Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pamukkale, Turkey

Pamukkale is known for its travertine baths (hot springs) and ancient Greek/Roman ruins (Hierapolis). Everything is on top of a hill. I was surprised that everyone would be hiking on water as they made their way up.

My favorite had to be the travertine baths. These are basically white rocks that hold water from the hot springs. Because they are on a hill, soaking oneself in one of these baths means that one gets a panoramic view of the valleys and mountains of the region. I will never forget watching sunset by these baths!

The complex also contains numerous Greek/Roman ruins, including a large theater. Furthermore, there is an agora, baths, temples and graves. One interesting observation is that most graves are little houses with sarcophagi on the roofs.

Selcuk and Ephesus, Turkey

My first city in Turkey was Selcuk, which is next to the ancient Greek/Roman city of Ephesus. The bus ride from Bodrum to Selcuk was one of the most enjoyable rides I have been on. On board, there was an attendant who served us snacks and drinks. He displayed excellent customer service. All this puts the U.S. airlines to shame!

Selcuk itself is a small town that has more heritage than I thought. In addition to a Medieval castle perched on a hill, the town contains the Church of St Jean and the Isa Bey Mosque. There are also some Greek and Roman ruins, in the form of columns, cistern baths and an aqueduct.

My highlight though, had to be the visit to Ephesus, the ancient Greek/Roman city. The site is huge and contains ruins and many intact buildings. Of notable interest are the huge Grand Theater and the Library of Celsus. I was surprised at the sight of an old latrine that had running water.

I also got my first exposure to Turkish culture while in Selcuk. First, the Turks are so hospitable and friendly, always asking if they can help with directions and wanting to drink tea with me. For example, my CS host Erkan works in a carpet store and his boss invited some of us foreigners to eat dinner with his family in front of the store. I also got to taste baklava, a dessert of oats, pistachios and honey, which is reportedly the best in Turkey. Lastly, my host Erkan taught me a little about the double-knotted Turkish carpets and kilims. Carpets are so important in the Turkish culture hat every house has several of them. Even though I did not end up buying one, I enjoyed learning about the carpet-making process and observing the intricate designs.

Kos, Greece

Kos, another island in the Dodecanese chain, is where Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine was from. I originally was not planning to come here but did so because I needed to make a ferry connection to Turkey.

My highlight in Kos was visiting the Medieval castle right by the harbor. Kos Town also has a bunch of Greek and Roman ruins scattered around the center of the city. Other than these few places, there isn’t much to do on the island besides relaxing on the beaches.

My ferry to Turkey was quite interesting. I arrived at Greek exit point more than 30 minutes before the scheduled departure. When it was my turn to present my passport and ticket to the officer, he told me that I had to go outside and wait in line for a boarding pass, even though I already had my ticket. What unnecessary bureaucracy! I waited in line for the boarding pass for half an hour and almost missed my ferry because of that. Luckily, the ferry waited for everyone to obtain their boarding passes before heading to Bodrum, Turkey.

Rhodes, Greece

Rhodes, part of the Dodecanese chain of islands, is located in the eastern Aegean Sea, close to Turkey. I came to visit the capital city’s (also called Rhodes) UNESCO-listed Medieval old town, the largest inhabited one in the world.

Rhodes exuded an old world charm, unlike what I have seen so far in Greece. I felt like I was wandering down alleys in France or in Italy. The long city walls were completely intact, protecting the Palace of the Grand Master and churches. The old town also contains a few mosques, a reminder of the city’s Ottoman past.

My highlight was wandering down Ippoton, the Street of the Knights. This thoroughfare dates back to the 14th century, when the Knights of the Order of St. John ruled Rhodes. The street connects the Palace of the Grand Master to the main church. All along Ippoton were Medieval stone buildings, several of which were “auberge des linguas”, or language houses (French, English, Spanish, Italian). These houses were places where knights from the same or nearby kingdoms could chat and relax.

