; no one involuntarily fell overboard or got seasick.
The trip was well planned out and the boat would casually make it’s way past coastal towns, of which we would stop and explore, or secluded coves with names like Butterfly Island where we could swim to the beach, hike around and call out for Gilligan and Maryann. The afternoons were spent lounging in the sun, reading, swimming or playing backgammon and by late afternoon we would anchor down, have a cocktail and a great dinner, listen to music and stargaze under a pile of blankets. I also had the opportunity to feed my adventurous side with a first time trip paragliding over the sparkling Mediterranean Sea in the spot where I was told they practice for the Olympics. I think it’s just the plane I don’t like because after drumming up the courage to run off a cliff the ride was incredibly serene. It was sad to finally dock as this lady of leisure could have continued on to see the rest of the world by yacht.

May 12, 2008

Olympos, Turkey

After traveling through the history rich, roman-ruin-scattered region of the Middle East I was looking forward to a short hiatus someplace where there was not much to see or do but relax and catch up on reading and writing. I chose Olympos, Turkey for it’s reputation as a backpacker’s retreat in a remote one road town nestled between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, so I was a bit surprised when I first arrived and found out that the path to the beach was a “museum” through, what else, but more roman ruins. The universe decided to teach me a humbling lesson, though, when it saw me roll my eyes and sigh as if I had suddenly forgotten how fortunate I am to be on this trip and have the opportunity to witness the remains of thousands of years worth of human invention, industry and imagination; the not-very to moderately preserved ruins of Olympos, scattered randomly and peacefully throughout the forest were some of the most enjoyable I have explored. It was not that they had a pilgrimage worthy importance, but rather that they were precisely the opposite; sparsely surviving structures melting into the rock, grass and trees, practically devoid of any other tourists which allows you to combine an intimate walk in the natural landscape while stumbling upon marble doorways, aqueducts and sarcophagi and imagine, quietly, what life was like millennia ago. And it only takes an afternoon to complete so the rest of the time was right on schedule with plenty of lounging on the stone beach of the bright blue sea and reading in the “treehouses” of the rustic lodging.
The i’m-at-summer-camp environment had a social effect on me and the mostly Australian guests and there were some great new friendships created from my 4 day stay, some of which were solidified on a post Olympos yacht ride along the coast and some of which I will continue my travels with by breaking my itinerary and visiting Bulgaria. It certainly was not hard to meet people especially once the evening fire pit started blazing and the international crowd started gathering for relaxed conversation washed down with the local Turkish beer, Efes. And next time I get huffy in paradise I am going to get myself to the nearest museum, find the Byzantine section and remember that life is full of pleasant surprises.

May 5, 2008

Cappadocia, Turkey

The well packaged tourist town of Cappadocia is a common stop in Turkey and for good reason with it’s Gaudi like landscape of carved out rock formations created from eroded volcanic eruptions that can resemble the La Sagrada Familia if you squint your eyes. Standing on one of the high peaks at sunset or taking a hot air balloon ride at sunrise over the terrain is a really good way to see all the interesting shapes of these soft and sculptured rocks. It makes you feel like a Gnome or a Keebler Elf residing on the moon.
The tours are pretty standard, although hiking through the valleys at your own pace and without a large group is totally possible and free, and they take you to the famous Underground Cities of the first inhabitants of the region who dug up to 18 stories into the ground for protection of wild animals, cold winters and, later, from the invading Romans. Visiting these cities is not for the claustrophobic at heart and if you can handle crouching down 8 flights of stairs then you can appreciate the complex underground system they created, complete with ventilation shafts, churches, stables, and living quarters. If you survive and make it back up to ground level you are then whisked off to a deep canyon with more cave dwellings that had pigeon holes carved into the entrance ways. The pigeons cleverly made up the old postal system and were able to deliver messages over long distances. I decided to reactivate this ancient method of communication and I sent all of you a postcard via pigeon of which I hope you have received. My favorite part was when our group reverted to five year olds on the playground after they let us wander through a section of the carved out caves.
The entire town of Goreme exists on the tourism from this unique landscape and there are plenty of nice places to stay, good restaurants to eat at and lots of dancing to do at, yup, a cave bar.

