Friday, August 25, 2017

Easter 2015: Turkey

Here's where writing three year old blogs gets a bit trickier. My previous entries from Croatia and Romania were manageable as I had made detailed notes at the time, and I could also rely on my photos and videos to fill in the gaps for things I didn't jot down or couldn't remember. But now we have the perfect storm of me being too lazy at the time to document our trip, plus all of my Turkey photos were accidentally deleted last year, meaning I'm really working off scraps here. I did manage to upload most of the nicer ones to Facebook before disaster struck, so at least I have those. I'm just missing the less glamourous pics along the way that would usually piece together the rest of the trip. So, it may not be as detailed as the previous blogs, but at least you'll still get all of the highlights.

On arrival in Istanbul airport, we were surprised to learn we needed a visa. It was fine, you could just get one at the airport, but it never even occurred to us to look it up in advance. We would've never overlooked something like that in Asia. All of this travelling in Europe has made us soft!

Now, I make the distinction here between our travels in Europe and Asia, but in Istanbul, the lines are blurred. Straddling the Bosphorus River, Istanbul (née Constantinople, née Byzantium) is the only city in the world to span two continents, and throughout history has acted as a crossroads between east and west, which is reflected in the culture of this modern yet ancient city. I was hoping to get a photo with one foot in each, but the two land masses are connected by a bridge, and a traffic-only bridge too, so I couldn't even stand in the middle and pretend.

Can I have a continent please, Carol? And another?

Our first day here was quite a dull one weatherwise, so we didn't achieve a whole lot. Our accommodation couldn't have been better located though, right by the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, two of the quintessential cymbals of Istanbul.

Sorry, "symbols" of Istanbul!

Luckily the sun was out in full force the next day, so everything looked a whole lot better and brighter. I know I say it all the time, but I can't emphasise enough the difference a blue sky makes, both to the surroundings and your own mood. We had taken some photos on the first day of the two landmarks but, a) they weren't very impressive under grey skies, and b) they're lost forever now anyway. Our day 2 photo shoot was a lot more successful in every respect, and it just proves what they say in Islam:

If it isn't Sunni, it's Shiite!

We really enjoyed our time in Istanbul, and have only good things to say about the city. One of the standout spots was the Basilica Cistern, which is like an underground temple, originally designed to store fresh water. It's actually quite impressive for what is essentially just a fancy well. With its stone pillars, statues and eerie orange glow, it's well worth a visit, especially if it's a hot day, as it's nice and cool down underground.

We hit up another few nice places including the Galata Tower and the Grand Bazaar, but there are plenty of other nameless spots around the city that I've forgotten (or never knew in the first place). It's just a very nice city that you could spend a solid few days in and never be bored.

The other half of our time in Turkey was spent in the Cappadocia region in the centre of the country which, in terms of natural landscape, is probably one of the most unique and breathtaking areas we've ever been anywhere in the world. I would say it's an otherworldly landscape, but it's more like a place that could exist on Earth, but just like nothing you've ever seen. Like the setting of a fictional story where the surroundings are equally familiar and implausible. 

This fairytale world is enhanced by the appropriately named 'fairy chimneys', which sprout out of the ground like mushrooms, dotted all over the plains and valleys. The rock formations themselves are naturally formed over millions of years, but the human element carved them from phallic outcrops into houses, churches and general places of refuge in the 11th century.

Wait a minute, I recognise that last guy from somewhere...

We were staying in the town of Goreme and it was not only a lovely spot in itself, but the surrounding areas were perfect for both short and long hikes up to small hills and viewpoints of the natural scenery. It was one of those places though that even though it was incredible from ground level, you could only imagine how amazing it would be from the skies. Now if only there were some way we could see it from above...

Simply one of the most spectacular activities we've ever done. Being in a hot air balloon alone was great, but when you combine it with views like this - incredible. We were very lucky actually (like we are quite often) as we only tried to arrange our balloon ride when we were in Goreme, not knowing how popular it was and how quickly places book out. We tried to beg, borrow or steal a place on any flight for the next morning, and it was seriously tough going, but luckily we managed to snag two spots for a sunrise flight! Success! Double success really as it turned out all of the flights for the following morning were ultimately cancelled due to the weather. How heartbreaking would it be to come all the way here and not be able to do something like this!?

And usually we complain about being in places with lots of tourists, crowding up the area and getting in the way of our photos. Not here. Get those balloons up, the more, the better!

On our final day in town, we went on a tour of the surrounding area, one of the highlights being the Derinkuyu Underground City. Carved out of the soft rock, just like the fairy chimneys on the surface, this underground city is an incredible 18 storeys deep and could accommodate 20,000 people! In fact, many of the fairy chimneys as mentioned above were used for just that purpose, chimneys and ventilation shafts for these underground cities, so that attackers wouldn't even know these places existed beneath their feet. Derinkuyu is the world's largest underground city, although as I was researching it now, they seem to have found an even bigger one in the same region, so watch this space!

Other stops on the tour included the Ihlara Valley, Pigeon Valley and the Selime Monastery. I can only remember bits and pieces of these places, but we look like we had fun!

As I mentioned previously, most of the photos from my camera were wiped, but as it happened, at the end of our final day in Goreme, my battery had died, so we had to use Aisling's camera to make our video diary, and that's the only reason why the video survived. So, here it is, featuring me sliding down a cliff:

We were back in Istanbul again briefly before leaving the country, and it was a nice city to come home to, and one that I'd gladly visit again in the future.

