Day 42, 43, & 44: Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon blew me away. I didn’t really know what to expect heading down south to Portugal’s capital. I had heard mixed things from the past (Paul in fact had a pretty bizarre experience during his Lisbon trip two years ago involving a drugged out crazy who chased he and two of our friends down a crowded street in the middle of the day) and wasn’t sure how it would compare to where I was coming from in Northern Portugal. The city was not only extremely different from anything else in Portugal (this makes sense since it is the capital and draws the most diverse crowd) but also radically different from any other place on this trip or in neighboring Spain.

I arrived by bus and immediately met two nice Dutch travelers, Janika and Clemens, who I met at the Metro station. We shared a train ride to one of the central stations and decided to meet up later in the evening for some drinks and dinner. Clemens knew a local Lisbonite from the Netherlands, Jao, and he ended up showing us around the city and taking us to an authentic Lisbon restaurant. I’ve learned from previous cities that hole-in-the-wall restaurants without trilingual tourist menus, that are predominately occupied by locals are the places to be. I had a grilled squid dish that Jao recommended, accompanied by a local red wine.

Lisbon is larger and definitely more intricate and confusing than I had anticipated. To start, the city is built on a series of steep hills very similar to what I would imagine San Francisco is like (there are also trolley cars at every turn which furthers my comparison to San Fran). Since it is fairly far south and a port city the sun is brutal and mere 30-minute walk along the river will turn your neck lobster color if you’re not careful. This said, the city is full of beautiful sights at every turn and is a great place to wander and get lost. On a number of occasions I put the map away, headed north or south (hard to say), and hiked around till I either was truly lost or I hit a beautiful overlook of the city or river.

Since the Portuguese empire once had reaches all over the world, not just Brazil, the city of Lisbon is also one of the most diverse cities I’ve been to. Local Portuguese make up the majority, followed by immigrants from Brazil, Angola and other former colonies such as East Timor, Macau, Guinea, and Mozambique. I learned from Jao that for the most part the Portuguese welcome most immigrants from former colonies since they take many of the undesirable jobs, however, there is an overall contempt for the Roma (gypsies) coming from Eastern Europe via lackluster Spanish border. Since the recent Orange Revolution in the Ukraine there has also been a surge of Ukrainian immigrants coming to Lisbon, which, according to Jao, has raised fear and questioning from locals since unlike the other immigrants in the city Ukrainians often come educated and ultimately take the more desirable jobs. I am very interested in Diasporas and waves of migrations. It’s fascinating that of all the European countries Portugal becomes a Ukrainian hot spot or how in the Netherlands, hands down the most liberal country in the world there are large populations of Moroccans (a predominantly Muslim country hardly known for its liberalism) and finally take the city of Chicago, which at one point had more Poles than the Polish capital of Warsaw. Fascinating stuff.

Back to some sights. Lisbon’s highlights include its Praca de Comercio, which are the main gates of the city via the industrial ports (see below), the Lisbon Castle, the Torre de Belem (also seen below), and a replica of the Cristo-Rei (Christ the King) statue that is situated above Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

One the third day I visited the Oceanario de Lisbon, which has the second largest aquarium in the world. Since it had been years since I had last been to the Shed Aquarium in Chicago this was a bit of a treat to see. The third night I ended up meeting with Jao, Janika and Clemens again for drinks at some of the bars on Lisbon’s main nightlife hot spot. In Lisbon it is very common for people to drink in the streets, rather than inside the actual bars. Basically at around 2-4a.m. the streets of certain neighborhoods are flooded with people holding plastic cups of beer or mixed drinks making the area one big bar. Very cool to see. For you Indiana grads imagine if Kirkwood had no limitations on taking beverages outside and everyone walked around the street with a drink in hand. Very cool experience overall and one that I probably wouldn’t have taken part in had I not met my new friends.

On the fourth day I took a daytrip to the mystical city of Sintra, which is about 45 minutes outside of Lisbon by train. The city is known for its Moorish castle, vast forest and national park range, and a majestic mansion estate constructed by a Portuguese millionaire that makes Michael Jackson’s neverland ranch seem like a local carnival. The area is also known for its heavy fog, which I got to see firsthand. Almost once every day the fog rolls in from the coast covering the forest and castles around Sintra. It’s a sight to see but also covers much of what there is to see. I met three Brazilian girls from Sao Paulo who had been studying in Southern Spain and were in Lisbon for the weekend. We ended up spending the whole day together, which was nice, and they definitely talked highly about Brazil putting the country on my current “Must See Before I Die List.”

The night I returned from Sintra I met up with Jao, Janika and Clemens once more before Janika and Clemens headed to Spain. We had a nice dinner (I had the Bacalao, which is salted codfish, a staple food item on the Iberian peninsula) and ended up walking around the city at night taking in the nocturnal scenery. The next day I had to switch hostels since the one I was at could only have me for three nights. I ended up finding one for the same place closer to the main part of the city (might I add the new hostel also had nicer rooms and free breakfast including fresh baked homemade bread, a first for my hostel experience!). During the day I headed to the Lisbon “suburb” neighborhood of Belem, which was a 20minute tram ride away from the center. Belem is home to the Torre de Belem, featured above in the photo but also has a great archaeology museum and is famous for the pastel de belem, a doughnut like pastry sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Again, the Portuguese are suckers for pastries. Frankly I find most of them to be too sweet but still pretty tasty.

Later in the evening I met up with Pedro Dias, a local Lisbonite who Stephanie got me in touch with while we were in Turkey. Pedro is also a major player in the international Judo scene and is currently in the top 5 in Europe. I met Pedro in the Praca de comercio and we got something to eat and then went to a cool boardwalk area under one of the main bridges that is another youth hot spot. The bar was pretty cool since it was full of Portuguese, Brazilians and countless other people from other nations including some Eastern European countries. Again, a very cool experience that I would not have taken part in had I not met Pedro.

