Sunday, October 26, 2014

Memories of Greece and Turkey.

Posing in front of the Parthenon, atop the Acropolis in Athens.

Yasas! Merhaba! Hello! This is the diary of my trip to Greece and Turkey in 2014, my brother's and my annual trip this year.

We had a fantastic time and I was so relieved about that!  Since I was retired, I had time to plan each and every day of this 28 trip!  It was a LOT of research and planning  - I think I set a personal record for how much time and effort it took!  But, I am proud to say that from a logistics perspective, everything went smoothly - our flights arrived on time, our rental cars were waiting for us as promised, our accommodations all worked out - from hotels to guesthouses to apartments.


With all those worries aside, my brother and I could just focus on enjoying ourselves and boy, did we do just that!  It's hard to summarize our trip in just a few words so I'm not even going to try.  Instead, I'm going to try and summarize it as best I can so this opening post is VERY LONG.  You've been warned :-)

Charming Nafplio.

Our trip got off to a bit of a challenging start though, especially for Bro.  He had to fly from SFO to JFK where all he  had time to do was use the toilets before he had to board our flight to Athens.  Once we arrived in Athens, we had to immediately pick up our car and drive about two hours to the seaside town of Nafplio.  Poor guy. 

Nafplio

He lasted to about mid afternoon before exhaustion took over and he had to catch a short nap.  It had been incredibly long travel day and he was understandably tired.  On the other hand, adrenaline kept me up til bedtime so I explored a bit of the charming, small town while he napped.

Katakolo.  Watching the fishing boats come in to dock as we wait for dinner.

Next day, we had just a couple of hours to explore Nafplio before we had to hit the road to get to our next destination.  Our Greek road odyssey was beginning.  We followed Ms. Google Maps through the main roads of the Peloponnese to arrive at a second seaside town, Katakolo where we enjoyed a lovely seaside dinner and spent the night.

On our second full day in Greece, we visited the ancient ruins at Olympia.  What a place!  It's a lot of ruins and I mean ruins.  To the uneducated person like me, it looked like a really large field of rocks.  A lot of rocks.  The museum was nice though.

Olympia.

From Olympia, we headed inland to the mountains and the small town of Delphi.  There, we visited another set of ruins at a site that was dedicated to the Greek god, Apollo.  These were nicer ruins situated on a wonderful spot nestled in the mountains.  I also really enjoyed the visit to the museum which housed the ruins from the site.  My favorite room was the one that had the remains of the carved statues that once stood on the two pediments of the temple.  Amazing!

Delphi

Behind the wheel.
Bro had taken on the responsibility for driving and I was the navigator.  I had brought along my Garmin (installed with the European map for Greece and Italy) and I had my smartphone with Google Maps. Our T-Mobile phone plan gives us free international data in 120 countries and Greece is one of them so I was able to use Google Maps for free.  Thank God because some of our accommodations were not on searchable on Garmin.

We had no idea what the roads were going to be like but I can say that they are excellent!  Our journey mainly took us on the main highways which you would expect would be smooth driving and they were.  But the backroads were good as well - I think we have more potholes in the streets in my neighborhood than we encountered in Greece!

The drives were long and so we had to make many a road stop.  The best one was in the town of Lividi where we were introduced to pork souvlaki.  Oh, I drool just at remember those skewers of grilled, luscious pork!

Posing with Roussanou in the background.

From Delphi, we continued our trip in to the heart of central Greece.  Our next stop was my favorite place of the entire visit to Greece - Meteora.  We weren't able to visit all six of the monasteries but the ones we were able to visit I think were the nicest of the lot.  From a photography perspective, the nicest was Roussanou.  From a tourist perspective, Grand Meteoron truly lives up to its name.

Testing the water in Kamena Vourla.  It's cold!

Then, it was a short drive to another seaside town - Kamena Vourla.  A sleepy place off the beaten tourist path.  I had decided we needed a place to just rest up from all the driving that we had done up until this point in the trip.  It turned out to be exactly that.  We did nothing but eat and sleep.

Our visit to Kamena Vourla ended our Greek road trip. Next day, we drove back to the airport in Athens, returned the rental car, took the train to Monastiraki, walked a few blocks and met up with our Airbnb host who introduced us to our apartment which we would call home for the next three days.  Welcome to the big city!

Highlights of our stay in Athens include spending time in the central market stocking up our fridge and pantry, visiting the Acropolis and Parthenon and seeing the famed evzones conduct the changing of the guard ceremony that takes place every day near the Parliament building by Syntagma Square.  As a friend mine said to me about Athens, ruins are everywhere and indeed they are! By the end of the second day, we had had enough of ruins.  Thankfully, Athens has green spaces to be enjoyed as well as lovely neighborhoods that beckon to be strolled through.

Posing in front of the Erechtheion.

Posing with an evzone.  So cheesy :-)

Strolling through the Agora.  More ruins.

The National Garden.

At the Temple of the Olympian Zeus.

Strolling through the area around Anafiotika.

Buying seafood at the central market.