Santorini, Greece

Santorini is the quintessential island in the Cyclades. The island is not only blessed with iconic white and blue architecture, but also has one big cliff on the western side that overlooks a caldera (water-filled) that was formed from a volcanic eruption over 3,500 years ago.

Because of volcanic activity, Santorini has miles of black-sand beaches on its eastern part. The island also contains a White Sand Beach and a Red Sand Beach, both of which have cliffs of the eponymous color.

I had two memorable experiences in Santorini. First, the hike between the towns of Fira and Oia. This coastal walk led me past stunning coastal vistas. I saw first the southwestern and then the northwestern coasts unfold before me. Moreover, there were instances when I saw both the caldera and Aegean Sea sides, therefore seeing both bodies of water. The volcanic island of Nea Kameni was also visible.

My second highlight was visiting the town of Oia, on the northwestern tip of the island. This town is famous for its sunsets, which were slightly cloudy according to my observations (I was there twice). Oia is also has the highest concentration of blue-domed churches perched by the caldera and a couple of windmills. The town of course had its fair share of white and blue “cave homes”. All of these structures together produce stunning sceneries and photographs.

Mykonos, Greece

Leaving all the sweet memories of Crete behind, I boarded a fast hydrofoil to Mykonos, one of the most popular islands in Greece due to is iconic white buildings and wild beach parties. The ferry ticket cost me 79 Euros and I was considering skipping this island. However, I told myself that I might not ever come back to Greece and thus proceeded to purchase the ticket.

Well, it turned out that this journey was one big nightmare! I don’t know which is worse, the overnight train ride or this ferry ride. Besides being 2 hours late (which rendered this journey not to be “high speed”, in my opinion), many people threw up, including me. The ride was so turbulent that one’s diet regimen should include a daily journey on this hydrofoil.

I think Mykonos is hyped up. Sure, the pristine beaches and white-blue buildings are heavenly. However, these features can be found on other islands in the Cyclades. Furthermore, because the island is so touristy, it loses its authenticity. Even though Mykonos may have more stunning architecture, I enjoyed Crete more because of its people. The distinctive characteristic of Mykonos’ architecture, in my opinion, are the white windmills. Other than that, the island is filled with the typical white buildings in the area. Geographically, the island is quite flat and contains few trees. Thus, there were few, if any, panoramic vistas along the coast.

Lastly, I think Mykonos is an island one only has to go to once. That is, unless one loves parties and has money to spend. If camping by the beach with blaring music all night long is one’s cup of tea, then welcome to Mykonos! If not (the category I belong to), then jet away to another more pristine island without the noise.

Crete, Greece

Crete, the largest island in Greece, consists of four prefectures: Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Lassithi. I spent only 3 days here and could have probably spent more than a week.

The first part of my journey was in the western town of Chania. Chania is known for its Venetian architecture and harbor. During my visit in Chania, there was a Cretan agricultural festival. Vendors showcased many of the island’s products, including honey, raki (alcohol), puff pastries and desserts. The festival also consisted of children performing Cretan dance in traditional costumes.

The only beach I ventured to in Crete was in the westernmost part, a place called Falassarna. This beach had sparkling blue-green waters and was surrounded by mountains. I felt like I was in heaven!

I next headed to the largest city in Crete, Heraklion. Heraklion is a big city with only a few Venetian structures, notably its fortress and walls. Most people visit Heraklion because it is near the Minoan capital of Knossos. I had the opportunity to wander amongst the ruins of Palace of Knossos. Striking features of the place include colorful columns, reconstructed frescoes and an ancient toilet with sewage system.

The absolute highlight of my stay in Crete and probably in all of Greece was staying with CouchSurfer Antonis’ family. From the moment I set foot in his house, I felt like a part of the family. Antonis’ mother made all sorts of delicious food and made sure no one left the table without being 100% full. Her creations included homemade yogurt, homemade ice cream, cheese pastry, chocolate muffins and Greek salad (with plenty of feta, of course). Antonis, his brother George and parents were very friendly and made sure I felt comfortable at all times. Antonis exposed me to raki (alcohol of the region), meze (Greek tapas) and loukamedes (deep-fried dough balls with honey).