On my last day in Lisbon I took a daytrip to Evora, another city about an hour outside the city by bus. Evora is known mainly for its medieval bone church, a small church that is line with human bones on the inside. I had previously been to another far more fascinating bone chapel in Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic two years ago and was interested to see how this one compared. The church in the long run ended up being the least interesting part of the Evora, a city that was full of old cathedrals, beautiful plazas and squares, and a cool little castle. The city of Evora is also another UNESCO world heritage center because of the old medieval architecture, the roman temple ruins, and an aqueduct that bisects the city. Evora was a great final taste of Portugal, the country that I truly saw the most of this trip and truly blew me away.

The next day I caught a flight from Lisbon to Dublin where I had a night layover in the Dublin airport, which is actually a surprisingly nice airport to spend a night in. The area near the car rental places in the Eastern corner of the baggage level has a very comfortable bench to sleep on that is quiet and away from the busier parts of the airport. I’ll go more into this experience in my next entry, which will be a recap of the trip remembering the best parts. I will also finally be posting some photos from my trip!!!

Until next time…

Day 39, 40 & 41: Braga, Portugal + Day Trips to Guimaraes & Viana de Castelo

Braga was about a 2-hour bus ride from Santiago, located in the Northern part of Portugal. I chose the city kind of randomly but also because it served as a good hub for day trips around the area. The town itself is quite small but very beautiful with some fascinating history. I checked into yet another HI hostel, which was not only the best one I’ve stayed at but also super cheap (the room cost 9euro a night, which is quite cheap for Western Europe but still can’t compare to the budget dealings in the East).

Braga is a fairly medieval town with hints of gothic and baroque architecture all over the city. Sight seeing in the city took only one day but was well worth the hike. Going solo (which is quite nice since I can go at my own tower speeds and find myself venturing off the map as much as I can) I walked the perimeter of the city checking out a cool old cemetery and monastery, a large 12th century cathedral or Se, the Braga castle, and two baroque palaces. The most beautiful sight, however, lay above Braga in the hills overlooking the town and beautiful countryside surrounding it. The Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary (or Good Jesus at the mountain sanctuary) is a breathtaking neoclassical church built during the late 18th century above a towering antique staircase the weaves and winds its way 400 feet above the main landing (it should be noted that to reach the chapel a ride in the Braga funicular, which is the oldest in Europe, or a 40 minute steep hike is in order).

The majestic stairway.

The facade of the chapel.

The hike was actually quite nice as it allowed for some great scenic photographs. At the end of the day I ate a small cheap dinner in the main park of Braga’s busy placa and watched a Portuguese battle of the bands, which featured four high school age rock groups duking it out for the title of Braga’s Best! The first band was very Radioheadesque mixed with bjork/pj harvey on account of the female lead singer’s unique voice (they were my favorite and ended up taking first place). The second was an impressive act but really nothing more than that. The band’s lead singer was the core of the group; a sick guitarist with a righteous rock voice, however, unfortunately the rest of the group was subpar. These guys played originals that were clearly reminiscent of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and blues rock groups like ZZ Top. Like I said, this group had great showmanship but weren’t entirely together musically. The third group was a horrible punk band that played songs in English that not only bashed America, but were on the verge of being dangerous with their blatant discontent with George Bush. Lines like “Hey Mr President, Fuck You!”, which quite frankly lacked any originality whatsoever, were amusing at first but then started to make me feel more isolated than I already was (it should also be noted that Braga is not a tourist hot spot and I seemed to be one of the only Americans in the town and was definitely the only one in the hostel). Still thanks to my trusty fuzz stache and bronze tan acquired in Croatia, I again was mistaken on a number of occasions as being Portuguese. I actually had a nice conversation in Spanglish with an old man on the park bench who thought I was local and then wanted to tell me about his mission work in Australia when I told him I was American and spoke English.

The second day I day tripped to the town of Viana do Castelo, which is a small charming seaport city on the coast of Portugal best known for its stunning castle, Castelo do Neiva, that is perched high above the city presenting hikers with the following view.

The climb to the top of this hill was more brutal than in Braga but was definitely worth the work. There is an actual plaque at the top of the hill with a quote from a random National Geographic photographer who listed Viana as having the most beautiful panoramic view on the planet. While I found that statement to be a bit exaggerated, the view was quite lovely. Viana’s other claim to fame is its distinct pastries which were doughnut like balls of dough, fried, filled with custard and covered in Cinnamon sugar. I have come to discover that Portuguese people love their pastries and there are in fact more pastelarias lining the streets of every Portuguese city than there are in Spain.

The third day I visited to Guimaraes, which is said to be the birthplace of the Portuguese nationality as Alfonso I, the first Portuguese king, was born here. The city is another example of medieval gothic flavor and is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight (this trip has allowed me to sample a fair amount of these cherished landmarks). The town itself is even smaller than Braga and Viana but has the same charm. The most significant sight is its medieval castle (shown below), which is now a cool museum of the city and allows visitors to walk the towering walls and towers, which overlook the city below. Like Santiago and other Spanish towns Guimaraes also has its share of al fresco cafes and small plazas at every turn. A cafe com leite (milk and coffee) should be savored and will run you about 1 euro.

The last night in Braga I walked around to see some more of the city at night. Most small Portuguese cities have strings of lights around and take great care to make sure major monuments and buildings are properly lit. At night these towns glow and are beautiful to sit and stare at for long periods of time. It should also be noted that on the last night a dalmatian dog followed me around for a good 15 minutes but would never let me touch him. He just trailed behind until finally he was reunited with his owner.

After Braga I ventured down to culturally rich Lisbon, Portugal’s capital where I have lots of stories to tell.

