Bucharest, Romania

October 28, 2007 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Romania | Leave a comment

Bucharest, Romania Sept 27 – Oct 1

Our visit to Bucharest, Romania was short but sweet. This would be our first experience with train travel via sleeper car which we arranged in Istanbul a few days before. We didn’t know what to expect considering the railway station was a bit forboding and an other hotel guest who had just arrived from the opposite direction via train had kindly advised us to remain “open-minded”. Luckily, our assigned compartment for our 11:00 pm departure was paneled in a rich wood and looked classic against the crisp white sheets of our bunks. There were three bunks one above the other all the way to the roof of the train with an exciting ladder to the top. While the children slept, Mom and Dad squinted out the open window across the turkish landscape awash with moonlight yet too dark to discipher the mysterious bonfires, movements, sounds, trees, wagons, and fields that will remain unseen on this trip. The consistent rhythm of the train against the metal tracks lulled us to sleep and we only woke once to get off to have our passports checked at the Bulgarian border which lay between Turkey and Romania. We envisioned grumpy border guards with little patience interrogating us in the middle of the night to get their jollies but rather we found sympathetic folks allowing families with children to go straight to the front of the line and we were back in our bunks in no time. See what Hollywood can do to your optimism? The entire train ride was 19 hours and because of the novelty, it flew by. We had plenty of snacks from the market and we conveniently slept in the compartment next to a family with four children (!) who were travelling to Transylvania for a weekend getaway while vacationing in Istanbul. They lived in Nairobi and before that, Thailand, and had travelled all around the world. They were so laid back about travel with children and gave us some good tips on where to go as we rattled off our itinerary. It was a confidence booster for us and fortunate to have met them.

Bucharest was nice because we had friends there and we basically took it easy. Our friend Michael was our next door neighbor when we lived on State Street before we bought our house on Pond Street. He married a Romanian girl, Daniela, and they were our hosts for the weekend! We toured around the city and were surprised at the beautiful architecture. Not knowing much about Romania, we didn’t have many preconceived notions but expected starkness but instead it was a lively capital city. Michael gave us a driving tour around the city where we were reminded of the deposed dictator Ceausescu (if you are wondering how I know how to spell his name, we have Microsoft Encarta’s Encyclopedia loaded on our laptop – handy) who was executed after being accused of crimes of humanity and how he had taken over the city and oriented it towards Communism and “the party” and the grandiose buildings that focused on the leadership. One such building was the enormous Royal Palace which was to house Ceausescu and all of his colleagues. Michael told us stories about how the Ceausescus installed thick gold roping at the bottom of the red velvet drapes so the drapes would not sway in the main hall while people in the country were starving. After his fall, the building, the second largest in the world besides the Pentagon, was deemed inhabitable because it cost too much to heat and it now sits empty in the middle of the city. We went to an outdoor museum that showed traditional country life. If we had more time, we definitely would have rented a car and went out to Transylvania to see the countryside and the Carpathian mountains famous for their beauty, skilling and Dracula associations. We were very impressed with the country architecture and at the museum and the boys caught their first glimpses of the impact of war in the indoor photographic section. It was not too graphic and was a healthy way to get introduced to war while seeing what there is to protect – individuality and the customs unique to each country.There are large parks in Bucharest so the boys enjoyed some much needed running, climbing and jumping while we enjoyed the sunshine. Daniela showed us the “old district” which we went back to ourselves the next day for some authentic Romanian fare at the “Beer Cave” Restaurant which included folk dancing in a beautifully decorated restaurant. The boys got to have frankfurters for the first time in weeks! It was our wedding anniversary also so we ate, drank and made merry Romanian-style! Since the hotel had wireless internet accessible from our room, (often it is only available from the business center) we spent the next day and a half, doing laundry, uploading photos, watching t.v., eating, and relaxing in the nice hotel that Michael and Daniela had arranged for us. It was great! Cartoons in Romanian are just as entertaining!We went out for a breather to buy a guidebook on Egypt – the next stop. Daniela told us about a big bookstore so we made our way there and, because the guidebook was in English and imported, the normally $20.00 guidebook was a whopping $35.00! Well, we expect Egypt will be worth it, so we licked our wounds and went on to mail a simple package back to the States containing some things we had collected. Not so simple. We first went to the post office nearby who advised us that we must go to a special post office that is just for mailing packages. Then we walked several long blocks to that post office only to find out that if you are going to mail something out of the country, you must go to one of two post offices in the city. By this time, we needed to get to the train station so we gave up but managed to buy a box and masking tape and took the loot with us on the train to our next stop. We also attempted to buy stamps but you needed to get on the stamp line and not the check cashing line or the bill paying line or the something else line. No one spoke English and we couldn’t figure out which line was for what nor did anyone offer up the explanation on how to mail packages so, we did not mail any postcards from Romania! Of all of the countries so far, this was the only one where we had an issue with being able to communicate! Our next stop was back to Budapest, Hungary which was returning us back to our starting point of the circle around the Balkans and was where we were due to catch our flight to Egypt. The train was a 15 hour trip but we were now so excited about train travel, we looked forward to it. We got an equally tidy cabin at 6:00 pm and settled down for our trip. Daniela had packed some cookies and treats and we waved good-bye to our short yet sweet visit to Bucharest, Romania.