While visiting Antonis’ family, I got a treat of a lifetime--the opportunity to attend a Greek family party! The reason I was so excited is that having watched the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I wanted to experience Greek family life and see first-hand if the gatherings were really that raucous and gossipy. The truth is, the party I attended (which was to bid Antonis’ cousin farewell before he goes on military service) was much milder than the one in the movie. First, everyone was so friendly! They wanted to know how I met Antonis, and that was it. I didn’t feel they were that gossipy. Instead, they kept on offering me food and making sure I tried everything! The food list (which I am sure I forgot to list some items) is as follows: pork ribs, grilled chicken with potatoes, beef stew with pasta, goat cooked with yogurt and carrots (Antonis’ uncle’s “secret” recipe), Greek salad with olives and feta, asparagus casserole, eggplant casserole, dolmas (rice wrapped in leaves), raki, homemade white wine, ice cream, cheesecake, mini cakes, pudding, grapes and watermelon! This Greek family party will certainly go on my list of most memorable life experiences.

To digest all this food, I briefly joined in a Greek “circle” dance in the village square. The town was having a traditional dance performance (with Cretan costumes, of course) and opened up the stage to the public afterwards.

I had a difficult time saying goodbye to Antonis and his family. I was very touched at how friendly there were to a stranger. They exposed me to Greek and Cretan culture by opening both their home and their hearts to me. They showed me why Cretan hospitality is one of the best in the world.

On a side note, I felt proud and honored when Antonis’ dad said “So CouchSurfing works” before I left. This is just one of many examples at how CouchSurfing is breaking down cultural barriers, enhancing understanding between different peoples and building friendships all over the world.

Nafplio, Greece

Nafplio is Venetian-like town on the coast of the Peloponnese, a region in Greece. The town was also Greece’s first capital in the early 19th century.

Nafplio reminded me of an Italian town, with its stone buildings and brown roofs, The town is picturesquely located by a harbor with two castles perched on cliffs nearby. I climbed up the hill to Palamidi Castle for the best view of Nafplio. I was amazed how clear the water was--and this is not even the Greek islands!

Athens, Greece

So my 9.5-hour train ride from Skopje to Thessaloniki might not have been so bad after all. The 6.5-hour overnight train I took from Thessaloniki to Athens had to have been the most memorable thus far. First of all, the ticket agent neglected to inform me the option of making a seat reservation. Since I didn’t have a seat, I spent the first hour “playing musical chairs”. After a few stops, the train was packed and I was left without a seat. Thus, I proceeded to the end of the dining car, which had some floor space. Unfortunately, there were people there so I was hunched up in a corner. This experience made me the appreciate the leg room that we get in coach class on U.S. airlines! In fact, the train was so full that people were sitting or standing on every available floor space. I was thinking that if they let any more people into the train, they would be have no choice but to sit on the roof or hang out of the train doors, a scene that is quite common (or maybe not so) in India. And to top it off, it was freezing in this train! Well, at least this experience will prepare me for the trains in Asia!

The best part of taking an overnight train to Athens is that one arrives at 5:30am. This means that there is ample time to stroll around Plaka, the old town without anyone around. It also meant that I could be one of the first to enter the Acropolis at 8am (when it opens) and not have to deal with crowds. I did exactly that.

For me the most impressive part of the Acropolis was not the Parthenon, which has been damaged over the years, or any of the other temples and gates. My favorite part was the commanding view of Athens. On top of the Acropolis, I could see numerous white buildings, the Saronic Gulf, hills and the Temple of Olympian Zeus..

Another place with an even better view is Lycabettus Hill, the tallest point in Athens. From there, I could spot the Parthenon and Acropolis, towering over the city center. Furthermore, I had a birds-eye view of the old Olympic Stadium, the site of the first modern Olympics back in 1896.