Day 36, 37, & 38: Santiago De Compostela, Galicia Spain

And then there was one…

So Santiago was originally gonna be my gateway to Southern Spain for the teaching gig, which unfortunately recently fell through. I guess the program lacked the number of students needed to warrant me. Who knows. My friend told me this kind of stuff is “the Spanish way.” I just wished they had told me of this possibility from the get go. I was a bit pissed by the news at first but everything happens for a reason I suppose. Since I was\am running low on funds I changed my return flight to the states from August to mid July and decided to travel a bit more. Originally I was planning on flying from Northern Spain back East to check out either Latvia and Lithuania OR Romania, which is supposed to be very interesting on the historical side of things and also features some stunning natural beauties in Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains. Since planning this leg of the trip was last minute all flights, even on budget airlines, were expensive and in both cases called for a stop over in a random city like Frankfurt, Germany. SO, what I ended up deciding was to stay on the Iberian Peninsula and check out Portugal, another country often overlooked by tourists. But let’s get back to beautiful Santiago.

I arrived to Galicia fairly beat from the rough night at Stansted Airport. Santiago is one of the oldest cities in Spain and is famous as being the mecca for European pilgrims who take part in the “El Camino de Santiago” walk. This massive hike traditionally begins in Southern France in the Pyrenees Mountains, weaves through northern Spain and ends in Galicia either in Santiago or on the coast. I have always had an interest in the camino ever since I studied in Spain and hope to do it someday.

It was nice being back in Spain, the country that I truly fell in love. My hostel was located in the heart of the old part of town, minutes from the Catedral, which according to legend holds the remains of the apostle, Saint James the Great.(check it out here The city, which UNESCO deemed a world heritage sight in 1985, is small and reminded me of my former stomping grounds of Salamanca due to beautiful stone architecture, stunning plazas, and a theme of shells running through the city (scallop shells and gourds are essential items for pilgrims and can be seen\bought all over the town). The lingering smell of Spanish pastries and empanadas throughout the city, the small stone streets, the people with their cafe con leches in the plaza-all constant reminders of the Spanish culture.

The first night I explored a bit but crashed on the early side since I was behind on sleep. A nice Swedish girl named Anna was sharing the dorm room with me. She had just finished a shortened version of the camino, starting in Leon, Spain, however, a pilgrimage is considered such if it exceeds 100km. She had many stories to tell and all of them increased my desire to someday do the walk. Pilgrims walk during the day (Anna told me she averaged roughly 25km a day) and at night they find refuge in a string of small monasteries along the path, usually for a small donation. Above all the camino, according to Anna, provides spectacular views of the mountainous N. Spanish landscape.

The second day I walked a path around the outskirts of the city, which included some beautiful and fairly secluded city parks. Also on the agenda was the Santiago contemporary art museum, which resides in a cool and rather unique modern building nesteled near the older university campus. The main catedral is quite stunning to visit but also welcomes the most tourists. A line to see the supposed remains of St James wrapped around the Cathedral’s main façade. Was it worth the 25 minute wait to walk by and kiss the ornate resting place? I’m not quite sure but everyone seemed to be doing it so I jumped on board. Visiting the supposed remains is the pilgrims final destination for the el camino and on both days I visited the cathedral it was flooded by pilgrims from all over.

On my third day I decided to daytrip to neighboring city A Coruna, which lies on the coast. A coruna is another beautiful Spanish gem of a city. A Coruna’s most visited sight is the Tower of Hercules, a 1900-year-old lighthouse that was supposedly built by Hercules to honor his defeat of Geryon, a mythological giant tyrant. Supposedly the tower resides over a burial ground for the heads of Hercules’ slain enemy. The tower overlooks the Atlantic and A Corunas breathtaking rocky coast.

Back in Santiago I was fortunate enough to be visiting during one of the city’s many summer music festivals. On the third night I introduce Anna to Spanish Tapas (Santiago’s staple food item is a delicious local cheese that is creamier than Spanish Manchego, which is found around the rest of Spain) and afterwards we stumbled upon an outdoor concert setup outside a catholic church and a monastery. We later found out that the concert was celebrating gay rights, which was pretty cool considering the show was outside two catholic monuments in a country known for their strict Catholicism. It’s safe to say that Santiago is probably one of the more liberal cities in Spain as the people seemed very welcoming of all the pilgrims that enter the city throughout the year.

I also spent some time trying to figure out what to do in Portugal and read up on some of the northern Portuguese cities. The plan: from Santiago I bussed to Braga for two nights, then Guimares for a night, then a bus down to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, which is also a good hub for day trips. Then I fly from Lisbon to Dublin where I catch my flight back to Chicago. Then I find work and build up some more income.

So of course there are more stories from Galicia but alas my internet cafe computer is almost out of time. Braga, Portugal is next.

Day 34 & 35: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

George Costanza: What is Holland?

Jerry Seinfeld: What do you mean, ‘what is it?’ It’s a
country right next to Belgium.

George: No, that’s the Netherlands.

Jerry: Holland *is* the Netherlands.

George: Then who are the Dutch?

It’s hard to tell where the Dutch prefer to be from, maybe they just don’t care. Our flight from Istanbul to Amsterdam was hands down the worst flight I have ever taken. To begin: We flew on a an extreme budget airline, Corendon, from the Asian Istanbul Airport, which was a hike, a boat ride and a bus away from our hostel. Our flight was originally scheduled for 11:59pm (not sure where they pulled that number from). A week before the flight we received a poorly constructed, fairly unprofessional email from the airline telling us that we would arrive in Amsterdam three hours later than originally projected. We were unclear whether this meant we were taking off later or magically adding 3 hours to the trip. Anything was possible. It turns out the flight was bumped up till 1 A.M then not till 2 a.m. Boarding was a debacle in itself since, like most Euro budget airlines there are no seat assignments, there was a rush of Turkish and Dutch travelers alike trying to get the best seat. I was amazed that I managed to snag the last bulkhead seat, which is pretty righteous considering budget airlines are also unforgiving to those with height. I was seated next to a cool guy from Morocco who had lived south of Amsterdam all his life. He and his girlfriend and two other friends had just taken a “holiday” to Istanbul but really they were there to take advantage of low-cost laser eye correction surgery. Probably not the place I would’ve chosen to let some doctors beam a high powered laser into both my pupils, but hey, the guy seemed okay, save the fact that every 10 minutes or so he sorted through ten different eye drops to “freshen his wound” as he said.