(click photo for slideshow)

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Turkey

October 18, 2007 at 8:51 pm | Posted in Turkey | Leave a comment

Sept 19 – 27

To get to Turkey, we had to take a morning ferry from our last Greek island, Naxos, to Mykonos and spend the day waiting for another ferry which didn’t leave until 11:00 p.m. We had nowhere to keep our luggage for the day so we whiled away the day on the beach with our bags. The ferry from Mykonos took us to the Greek island of Samos close to the Turkish border. The ship was our first brush with a “what did we get ourselves into” moment. When we saw 70 year old ladies sleeping on the floor with sheets brought from home, about 100 army men intensely watching a soccer game at high volume and a snoring man laying in the aisle who wouldn’t budge from where we were supposed to put our feet, we figured our overnight ferry to Samos would just be one of those funny stories. We survived by finding a corner of the boat with few passengers and while the boys were able to zonk, we were tuned in to the snoring behind us while keeping one eye on our bags. We pulled in at 5:00 a.m. and waited in a smoke-filled coffee shop for a few hours until the small boat arrived to take us from Samos, Greece to Kusadasi, Turkey. We chose this route because it got us close to our first destination, Ephesus. We included Turkey on our itinerary because we didn’t think we would make an exclusive there in the future and we wanted to visit Istanbul at the very least. We stayed in Kusadasi at an all-inclusive resort hotel (compliments of a travel agent following a snafu). This was the first time we felt like foreigners in a foreign land. Up until Turkey, everything was very European and familiar. In Turkey we felt, at first, like outsiders. The hotel staff remarked that they had never seen an American at their resort before. This resort was for local vacationers, not typical tourists. After awhile we relaxed and simply observed how people in Turkey relaxed.After recovering from our near sleepless night on the ship, we headed to the town of Selcuk which is even closer to Ephesus. We stayed at Hotel Jimmy’s – another 4-bed, no-frills apartment that we found in our Lonely Planet travel guide. Oliver held hands with one of the staff who met us at the bus station and chatted about something on the walk to the apartment and even though the man couldn’t understand his words, he managed to say that “He has a sweet tongue” referring to Oliver’s high-pitched non-stop diatribe about the waterpark we passed on the way to town. We started off having lunch – food was good, especially the hummus. The boys had peach juice. Peaches seem to be a staple in Turkey. We arranged for a driver to take us to the Temple of Artemis (“Diana”), one of two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World we plan to visit on our trip, and then to Ephesus – an ancient city with many remaining ruins spanning several eras. It was sundown and all the tour groups had since returned to their buses and it was just us and a few other travellers walking down ancient streets and studying walls, arches, facades and arenas from another world. We knew we couldn’t begin to fathom the importance of that place but we were glad to have visited it and the boys understood that populations had built wonderful places that were then taken over and destroyed by others and eventually were abandoned for new places.