I also had the opportunity to visit two world-class museums--the New Acropolis Museum and the National Archeological Museum. The New Acropolis Museum recently opened its doors, on June 21st. The modern architecture of the building is impressive, with glass floors where one can view ruins underneath. I especially enjoyed the exhibit on the Parthenon. The National Archeological Museum provided a comprehensive of Greece from the Neolithic to Classical period. There was everything, from pottery, to statues to bronze ware. The museum even contained an exhibit on Egypt.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thessaloniki, Greece

Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, is one of the few non-touristy places in the country. Because of that, I purposely scheduled a visit there to see how Greek life is like.

The city unfortunately does not have much old architecture as most homes were razed down after WWII to make room for apartment buildings with balconies. These structures are ubiquitous in Thessaloniki.

Another feature of the city are its numerous Orthodox churches, spread throughout the city. In every neighborhood there is an old church, surrounded by contemporary apartment blocks.

Ohrid, Macedonia

Ohrid, with its old Byzantine town by its lake, is in my opinion, the prettiest place in Macedonia. Nothing beats a clear lake with old architecture!

The town is famous for its numerous Orthodox churches and monasteries. In fact, there are 365 of them, one for each day of the year. The most photographed one is St Jovan Kaneo, perched on a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid.

One intriguing observation was an excavation site of an early Christian basilica, dating between the 4th-6th century A.D. Of particular interest were the mosaics that were discovered.

Skopje, Macedonia

Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is the least touristy city I have visited thus far. There was no tourist office, no tour groups and very few tourists. In fact, I felt like I was a tourist attraction for the locals, as more than half the people stared at me for being an Asian!

Due to massive destruction of the city during an earthquake in 1963, there were very few old buildings standing. Most of the architecture consisted of bland 1960s communist-era block buildings. Notable exceptions include the eclectic contemporary-designed Mother Theresa Museum, the Fortress Kale and various mosques and churches in the city. The Ottoman-era old bazaar is very similar to the ones in Sarajevo and Mostar, though more run-down. Most of the restoration work in the old town is being funded by international agencies and governments, including USAID.

One interesting observation is the wide use of the Cyrillic alphabet; in fact restaurant menus and street signs rarely use the Latin alphabet. Another intriguing sight is the use of EU flags on some buildings, even though Macedonia is not yet in the bloc.

The train journey from Skopje to Thessaloniki (Greece) was hellish! First, the train arrived 3 hours and 40 minutes late. It was so full that I was standing in the corridor. We also had to wait 80 minutes at the Greek border. All in all, what was supposed to be a 4-hour train ride took almost 9.5 hours! The only positive aspect about this experience was that I got to talk extensively to some locals about Macedonia.

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, is one of the least touristed cities I have visited so far. Maybe this has to do with the media portraying Serbia in a negative light. The city has few tourist sites and elegant, old architecture, but its friendly people more than make up for that. Serbia has some of the most tourist-friendly people in the world. For example, one man said to me “welcome to Serbia”. I say go to Belgrade to meet and chat with its amiable residents.

My highlight was going to Kalemegdan Fortress and savoring in the view of the Sava and Danube rivers. It is also in Belgrade where I first saw signs in Cyrillic and the prominence of Orthodox churches.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

The bus ride from Mostar to Sarajevo was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable rides so far. The journey took me along the blue-green Neretva River, alongside mountains and lastly, up and down mountains. Truth be told, I think Bosnia is one of the most scenic countries in the world. I would have never considered visiting this place a few years ago and now it is a country I will return to.

The scenery in Sarajevo was phenomenal. The city is surrounded by lush mountains with the small Miljacka River flowing through it. It has a very small town feel. The city is also filled with buildings from the Austro-Hungarian era.

Similar to Mostar, Sarajevo has many mosques, more so than churches. The oldest and most prominent is Ghazi Husrev-Bey’s Mosque. The city also has Orthodox churches and synagogues, being very religiously diverse.