We waited for approximately an hour and half for the plane to, you guessed it, refuel. Refueling a plane while it is loaded with passengers is what the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration would call a big no no. Eventually we finally took off but then my friend with the dilated pupils next to me informed that this was not a direct flight by any means and that we would actually be stopping in the Turkish city of Bodrum, which if you look on the map below is in the other direction about 40 minutes or so. We landed in Bodrum, dropped off a couple people and picked up a couple more. Then we sat on the runway, again, for about 30-40 minutes before finally taking off for Amsterdam (strike two). A crazed woman 5 rows behind me at one point started off on a rampage of Turkish rants at a flight attendant. For a second I thought they would for sure have to remove her but then again, it was Corendon airlines so I guess that shit flies.

We landed in Amsterdam at around 9a.m. I had been able to sleep for the majority of the flight, which was pretty wicked on my part. Sam forgot to bring a fleece with him and as a result was freezing his ass off for the entire flight (Corendon also does not supply pillows or blankets). After taking a commuter train to the center of the city we headed to our hostel in the rain (strike three Istanbul to Amsterdam trek). Our hostel, Bob’s Youth Hostel, was located in a perfect spot for sight seeing and was conveniently situated near the infamous Red Light District, which I will discuss later.

Originally I debated even going to Amsterdam as I had more time to kill before heading to Spain and was interested in checking out either more of Eastern Turkey or going into Bulgaria, possibly meeting up with good old Janel who just started her two year Peace Corps stint in Bobov Dol, a small town in southwestern Bulgaria. Since flights from Istanbul to Amsterdam were cheap (I know now the reason for this) and since I figured it would be more fun to do Amsterdam with a friend than by myself we decided to head over.

As most of you know Holland or the Netherlands is one the most liberal countries in the world. To start, natural drugs such as magic mushrooms and weed are Kosher, as is prostitution and absinthe. The country also has a wonderfully tolerant attitude towards minorities, gays and lesbians and from what I hear they are eco friendly to top it off. As comedian David Cross once put it, “If the terrorists hate OUR freedom so much and 9-11 was a result of this as Bush will tell you then the Netherlands would be dust.” So as you can imagine a large portion of travelers to Amsterdam are there to dabble in the sticky-icky and oogle at the girls on display on the red light district.

Our hostel was full of wooked up hippies from across the globe, many of which had already started to blaze when we checked in at 10:30am (later that afternoon we returned to the hostel and found our room full of more passed out wooks). Sam needed a nap so I headed out to check out the Foam Photography Museum, which had a really cool exhibit by this Israeli photographer whose work was comprised of shots of random Israelis and Palestinians making goofy faces in front of the camera. His goal; to show unity between the two conflicted nations. You can check it out here

After waking up Sam we explored the city a bit. Most people I talked to said that Amsterdam was a filthy city that was worth seeing for a couple day but after that you wanna get out. I actually didn’t find this to be true at all. While the city has a gritty, sleazy underbelly in the Red Light District, the rest of the city is actually quite nice. Similarly to Venice the majority of Amsterdam and the Netherlands in general, is under water. Amsterdam is a maze of canals and streams the weave around in almost perfectly linear patterns. The old part of the city is quite charming and despite what people told me I found the city to be fairly clean overall.

We also checked out the Rembrandt house and museum, which has a large collection of his sketches and etchings (very cool) and visited the Van Gough museum, which also has an impressive collection. The majority of the pieces were done during the last two years of his life (his madness years) when he painted roughly 200 paintings. He also I believe lost his ear during these years and later took his own life. It makes you wonder what the rest of his career would have been like if he hadn’t comitted suicide so early on. The self-taught painter went through a number of different styles and phases in his career and seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of someone like Picasso, another multi faceted genius.

Finally there is the Red Light District. This “district” is really one main drag with some smaller streets on its outskirts. A canal bisects the street in two and its about a 10 minute walk around or 40 minutes if you stop and stare along the way. The area got its name due to the fact that the stretch is red from the glowing aura of neon lights that line the street. The area is concentrated with sex shops, sex theaters, and brothels of all sorts. We spent a good hour walking around the whole area on our last night stopping to watch brave\creepy souls enter the establishments. Each time someone entered or exited there was a crowd of judgemental tourists outside waiting. Kind of unfortunate for the people who regularly take part in this sort of thing but then again, these people are creeps in my book. We stumbled upon a stoned dude from Colorado who was staring around like a kid in a candy store. We started talking and at one point he casually said, “yeah I’m not sure how this works.” I believe my response was, “I think you go up to the girl in the doorway and pay for sex.” Sam and I both agreed that the guy was for sure shopping around especially since he told us he was staying at the only hostel on the drag. I’ve never been to Las Vegas, which may be the U.S. version of Amsterdam, sans legal drugs, but I would imagine its a very similar experience. You know its wrong and dirty but yet you can’t take your eyes away.

The next morning we killed time before catching the train to the airport by exploring the city some more, checking out a number of cool parks and some monuments. On the way to the hostel we stopped at the red light district again to check it out during the day. Definitely not the same experience but still amusing to see. Like most businesses there is a night shift and a day shift on the red light district and the day shift is some kind of interesting.