We went back to town and after enjoying a turkish dinner beneath a trio of grapefruit, pomegranate and orange trees sitting next to a chair full of newborn kittens, and observing the local Muslims praying low down on their carpets at the neighborhood mosque, went to bed and awoke to the next morning’s call-to-prayer announced over the loudspeakers perched atop the minaret high above the town square. From our balcony, we could see everyone was setting up for the Saturday market. We were told about it but didn’t anticipate the massive effort undertaken not only to set up tables and display wares but also the hanging of the canvas coverings from one building to the next across the streets virtually turning an outdoor market 10 blocks around into an indoor market. Permanent poles exist around the town just for the purpose of hanging the canvas. This was their Walmart. You could buy figs, socks, mops, eggs, pencils, shawls, have your knives sharpened, your shoes shined or buy a new broom made from freshly harvested hay. You could also buy Turkish Delights which we had always wondered about since they were mentioned in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. They are essentially the predecessors to gummy bears – just a bit more rustic.

We had to leave Selcuk as we’d arranged for a flight from nearby Izmir to Istanbul for the rest of our stay in Turkey. We understood that the mini bus would take us near the airport and then we would take a taxi the rest of the way. The bus dropped us, in actuality, on the side of the highway where a man was sitting in an upholstered lounge chair, running the taxi show. We had to run across the highway and jump into a taxi which took us onto the airport road – for a two minute ride. Strange. On the bus ride to the airport, we saw many turkish families picnicking or resting under the largest shade tree around as though it was the only thing to do. If they weren’t sitting under a tree, they were working the land. Enough people spoke English well enough to assist us in our escapades so with their help and our travel guide, we were able to hop on and off mini buses, taxis and airplanes and managed to get where we needed to go and got to experience how the locals move about.

Unfortunately, at the airport, there were lots of tears when the boys had to forfeit their walking sticks since they were not allowed on the plane. Even Mom was sad as they had carried those sticks from Croatia and had received many kind smiles and accolades from locals and travellers alike as though their walking sticks had somehow branded them as bona fide travellers outfitted appropriately for their task. We arrived in Istanbul still wiping our tears over the lost sticks, and used our Blackberry phone to call some places in our book. All were full! So while the boys played with their army men, we made arrangements with a tourist agency in the airport for a place to stay. We are still adjusting to simply arriving in a city with no plans or place to stay when under normal circumstances, you would have made arrangements months ahead to stay in the perfect place and reserve the right tours and restaurants. We just show up. It is becoming less stressful as we go on as long as we keep landing on our feet. After the first night, we moved to a hotel we found in our book that was right behind the famous Blue Mosque and nestled within the local carpet shops and bazaars. It worked out perfectly and we spent 5 days in exciting Istanbul.

It was very festive because it was Ramadan and in the evenings, at sundown, the Muslims would break their day-long fast with a nightly festival with all of the lights, sounds, smells and traditions of the culture. We could not get enough of the celebration and we went every night to watch vendors shout out the different offerings and families migrate around the centuries old former chariot-race track to eat corn on the cob, freshly spun sugar lollipops, kebaps fresh off the spit, coffee brewing on open coals, figs, dates, cotton candy, pomegranate juice, baklava and popcorn. We drank delicious thick warm sallem – a warm milk dusted with nutmeg that supposedly comes from the sap of mountain trees. People everywhere loved our boys and men, women and even children only slightly older than our boys would cross the sidewalk just to tossle their hair and even kiss their cheeks. They were so excited to talk to Americans (we didn’t see any others) and, even though many of them also wanted us to buy their carpets, they were so incredibly nice about it, we didn’t mind being pursued. We became adept at saying no, the nicest way possible and we all learned what to look for in a good carpet. Even the boys learned that you cannot burn a real wool carpet. Everyone was very kind – they seemed to seek us out to help if we looked lost. People all around always walk hand-in-hand and men walk together with their hands on each other’s shoulders. It was a very affectionate city with no crime and nothing to be afraid of.