Unlike Mostar, many of the physical ruins from the war were not visible, most likely because of international reconstruction aid. However, graves of the war dead were plentiful, taking up several hillsides.

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

I was very excited as the bus crossed the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. In fact, I cannot recall being this excited about visiting a country in a long time. This is because Bosnia is somewhat “off the beaten path”.

My first impression of Bosnia was that of lushness. All over the country, mountains and rivers fill the scenery. The setting is so peaceful and serene.

The fist town I decided to visit was Mostar, a city in the south that is famous for its old bridge (Stari Most) that was completely destroyed during the Bosnian War in the 1990s but rebuilt a few years after the war ended in 1995.

All over Mostar, the scars of war were apparent. Numerous buildings had bullet holes on them. Many half-destroyed buildings stood undisturbed. Cemeteries abound. Churches and mosques perished during the conflict. One sight that I will never forget is that of a destroyed department store, with its unique façade of stone figures still standing. Walking through Mostar, I couldn’t believe that the Bosnian War occurred during my lifetime, in the 1990s. I felt like I had witnessed the war when observing the ruins. At the end of this visit, I was very grateful for being born and raised in a peaceful and wealthy country.

My favorite part of the city was the historical Turkish quarter by Stari Most and the Neretva River. There, stone buildings and cobble-stoned paths abound. Shops sell Turkish souk items (e.g., clothing, tea pots) and Turkish dessert. And even Turkish coffee.

One of the highlights was watching the jumping competition off Stari Most. Young men would dive either feet-first or head-first into the river. Some divers performed at an Olympic level, their dives filled with tumbles and flips.

Kotor, Montenegro

I decided to make the trip down the Adriatic coast to Kotor, a town next to a fjord in one of Europe’s newest countries, Montenegro. The bus ride from Dubrovnik was supposed to take two hours, but after factoring in lateness and border crossings, the trip took around three hours.

The old town in Kotor is similar to Dubrovnik’s, with city walls and Venetian stone architecture. However, the walls extend up the adjacent mountain. Inside the old town were Orthodox and Catholic churches.

My absolute highlight was hiking up to Castel St John’s for the birds-eye view of Kotor, the mountains and the fjord. The scenery reminded me of what I experienced in Norway.

One intriguing story is that Roman and I took separate buses to Kotor since I had bought my bus ticket earlier and Roman found out last minute that they were all sold out. Thus, we agreed to meet at the Kotor bus station at around 10pm, when his bus was expected to arrive. I arrived at the Kotor bus station at 9:50pm and waited for 1.5 hours. He never showed up and I was not able to contact him since he did not bring his cell phone on the trip. I found out the next day that he came into Kotor a few minutes after I left the station. The long bus ride was due to a 2.5-hour wait at the border, quite unusual.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Roman and I decided to take another night bus, this time to Dubrovnik. This bus was 30 minutes late, which seems typical for Croatian buses nowadays. Along the way, we had to pass through internal Croatian police checkpoints, which I found odd and undemocratic.

Dubrovnik is a crown jewel. The intact Medieval city walls project a sense of invincibility. Inside are numerous churches and buildings, dating from Gothic, Medieval and Renaissance, all with Venetian influence.

My absolute highlight was hiking (in the blistering heat) to the top of a peak. Up there, I had a commanding view of the old town, harbor, Lokrum island and the many islands and islets along the Adriatic coast. The water was amazingly blue-green and it was a very clear day.

Hvar Island, Croatia

Hvar island is a 2-hour boat ride away from Split in the Adriatic Sea. This island has plenty of hills, beaches and Medieval towns to keep tourists busy. My favorite part was hiking to the Venetian fortress and getting a birds-eye view of Hvar town and the sea. Afterwards, I cooled down in the clear, blue-green waters of the Adriatic.