In terms of food the Dutch, like the English, aren’t really known for the cuisine. The Moroccan fellow on the plane told me that the fries are really the only good thing in Amsterdam. He was correct. We went to the Amsterdam’s “Number 1 Chip Stand,” which had pretty damn good fries served with over 20 different kinds of toppings. I refuse to put mayonnaise on anything other than tuna so I opted for the surprisingly delicious curry sauce. Sam was lame and ordered ketchup.

All in all Amsterdam was a fun city to visit but I don’t know if I’ll be going back anytime soon. I’d much rather explore more of Holland, which people who I met told me is much nicer and still has the same liberal attitude. When I’m older and have some money to burn I think France and the rest of the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands) would be a cool trip.

We flew from Amsterdam to London Stanstead where Sam was to catch a return flight back to L.A. and I was headed to Santiago de Campostelo in Spain. Both our flights were the following morning, which meant we spent the night in the airport. Stanstead is a small cheap airline hub airport with not a lot to offer for the poor American backpacker. There was no way I was heading into London, which cost roughly 10 pounds or $20 to get to by bus one way, so we stuck it out in the airport. I found a nice nook behind a closed down coffee stand where I laid down some garbage bags I stole from a cart near the bathroom and proceeded to sleep on my backpack on the floor. Not my finest moment but was somehow able to get a couple hours in.

Sam and I parted ways the next morning. And then there was one.

Santiago, the mecca for European pilgrims, is up next.

Some thought it could never happen, others (like myself) were too afraid to see the outcome. Here is what I look like with facial hair.

I haven’t shaved since I started this trip, which is actually kind of pathetic since it’s obvious I really don’t have much facial hair. Still funny to look at and a hell of a lot easier than having to shave every other day!

Notice the rugged, light haired stache, combined with the erratic, yet dark hairs on my chinny chin chin.

Then there are the side burns which have officially stopped growing all together and only cover a very small portion of the cheek.

Also the wavy Warner hair piece is back in full force since I haven’t had a hair cut in a while and it’s fairly windy in Northern Spain.

Funny that all this time I haven’t once tried to upload images with my new Nikon digital camera and when I finally figure out how to do it this is all I can come up with.

the lowdown is I look creepy but it’s help me fit in some more. The other day I was mistaken for a Spaniard. Now I’m not saying that all Spaniards are fuzzy looking but apparently I pass as one. When I get back I’m shaving so cherish how ridiculous i look while you can.

Shit I just realized I can’t rotate these images. I’m useless with a PC.

Day 29, 30, 31, 32 & 33: Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul was the final city for our group. It would be the last city for Paul who returned to New York to start school, Steph went on to Italy and Sam and I flew to Amsterdam where we too eventually parted ways. While planning this trip Paul and I both agreed Istanbul would be the perfect closer to our trip. In terms of Europe it’s about as far east as one can go (the city is actually divided into the European and Asian side by way of the Bosphorus river). The city and culture was a complete 180 to everything prior, save of course Sarajevo and from what I had previously read/heard the city is supposed to be one of the most beautiful and unique places out there. This is not far from the truth.

Turkey is a country that is 99% Muslim, which right off the back made it a completely different experience for me. We flew in after a rocky flight from Sarajevo and caught a shuttle bus to our hostel. The Bauhaus hostel was located in an area near the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia that was littered with backpackers hostels, many of which were run by Aussies. In fact, of the tourists we met while in Istanbul the majority were either from the UK or Australia. To date, this was hands down the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in and the price was definitely righteous. Our room was a bit hot but by now stuffy rooms cease to annoy me. The hostel had a really cool rooftop bar/lounge area that had a cool view of the city and was a great place to unwind over a beer or hookah after a long day. Above all though the staff was absolutely great. The hostel was run by two Turkish brothers who were happy to answer any annoying tourist questions one might have, they offered very cheap cold water bottles (Istanbul was the one city that I dared not drink the water mainly since it became apparent early on that not even the locals drink the stuff, save when used in Turkish coffee/apple tea).

After dropping our bags at the hostel on the first day we went and got ourselves a Turkish coffee at a cafe outside the Blue Mosque. Turkish coffee is similar to European espresso style coffee, however, in Turkey they do not strain the grinds out so what your left with is a sludgy black liquid that is actually really good. Turks use a lot of sugar, which didn´t interest me that much, however, the coffee itself was very tasty. After this we headed straight to the famous and gigantic Blue Mosque (see below), our first sight of the trip.

The Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed’s Mosque as it’s formally referred to, is unique for its use of ornate blue tiles lining the interior and its 6 towering minarets, the most of any Mosque in the world, with the exception of one other in Turkey and the Ka’aba in Mecca, which has seven. The story behind the minarets is when the Istanbul Blue Mosque was built Sultan Ahmed was criticized for his grandiose choice of building six minarets since the only other mosque at the time with six was in Mecca. His response was to complete construction and pay for a seventh minaret to be built at the Ka’aba.

The Blue mosque is one of hundreds of equally fascinating mosques in Istanbul, but is definitely the main tourists hot spot, which was a bit of a let down since I couldn’t help but feel like we were intruding on the people who were actually there to pray. At the same time this, along with several other stand out mosques in the city, were some of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. On a number of a occasions we sat in a mosque for up to 30-40 minutes just soaking in the beauty and grandeur. On the second to last day we couldn’t resist revisiting the Blue Mosque for one last peek.

Another major sight, which I was apparently the only one to appreciate, was the Hagia Sophia. Once a major Cathedral built in the 6th century (it was the world’s biggest until the 16th century when the catedral in Seville was constructed) the building is now a museum but is really noteworthy for its architecture and incredible dome.