Aleppo, Syria

When I arrived in Aleppo with full body cover, ankle length jeans and a long sleeve shift dress, I felt pretty darn close to naked. This beat my one-piece bathing suit at the Dead Sea among a large group of school girls taking a dip in their pants and jackets. Aleppo was the first city I traveled to in the Middle East where a majority of women were covered in either only-eyes-peering-out or no-face-showing-at-all hijab (Islamic dress of beyond floor and wrist length black dress, black veil and black gloves). In other cities, with a mixture of tourists, Christians and moderately dressed Muslim, I have felt as though I have blended in with the human terrain, but here I felt like a fluorescent bulb in a sea full of black ghosts and it absolutely fascinated me. Coming from a western culture where a person’s character is so often judged by what they wear and how attractive they are, it was intriguing to think of moving through public so anonymously. And interesting too was the contrast between mother and young daughter, who until the age of 12 or 13, can enjoy all the western style short sleeve shirts, rhinestone denim jeans and mini skirts and sparkly headbands her heart desires. I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side; I am sure that most of these women would welcome the freedom of choice and self expression with outward style whereas, growing up with this opportunity, the thought of having a rest from the everyday decision making process of what to wear or how to fix your hair seems strangely refreshing. Often though, when we make an effort to reveal the mysteries that exist under the surface, we may find ourselves surprised with the discoveries. There are many risqué lingerie shops lining the streets of Aleppo that would put Victoria Secret to shame and the word on the street is that the majority of customers are from some of the most culturally conservative countries such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, leaving one to wonder what is really being expressed under those Abayas (black dress of the Hijab) and behind closed doors.
With all this female intrigue happening in my head, it must have triggered my reproductive system into action because I got my monthly call of nature the second day there. I needed to get some products so I went to the pharmacy where I was greeted by three old and smoky Syrian men who had very confused and blank looks on their faces when I tried to explain what a tampon was in we-don’t-speak-the-same-language hand signals. It became quite comical and after one man was about to hand me something that looked like a pregnancy test, an obvious miscommunication of sign language, I decided to try my luck elsewhere where I eventually found an English speaking pharmacist.
Aleppo as a city holds much of the same curiosity and contrast as the predominant female dress code and once the laminate is pried it is an exciting place to explore. For instance, I met a Syrian importer of modern Parisian and Italian furniture brands such as Roche Bobois and Natuzzi in a bar in the Muslim section of Old City. That whole sentence seems to spell contradictions – modern furniture in old city at a bar in the Muslim part of town. Much like the push for modern galleries among all the remaining antiquity. My first day there I visited the Citadel, which sits on the highest hill overlooking the city and beyond and hosts a balanced mix of tourists and locals making it an especially relaxing place to visit toward sunset when the day’s heat has subsided. Getting terribly but happily lost on the streets, passing from the maze-like district of the Christian quarter to the open- air marketplaces of the city, gives a good, albeit tiring, glance of the high voltage energy of everyday life. I entertained my palate by Kebab hopping, since Aleppo is home of the world famous Arabic invention, and after walking into many men-only restaurants and passing through the initial all-eyes-on-me moment, I proved I could stuff my face just like them.
The surrounding landscape is equally inspiring and full of activities from visiting the famous St. Simeon Basciilica where some crazy monk preached on a pillar for forty years and traveling through natural limestone covered hills filled with the scattered ruins of those building frenzied Romans, called “Dead Cities”, to picnicking among the olive tree farms by Lake Assad which was created from a dam at the Euphrates river.
I felt prematurely nostalgic on my way out of the country and when it looked as though the border guards weren’t going to let me leave I was momentarily excited for my involuntary confinement. I left a trail of sights to still see and coupled with my new Syrian friends I will always have good reason to return.

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