Split, Croatia

Split is the largest city on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. The city contains many Roman ruins and various Gothic stone buildings, the most famous of which are in the Diolectian‘s Palace complex. There are stone beaches nearby, but I doubt the water quality is good as there is a large harbor in the center of the city. Roman and I spent only a few hours wondering around the old town and harbor as we were mainly using the city as a base to explore Hvar island.

Also, another curious observation was the hordes of locals who bombard tourists at the bus station with offers of cheap, nearby rooms to stay in. Roman and I ended up staying with this old woman for about $20 each, which is pricey for Croatia. For that we shared a private bedroom. I was bummed at having to pay for accommodation as this was the first night I had to.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Roman and I spent another day touring some lakes, this time in central Croatia. Plitvice Lakes is a UNESCO world heritage national park that contains a series of lakes at different elevations with waterfalls cascading in between the lakes. The area is best known for being the setting for the movie Vinetou.

The lakes all contained blue-green, clear water. The water was so transparent that one could see the lake floor, with branches and tree trunks lying there. This reminded of China’s Jiuzhaigou lakes, which is very similar.

The highlight of my visit were the views of the lower elevation lakes and waterfalls from the mountains. There is no other place in the world that has this magical setting.

One intriguing story that occurred is that Roman and I wanted to take a night bus to Split. However, the bus never came and we were forced to sleep on picnic benches. As bad as it may sound, at least we got a clear sky with numerous stars. It was quite a shock to be woken up by the park ranger!

The next morning, we got on a bus to Split, but several of us had to stand in the narrow corridor in the bus. It baffles me how tourists are paying first-world prices for goods and services in Croatia and yet receive such unreliability and tardiness from the tourist industry people there.

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and has a small town feel. Most people who visit Croatia just head to the coast, but I felt that it would be intriguing to explore Zagreb.

The city has a small old quarter on two hills. One hill is the religious quarter containing the Gothic Cathedral surrounded by the remains of a Medieval wall. The other hill now contains many government buildings, including the Parliament and Presidential Palace. An interesting observation is that Croatia is not in the EU, yet there were EU flags on several government buildings. My favorite sight was St Mark’s Church, as its roof contains the coat of arms of Zagreb, Dalmatia and Slavonia, which are regions of Croatia.

Lakes Bled and Bohinj, Slovenia

I came to Slovenia for its Alpine lakes and they did not disappoint me! The most famous lake and the one that I originally came to Slovenia for is Lake Bled. On the way to Slovenia, some French girls persuaded me to also visit Lake Bohinj, which is bigger and more natural than Lake Bled.

Sorry for the cliché, but Lake Bled is postcard-perfect. The clear, turquoise, glacial lake is surrounded by hills with a castle perched on top of one of them. Furthermore, there is a small island on the lake with a church on it. I enjoyed walking around the lake and could spend an entire day just gazing at the turquoise water!

The second and my favorite of the two lakes I visited is Lake Bohinj. This lake is also glacial but has less of a turquoise color than Lake Bled. I prefer this lake more due to its natural, unspoilt beauty. Unlike Bled, Bohinj has few buildings by the lake. Bohinj also has numerous mountains surrounding its lake with plenty of hiking trails. I enjoyed my experience here so much that I could come back every summer for relaxation and rejuvenation.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is a town that reminded of Graz, Austria. Both towns have their fair share of Baroque and contemporary architecture; a river flows through the heart of each; and there is a castle perched on a hill in each city.

Ljubljana is small enough that one can cover the sights in less than one day. My highlights included the views from atop castle hill, witnessing a traditional Slovenian dance at a wedding and wandering into the village-like neighborhoods of Krakovo and Trnovo. It’s amazing how small Ljubljana is--walk 15 minutes south of the city center and one will feel like one has stepped into the countryside.

One memorable experience was my first tasting of horse meat, which I was told is not typical Slovenian cuisine. I consumed this is the form of a burger. I actually enjoyed horse meat more than beef as it was leaner.