The Grand Bazaar is another famous landmark in Istanbul. The massive indoor/outdoor market is a maze of more than 58 streets and 4,000 shops, that used to be a place to trade and buy goods such as leather, jewelery, fabric etc but now is nothing more than a depot for cheap knock off items and touristy chotchkies. In all fairness there are some cool shops with Turkish rugs and silk fabric, however, in the grand scheme of things we were all a bit disappointed. I did buy some goods from one small shop we stumbled upon on a tiny backstreet. The owner was extremely courteous and patient with us and when our transaction was finished he invited us into the back room to enjoy some orange tea and talk. It was a very cool experience. He was more than happy to tell us about his country and some of the other cool places that we should visit some day. Turks love tea favoring a sweet apple cider like tea and orange tea, which is what we were served. Again it was sweet enough but still came with two sugar cubes on the side. Turks really do like sugar.

We were fair more partial to the Egyptian Spice Market, which was smaller than the grand bazaar but far more interesting. The streets of this covered market were loaded with barrels and racks of spices, herbs, teas, Turkish delight candies, fresh fish, heaps of saffron, nuts, cheeses, olives (soooo many delicious looking olives), and much more. We spent a great deal of time just strolling around the maze of smells and sights and on many occasions were able to taste items. At the end of the visit we each had bought some tea (I opted for a bag of orange and something called “love tea,” which the shop owner said “would make girl go crazy.”

The spice market was located off the harbor, which was also a cool epicurious sight to see. There were countless fishermen with lines off the pier, little stands selling fish sandwiches (not as good as they looked) and standing merchants selling fresh mussels served in the shell, stuffed with rice and drizzled with lemon. Two for 1 Turkish lira. They were pretty wicked although I’m still not quite sure how the rice was stuffed inside the mussel since the guy had to pry open each shell before consumption. Very cool.

The following night we returned to the harbor to catch a boat down the Bosphorus, which was very pretty and showed just how big and vast Istanbul actually is (most sights and areas of interest lie on the European side whereas the majority of Turks live on the Asian side).

While there is so much more to write about like playing backgammon at a nargila bar, getting lost on the Asian side of Istanbul, taking part in an old, traditional Turkish Bath (which was an interesting experience I must say), and many others, I will leave you with images and descriptions of probably the prettiest sight in the city.

The Basilica Cistern, (seen in the photo above) is the largest cistern in Istanbul (one of hundreds that supposedly still lie beneath the cities surface)and is one of the most beautiful and enchanting things to set eyes on. Used as a way to save and preserve water for a city these former Constantinople era cisterns have large pillars, shallow pools and in the case of this particular one some odd statues. Towards the back of the elaborate underground cave like pool are two stone heads of Medusa, which still puzzle historians as to how and why they ended up in the cistern. The darkly lit area was also used in the Bond flick “From Russia with Love,” although I really can’t remember the scene. Still, a wicked sight and definitely one of the highlights.

So like I said there is so much more I could write about and quite frankly when this trip is over and I write some reflections I’m sure I’ll add some more. Istanbul was like I said the city where we said goodbye to Paul and later Steph. Sam and I still had Amsterdam ahead of us (which I will go into next time) but since Paul and I had started from the beginning back in Dublin it meant an end to the a big chunk of the trip.

Until next time, keep on keeping on

Day 26, 27 & 28: Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Sarajevo was the center of one of the worst and most horrific sieges on a city in recent history. Imagine your home city, the place you´ve lived in for all your life suddenly becoming a battle front for sniper and tank fire, mortar shell explosions, and 24/7 chaos. From April 1992 until October of 1995 the city of Sarajevo was under attack by Bosnian Serbs and the National Yugoslav army. The stories of the city are horrifying and after visiting it is clear that while people have moved on with their lives they are still healing.

We arrived late by train from Mostar the first night and after dining on our “10 Sausage” dinner we crashed. Sarajevo was the city where we met up with our 4th traveling partner, Stephanie, a friend of Paul´s from college who stayed with us through Istanbul. Stephanie has been living abroad all year on the Watson Fellowship, a program created by the IBM heirs that essentially sends recent graduates out for a year with 25 grand and a project lined up. The projects can vary and can pretty much cover anything. Stephanie had been studying the martial art of Judo all year living for 2-3 month periods in Sweden, Russia, Japan, and Portugal, while also traveling around on her free time. Her program sounded interesting but her personal stories of her adventures were even more fascinating.

Our first day was spent feeling out the city, particularly the Baščaršija or Turkish quarter. During the morning while we killed time before meeting Steph by walking a good chunk of the city seeing a couple mosques, the Serbian orthodox church, the old city library (a beautiful building that was burned during the 90s war destroying thousands of original documents and books about the Muslim history in Sarajevo and the city´s history itself), and some other interesting sights including the Latin bridge, the spot that started WWI. Austro-Hungarian arch duke Franz Ferdinand was shot and killed on the bridge in 1914 prompting the inevitable start of WWI and the ultimate demise of the Austrian empire. We also checked out the yellow Holiday Inn, which was the “safe haven” for international journalists covering the war but ended up being a popular target and overlooked a stretch from the airport to the city center called sniper alley. It´s safe to say Sarajevo and the Balkans in general have fascinating history that is often overlooked. later in the afternoon we stumbled upon an ancient to modern Muslim cemetery the had graves from the 15th century up until recent years. A local man who was meeting a group was nice enough to give us the history of the grave site, the surrounding areas and some of his own personal stories.

The second day we signed up for a tour led by Sonny, an employee of the hostel and a native to the city. Sonny lived through the war and was 15 when he and his family finally saw an end to the bloodshed. The tour was sobering but gave a lot of insight into how Sarajevans were able to move on with their lives and even shed light on the events of the past. Sonny told us that Sarajevans are proud of their fight in the war not because they won but because they never once let the Serbs take over their city. The siege was the longest that a city has ever endured and Sarajevans are very proud of this. He also gave us his thoughts on the United Nation’s major fuckups during the war, for example sending aid packages that were useless such as boxes of condoms and malaria medicine, canned pork products for a largely Muslim city, and other food supplies from the Vietnam era. The city has one memorial standing in remembrance of the UN’s help. It is giant statue of a Can of Beef, the same vile stuff that Sonny and so many others had to swallow down since there was nothing else being sent.

here is a photo of the sarcastic monument of the UN’s relief aid during the war.