The mosques were captivating and the call-to-prayer every few hours (it was more frequent at Ramadan) became comforting. The boys bought wooden tops that you spin off a string like a yo-yo and then onto the ground. They played with them everywhere and made lots of friends with children and adults who wanted to demonstrate their own skill with the toy. We spent hours in the Grand Bazaar and sat at outdoor cafes drinking apple tea listening to turkish music while those around us puffed on their nargilla water pipes. Peter helped a man work on some of his English course workbook while the rest of us played Rummy. Our last day was rewarding when we took a walk along the railroad tracks to the “real” Istanbul. Away from the lights and sounds of the festivals and to the delapidated houses that abut the tracks and where seemingly ancient men and women haul heavy loads on their head or sit in doorways selling a basket of fruit. We passed a park where uniformed school children were taking a recess from the nearby school and we spent an hour taking their pictures on the digital camera and then showing them the results which delighted them. The children loved to practice their English with us. The waiter at lunch told us all about the Muslim religion and enthusiastically answered all of our questions. Later we met children who excitedly came out from their tenement to talk with us. The girl was 10 and three brothers with the youngest, Muhammed, 3, wanting to talk to us. It was market day and we admired everything there was to buy and loaded up on food for our overnight train ride to Bucharest, Romania. We would like to come back to Turkey someday.

(click photo for slideshow)

Greece

October 9, 2007 at 7:32 pm | Posted in Greece | Leave a comment

September 8 – 19

To get to Greece by sea from Dubrovnik, Croatia, you must first take a 6 hour ship across the Adriatic to Bari, Italy then spend the night and then take a 15 hour ferry from Bari to Patros, Greece. The first ship was fine and comfortable but a bit boring. We arrived in Bari at about 8 at night but didn’t have a place to stay and there was no tourist office at the pier. We knew we were in a bit of a jam but with the help of a ferry ticket agent who called a taxi, and a knowledgeable taxi driver, he took us to a decent hotel for the night. Did we spend more than we wanted? Yes, but that is the price of independent travel and extenuating circumstances. The name of the hotel was the Boston Hotel so perhaps it was a sign for better things to come. The 15 hour ship ride was very exciting for the boys. The ship had a pool, casino, dvd rentals, 2 restaurants, a kids play area and lots of room to explore. It also had wi-fi! It was more like a mini cruise ship. We booked a cabin and the boys could not believe that we were going to sleep on a bed on a ship. Bunk beds! We arrived 15 hours later at Patros, Greece at 5:00 am and boarded a train to Athens 3 hours away. The boys were excited all of the time. No matter what the hour or what the mode of transport, there was something to see.After missing the Athens stop (station signs were in Greek), we backtracked one stop and then called some places listed in our guidebook which we’d bought in Croatia. We found a place with four beds in a room and proceeded to navigate the metro (easy) to the right stop and hoofed it a few blocks to our hotel. It was basic (very) but it served the purpose.A travel agent helped us form a good itinerary for which islands to see and how to make our way to Turkey. We decided to spend only on day in Athens. By now it was approaching dusk so we headed to the Acropolis to see it at sunset. It was very exciting to finally arrive at a place so often shown in textbooks and magazines. We wished we were able to brush up on our Greek history a bit but we muddled through. Tour groups were gone by now so it was a treat to only share this treasured spot with a small smattering of tourists. The guidebook included details about the Acropolis which Laura attempted to translate on the fly into “kid-speak” and described the arena, the Parthenon, gateway and other buildings. Despite our attempts to explain what a special place this was and how old it was compared to other places we had seen, the boys decided to absorb the history via the marble dust on the ground which made good roads for their matchbox cars. We were all happy.The next day was Oliver’s birthday and as he was the last one to wake up, we surprised him with 3 gifts and homemade cards which depicted him in Greek garb as a leader perched atop the Acropolis so that he would remember that he turned 8 in Greece. We had secretly collected some coveted treasures along the way as gifts including a red Ferrari shirt which will now grace most of our pictures. Although the day had included a lot of administrative and logistical tasks, we promised to celebrate his birthday over several days and touted a trip to the Greek Islands and a hotel with swimming pool as part of the birthday package.