In fact, I'd gladly come back to Turkey again. We were only here for a week, but really loved the two places we did visit, and there's a whole host of others to be explored. For the moment, our next trip to be chronicled was our sunny summer in Iceland, so that's where I'll pick things up next time.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Christmas 2014: Romania

Continuing on our European travels, it was time to head further east to another new country for us - Romania. This was over the Christmas break, so obviously there wasn't going to be much sun beating down on Europe. But what's the point in dreary, winter days of wind and rain? If the sun isn't shining, you might as well go all out for the other extreme!

Doesn't snow just make everything look better? There can't be a place on Earth that isn't improved by a dreamy, white blanket. It just papers over any cracks or blemishes and covers it with fluffy flakes of joy!

After a flight into Bucharest, a bus into the city, and then a train up north, we arrived at our first destination of the trip, the town of Brasov. The last time we had seen snow before this was 18,000 feet high up in the Himalayas, and it still makes us shudder any time we think back to those days. It was the type of cold that there was just no escape from. So, what a pleasure it was here having snow on our doorstep, but with a nice heated room to return to. Goodbye freezing our ass off, hello freezing our Brasov!

The snow aside, Brasov itself is a really lovely town, but the two combined to make the place look magical. And as it was Christmas, the centre was alive with market stalls, ice-skating and just general seasonal charm.

Brasov also has a little claim to fame, being home to Rope Street - the narrowest street in Europe. Now, I don't know what the technical difference between a street and an alleyway is, but to me, this way an alleyway. It had no shop fronts or entrances, it was just a long passage with a couple of back doors and side windows. 

Even more confusingly, although Google says Brasov has the narrowest street in Europe, it equally claims that the narrowest street in the world is in Germany! Not sure how those two titles coexist...

As you can maybe see in the photo above, Brasov also has a Hollywood-esque sign on the overlooking Mount Tampa, up to which you can get a cable car. It's a nice way to spend an hour or two, with great views over the city, especially great in the snow.

We've been to a few other cities now that have had Hollywood-esque signs, and I wonder if Hollywood was actually the first to do it, or if it's just the most famous example...? It's quite hard to Google an answer without using the phrase "Hollywood sign".

Brasov as a whole was especially impressive as the main reason we came here was actually to visit the nearby town of Bran, home of Dracula's Castle. And so the next day, we hopped on a bus to take us deep into the heart of Transylvania. While the weather in Brasov was nice and snowy, in Bran, it was more of the blustery, blizzardy type. We were well prepared though and all wrapped up so even the most determined vampire couldn't sink his teeth through all of these layers. No frostbite for us!

It's hard to comment on Bran itself as the weather was too turbulent to see it properly. The castle was great though and I guess the stormy nature added to the atmosphere.

Inside the castle was a museum on Vlad the Impaler, the real life inspiration for Dracula. But the castle grounds were the highlight. It felt like being on set at Winterfell. Wait a minute... Bran... Winterfell... I'm sure there's some Game of Thrones theory to be pieced together here.

We stopped in for lunch and a hot chocolate to warm ourselves, and one of few negatives I'd say about Romania is that the food wasn't up to much. Added to that, they kept giving me sparkling water, even when I specifically asked for still! It's the absolute worst! Why is sparkling water even a thing?! Now there are some foods and drinks that I don't like the taste of, but I can respect how some people might. I don't like peppers, it's a flavour I don't enjoy, but I understand that other people do. That's fine. I am unable, however, to comprehend how someone could take any joy from a glass of sparkling water. It actually hurts me to drink, it's like there's electricity in it. It tastes like robot piss.

Although we didn't see any kitschy restaurants hawking Bloody Marys or Steaks through the Heart (missed opportunity), there was a haunted house, so "When in Rome..."

Even though it was predictably terrible, it was a bit of fun and worth the admission fee. It probably would've been a bit more frightening too if we hadn't seen the two lads in costume having a smoke outside before we went in.

The next day, we hopped on a train back down to the capital, Bucharest. Trains are definitely my favourite mode of transport, they're just the best way to see the countryside, especially when it's all snowy like this.

Bucharest itself was a nice place to spend a few days, and while Brasov is famous for having Europe's narrowest street, Bucharest has it's own honour - home of the world's worst statue!

It's apparently a statue of the Roman emperor, Trajan (who is naked for some reason), holding a she-wolf (or levitating it above his arms). There's also some sort of snake thing coming out of the wolf's head. All in all, it's just a mess, and roundly hated by the people of Bucharest. Still, it's not as though they put it anywhere prominent, like the steps of the National Museum...

We learned of this statue on a walking tour we did of the city, although the tour itself wasn't the most successful. We like to go on these tours in any major city, as a fun way to see the place and learn its history. It's not so fun though in -15 degree weather. The tour started with a good 25 people, but at each stop we would lose a few to the cold, until there were just 8 of us left. At this point, we all headed to a cafe to warm up and just stayed there for the next two hours. So, it was more of a sitting tour of Bucharest. It's just too cold to be looking at buildings in this weather. Cafe owners must make a killing though at this time of year, "There's no business like snow business...!".

We did build up the courage to brave the cold again that night, to go and see the New Year's celebrations outside the parliament building (the heaviest building in the world, apparently). The fireworks themselves were only so so, but there was a good atmosphere around the place. Some people also released lanterns into the night sky but they didn't fare too well in the cold air...

There go your dreams for 2015!

On the bright side, we did see two full moons so that must be a good omen!

The next day, we were back out in the cold and took a wander around the city parks. We were still freezing, but it seems the statues have evolved to keep warm in the snow...

We also made a quick video diary:

And that was that for Bucharest and Romania! We had a great time in the country, and although I can't comment on what it's like for the other 11 months of the year, it's a great place to visit for the Christmas break! And speaking of Christmas, next stop: Turkey! See you then!