Probably the UN’s biggest mistake during the war, the one that took the lives of over 8000 citizens, was in the town of Srebrenica just outside of Sarajevo. Deemed a safe zone by the UN, the Serbs ended up storming the city and massacring thousands of men, women and children as they fled into the surrounding forest. It was one of the most horrific parts of the war and ultimately prompted the Dayton conference that ended the war and Nato’s 4-day bombing in the hills that housed the foreign army.

It was hard to tell how much of Sonny’s stories had been elaborated on or not, however, one thing is for sure he clearly had lived through horrors that the majority of us can´t even fathom. When one kid from Boston asked him to tell some of his personal stories, he replied, “I’m not here to talk about my stories.”

Here is a shot of the Parliament building, which in 92 was hit by heavy tank fire.

We toured the last remaining stretch of the escape tunnel that was built to help locals get out of the city and to bring in supplies and food, checked out a cool WWII monument and drove up into the hills to a beautiful scenic overview of the city. Afterwards we separated and went to check out the Sarajevo history museum, which documents the city´s history and has a fascinating but devastating exhibition devoted to the war. Sarajevo and Bosnia & Herzegovina and general have been wonderful to see and I think it´s safe to say that people often overlook traveling here because of the recent war. The city truly is an underrated European city. In 1984 Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics and it was said at the time that it was one of the best games yet due to a perfect location and the fact that the year was the first time free dance figure skating became a premiere event. Sonny told us that Sarajevo lost the bid for the 2010 games but is certain that his city will hold the Olympics once more. I was keen on checking out the old ski slopes but they were too far away by foot. The old bobsled runs were destroyed during the war but the ski slopes are still fully functional.

One of the best parts of our time in Sarajevo was stumbling upon a small park that had a large chess board. Surrounded by local, mainly older gentleman, we spent a good hour and half watching players face off amidst shouting onlookers. One thing I’ve noticed throughout this trip is how people in Eastern Europe truly appreciate the simple things in life. It was clear that some of these men were regulars to this spot and a perfect afternoon for them was hanging out in the park on a beautiful day watching chess matches and arguing over the best and worst plays. Very cool experience.

The other part of the culture that stood out was the fact that city has a large Muslim population, thus prayer songs were blasted from the Mosque Minarets all throughout the day, something I had never experienced prior to this trip. Sarajevo was also a perfect precursor to Istanbul, Turkey, which is 99% Muslim and was a complete 180 to every city on this trip save Sarajevo and Mostar.

An English fellow, Justin, we met at our Budapest hostel had been living/working in Sarajevo for the past couple years and said he absolutely loved everything about it. The people are friendly and hospitable (another reoccurring theme this trip), the culture is fascinating (tolerance is also one of Sarajevo’s strong points and something they remain proud of, after all where else besides other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina can one find a mosque, synagogue, orthodox church and cathedral on the same strip)and the city, despite being damaged and showing scars from the war is quite beautiful. The surrounding hills were once home to snipers and heavy artillery but now are picturesque overlooks of the beautiful city below.

I would hope that sometime soon Sarajevo does get another chance at the Olympic games. The economy is doing better but is still in need of a boost in tourism. When we told Justin how cheap our hostel was (roughly $12 a night) he was actually surprised it was that much.

We flew Air Bosna to Istanbul very early the fourth morning in Sarajevo. The airport is as small as one would expect and the flight was a bit rocky. The plane was propeller driven and when we booked the ticket not only were we given the option of smoking or non smoking seats but Air Bosna was also kind enough to offer an insurance policy for death or dismemberment for a small price!

While the three solid days were enough to see the sights of Sarajevo I think the city would be a great place to spend a longer period of time to really soak in the culture and different way of life.

Istanbul is next. We had five days to explore the city and there are lots of stories to tell about the city which may be my favorite part of this trip.

Day 25: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mostar was a simple day trip on the way from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo. Situated almost half way between each city it was the perfect way to break up the bus trip and see a cool old town that still has traces of the war’s wrath all over. Mostar is a town that dates back to the 15th century and most likely even before that and to this day serves as the unofficial capital of Herzegovina. The most prominent and memorable sight in the city is its Stari Most, or “old bridge,” which is where the city gets its name. The crescent moon shape stone bridge was built in 1557 to replace a former wooden bridge and was immediately considered one of the finest and most spectacular bridges to see. During the time of its construction it was said to have been the largest single span arch bridge in the world. Towering above a narrow but deep river the bridge also serves as a leaping point for thousands of divers since its creation. The organization of Mostar Bridge divers dates back to right after its construction and to this day is still going strong. These brave souls jump off knees down into the green water below.

During the war the bridge, which had previously enjoyed such a wonderful and fascinating past (in the 16th centuries pilgrims and travelers passing through the area always stopped to see the bridge and gaze at the divers) was completely destroyed. It wasn´t until 2003, ten years after it was leveled, that it was rebuilt stone to stone and was listed as a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (See photo below to compare what the old bridge looked like circa 1970 versus the newly built bridge above.)

We spent a good deal of time admiring the simple yet brilliant architecture of the bridge, however, Mostar definitely had a lot more to offer. For starters Bosnia & Herzegovina is the first taste of Muslim culture in our trip. The country has a large thriving Muslim population and Mostar and Sarajevo are both cities unique for their tolerance (where else can you find a mosque, Orthodox church, cathedral, and synagogue in the same town or even on the same street!) We explored two of the mosques in mostar, both of which were beautifully ornate (nothing could compare to our later experiences in Istanbul, a city part of a country that is 99% Muslim).