We caught a late afternoon high speed ferry to Mykonos and whisked to our hotel high above the center of town. It was nice not having to make any arrangements for the next 7 days since all was done via the travel agent. We had the best meal to date down the street from our hotel which was an area geared towards locals. The table was filled with greek breads, dips, shish kabobs, salads and wine. Despite the wild boar hanging in a cooler on the way to the restroom, the food was delicious (we ordered chicken and pork) and cheap. We spent two nights on Mykonos in a four bed apartment complete with pool and that was enough time to explore the small, touristy, pricey, lovely downtown. It was low season so we seemingly had the place to ourselves. The whitewashed windmills overlooked the harbor and we spent hours exploring the labyrinth of walkways and shops.

Laura was skeptical about going to Santorini knowing its commercial history but it was truly beautiful and an architectural achievement with whitewashed buildings cascading down the side of a dark grey volcanic landscape striated in earthtones. We would never tire of its beauty and unique setting. We stayed in a non-touristy section of Fira Stephani overlooking the blanket of fertile fields that had been created by this volcanic island. We watched farmers in wool caps and long-sleeved shirts return to their hilltop homes atop donkeys while we suffered from the heat. We watched black-clad plumb old ladies carry fruit and bread from the market uphill for their daily supper. We visited a black lava beach and collected bead-sized lava rocks to make necklaces and went to the town of Ia where we found a restaurant perfectly perched in order to get a front row seat for the famous spectacular sunset show. The natural surroundings had more of an impact on the boys than another historic site as the detailed illustrations in their journals proved.

Smoking. Everyone smokes. This has generated a lot of questions from the boys. Why do people smoke? How old do you have to be to smoke? What is inside the cigarette. Why do people drop a lit cigarette on the ground? Will a lit cigarette on the ground burn down the city? Can we buy candy cigarettes? Can I have a straw so I can pretend that I am smoking? Now the boys think it is their responsibility to go around and stomp out all of the cigarettes. Do you know how long it takes to walk down a main street in a city where everyone smokes and your children are stomping out all of the lit cigarettes? It has been a balancing act to allow them to “save the city” yet stay out of the gutters.

Our final destination was Naxos. This was recommended because it was supposed to be the “real” Greece. We had originally planned to go to Crete but decided it was too far afield and would require too many days to see so Naxos was the next best thing. It proved to be true and we spent 4 nights there and wanted to stay longer. Naxos had real sand beaches that stretched for miles, mazes of narrow paths to explore local shops with reasonable prices, fabulous food, and was a large enough island to rent a car and explore the ancient hills with tiny towns that look like they haven’t changed in centuries. We were excited to visit an ancient kouros which is a statue meant to be transported from the quarries in the hills down to the shore but the statue broke during transport and remains amongst the olive groves in the farmer’s fields. It was about 15 feet long and because it was dusk, our search was dark and mysterious as we looked for it on a poorly marked map. We also drove out to a recommended beach on the other side of the island. There was one lone restaurant and a long stretch of beach. There were 5 other people there. The water was aqua-blue with no waves but it was a bit windy (as most of the islands are) but this was perfect conditions for donning the boys towels as capes and playing superman and kicking up sand without disturbing the non-existant people. You would wonder how fresh the food would be in a lone restaurant 45 minutes from civilization, however, the platters of fresh fruit (watermelon, honeydew), hummus, fresh-baked pita bread, greek salad (to die for) with fresh feta, and the $2.00 Heinekens were an oasis.

It was nice to stay put in one place for four days. We could walk to the town, restaurants, the beach, the internet cafes and the ferry. Everyone was very friendly and loved our children – especially Henry’s floppy blonde hair. We would recommend Naxos to anyone wanting to experience real Greek culture in a laid back, authentic atmosphere. The things we enjoyed most were those things that were normal at home but a bit of a trick in another country like mailing a package – finding a box, finding filler, and finding tape. Then we went next door to find rope as Oliver left his rope somewhere. We need rope to hook things to the hotel door knobs, hang army men from it, tie it to trees, tie up siblings and generally do cool things with it.

We loved Greece and were very sad to leave. People were kind and several people, including shopkeepers and restauranteurs, gave things to the boys…just because. The bakery provided an “8” candle for Oliver’s birthday and then, looking towards the future, gave Henry a “7” and Peter a “?” candle which we all got a laugh out of. This is as close to everyday living than we had ever experienced outside of our home before and it is making us slowly feel like global citizens.

(click photo for slideshow)

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