We also hiked around the outskirts of the town and walked by many sobering relics of the war. One stretch in particular was littered with old buildings that had been leveled or partially destroyed by mortar shells, bombs or even just sprayed with bullet holes. It´s an amazing sight to see since as an American its hard to imagine living through something as horrendous as the 3 year plus siege on Bosnia. I would imagine that Mostar has plans to rebuild the rest of the city (the old town was preserved for tourism reasons) but its hard to say since the city also showed signs of real poverty. We also stumbled upon a cool memorial and cemetery in the hills that was littered with graffiti and broken glass.

While we took a bus from Dubrovnik to Mostar our plan, after a recommendation from a fellow traveler, was to train it from Mostar to Sarajevo. The old train runs through the mountains and tunnels covering a great deal of ground and going around lots of beautiful lakes and rivers. Stunning sight to see. I was sitting near some kids the entire time one of which had essentially a heat stroke. The poor girl was clearly dehydrated, sunburned and above all was freaking out since she was on a train. Her parents or the adults she was with were useless and at one point gave she and her boyfriend cigarettes (these kids were pushing the age of 14 if i had to guess. Anyway some older women on the train nearby sat her down next to me near the window and tried to cool her down. I offered some aspirin and my water as a fever reducer. It was a chaotic situation that I was in the center of. eventually they stopped the train and rushed the girl outside to meet an ambulance, which may have just been a taxi cab. Interesting train ride. Later the old woman thanked me for the aspirin then called me handsome. Despite my creepy facial hair old women still love Warner.

We arrived at Sarajevo and once again were greeted at the train station by a hostel representative who gave us a free ride to our hostel. Pretty cool. For dinner that night we had a local Bosnian staple dish, cevapcici, which are small sausages served in pita bread with vegetables and sauce. We were looking for a light snack the night we arrived since it was late. Our meal was dirt cheap and was anything but light since we each got ten of these sausages. Oof ten sausages.

Sarajevo warrants its own entry since it was definitely one of the highlights of this entire trip and there is so much to tell.

Keep on keeping on

Day 23, 24 & 24: Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik is a gem of a city. The small coastal city is about as far south as you can go in Croatia and it took us an excruciating hot 8+ hour bus ride. Despite the lack of air circulation the ride itself was quite stunning since the route runs along the jagged and maze like coast through mountains and bays. Honestly I sat looking out the window the entire time, never once reading my travel book or dozing off. The views were that breathtaking.

Dubrovnik was originally a significant seaport for trade but now is a tourist hot spot for Europeans, mainly French, Italian, and Germans. Since the pan Balkan war of the 90s the city has been successfully boosting the tourism by allowing massive cruise ships to dock in its waters. On our second day one such boat unloaded hundreds of Americans into the small town. Still while the crowds got to be a bit much the city is still incredibly beautiful.

Our hostel was a bit of a hike from the old town but was in the hills, had a nice view of the city and was close to some cool beaches and sights. Not only that this was the first hostel we encountered where we got picked up from the bus station and later given a ride back for free. Due to the current wave of tourism there is a surge of people looking to rent out their extra rooms to backpackers looking for a cheap place to lay there head. When we stepped off the bus initially we were instantly surrounded by older women and men spitting off prices and accommodations features. Our hostel was very nice since we had a private three bed room still if I had been solo I might have taken up one of the offers at the station.

Our first night was spent just walking around our area and getting a feel for that part of the city. We walked down a cool path that runs along the rocky coast and has little trails down to the water every 100 meters or so. Similarly to Zadar, Dubrovnik´s waters are clear and light blue-the kind of agua that just begs you to jump in. Day two we headed early to the old town which is quite small (the city itself is surrounded by a massive stronghold stone wall used for defense) and checked out some of the easy walking sights such as the Cathedral, Mosque, Onofrios fountain, and a couple main plazas. The city reminds of me of Spain and Italy due to countless outdoor cafes, plazas, traditional drinking fountains, and a smell of fresh seafood and salt water in the air.

After a couple hours exploring the city we decided to take a ferry across the bay to the small island of Lokrum, which was famous for its secluded beaches, old hill top fortress, and botanic garden. The gardens were lame but the fortress was pretty wicked and was worth the long hike. As for the beaches, Croatia is mainly rocky so sun bathing is tricky and sharp but swimming in the ocean was extremely refreshing. We went to a couple of different spots and also found a cool inland natural pond (we didn´t go into this since it had been taken over by 45 screaming children). Paul picked up a bug of sorts in Zagreb and had been feeling ill for the past couple days so his experience was different, still he enjoyed the scenery.

For dinner we found a cheap pizza place (Dalmatia is similar to Italy in terms of food-pasta, risotto, gelato, and delicious thin crust pizzas!) I had one with olives, mussels, tuna and ham divided in four pieces. The next day we went back to the old town and walked on top of the wall, which goes all along the city, takes about 2 hours if your pace is enjoyable, and gives picturesque views of the coast and the town´s red roofs (see photo above). We also explored outside the immediate old town walking along the coast. Similar to Zadar, Dubrovnik has very little to see in terms of sights or museums but the scenery and pleasant walks offered definitely make up for its size. Three solid days was a perfect amount of time.

Our last day we got up early to catch an 8am bus to Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina. The hostel owner´s brother in law drove us and gave us a giant water bottle filled with homemade Croatian wine as a token of hospitality. While the wine was a bit harsh I really liked it and it once again showed the kindness of people and hospitable culture in Eastern Europe. (The wine made it all the way to Sarajevo where we were forced to leave a third full bottle at our hostel since we knew trying to fly with a mysterious looking water bottle filled with moonshine wine wouldn´t fly with Air Bosna security).

Sobering but beautiful Mostar is coming up next.
Keep on keeping on