Standing outside the entrance to our apartment building.

Our apartment was located in the Monastiraki neighborhood, very close to the Ommonia neighborhood.   On the ground floor was a toy store, a women's clothing store and a coffee shop.   It was nice not being in the tourist zone; to not be surrounded by souvenir shops and restaurants serving lousy Greek food prepared for foreigners.  We stepped out each to the sights and sounds of Athenians going about their daily life. I loved it.

Whipping up dinner in our apartment kitchen.







We really enjoyed going to the central market, going every other day to pick up food items.  We fell in love with the baby squid and octopus and had our first taste (not good) of mantis prawns.  Except for one lunch, we cooked and ate all our meals in our apartment.  As a cook and foodie, I loved experimenting with using local ingredients.





Waiting for the train.
Though we did a LOT of walking in the city, we did make good use of the Athens Metro system which is excellent.  We never did figure out the ticketing system though when it came to the whole validating ticketing thing.  Do you only do it once if you have a multi-day ticket or do you do it with each ride? 

From Athens, we headed to Santorini.  Part of the time, we stayed in Oia and the other part in the more laid back seaside town of Kamari.  Oia was nice but oh so, so, so very congested with tourists!  While it was indeed a pretty place - it was the Greek sea village of my imagination, it was too touristic for my my tastes.  A suggestion if you do go, get up early and catch the sunrise view.  I think it's prettier than the sunset view and if you're lucky, there is no one else around to spoil the view and your time taking it in.

Santorini at sunrise.


I found our apartment on booking.com.  It was perfect both in terms of space, amenities and location (right in the center of Oia) and for $140 a night, comparatively cheap.  We had a splendid view of the caldera from our little patio.

On our first afternoon in Santorini, we took the walk down the 300+ steps to Ammoudi Bay and enjoyed a splendid view of the whitewashed homes of Oia clinging to the cliffside.

Ammoudi Bay by the water; Oia on the hillcrest.





Oia was also where I was introduced to the phenomenon that we nicknamed the Santorini bride.  We literally saw countless young, Chinese women posing for photos in their wedding gowns.  We joked that the richer brides had their photos professionally taken while the more budget conscious ones had the groom double as the photo taker.







We also spent time scoping out the small markets for food for our apartment.  It's always fun going food shopping in another country - I'm always curious to see what people eat.

Of course, that meant we had to cook for ourselves.  All we had was one teeny weeny burner and a pot that was meant for boiling water but we worked it out!

Yannis chatting with Bro.

In Oia, we had a wonderful property manager named Yannis who was very firendly, accommodating and helpful.  It's people like Yannis that are the reason I enjoy staying in apartments and small guesthouses.  I truly appreciate their kindness and hospitality.

Unloading luggage from our Santorini *limo*.
I had rented an itsy bitsy SmartCar convertible for our stay in Kamari.  The thing was so damn cute but surprisingly, it had enough space to hold our luggage and enough horse power (maybe donkey power?) to take us up many a steep hillside road.

We used it to explore the island and surprisingly, there is more to see in Santorini than you would think.

There's not much to Kamari - it's known for its black sand beach which in my opinion is really more a black pebble beach.  We did enjoy strolling the promenade at night.

Kamari at dusk.

Black sand beach at Kamari.  Ow!

On Santorini, we visited the Minoan ruins at Akrotiri and the Greek ruins at Ancient Thera. 

Akrotiri.

Ancient Thera.

We headed to two small traditional Greek villages - Pyrgos and Megalochori and we made our way to another small beach town - Perissa which is also known for its black sand beach.

Backstreets of Pyrgos.

Megalochori.

Perissa.

Breakfast at the guesthouse.

In Kamari, we stayed in a small guesthouse owned and operated by a brother, sister and her husband.  Their kindness, friendliness, generous hospitality and their willingness to dispense very helpful advice and I REALLY mean that, affirmed my love for the Greek people.  They really made us feel like family.

My original plan had us Greek island hopping from Santorini all the way to Turkey but that was contingent on ferry schedules.  I have to say, island hopping in Greece is NOT easy because ferry schedules are so difficult to determine in advance.  As I had NOT hoped would happen, our plans fell through and we ended up taking the ferry back to Athens and then from there, flying to Turkey.   I put Bro on the overnight ferry.   Poor guy had to sleep on the floor. See how well he puts up with me?

We arrived into Athens before the crack of dawn and our flight to Turkey would not leave until several hours later.  We had already predetermined we had to figure out where to stow our luggage during our Athens layover so we could do some last minute sightseeing.  Our first option was to use the storage lockers at the train station.  That proved to be a non option when we found out that for security reasons, the lockers are no longer available for use.  Our second option was to go to a travel agency that we found online, that will store luggage for a fee. Option two was not so desirable as the agency did not open until 9am.  Our guesthouse host in Kamari had told us that we could just simply approach any small shop or cafe owner and ask them if they would store the luggage for us.  I thought that to be unbelievable but we were in Greece but we did exactly as he suggested and lo and behold, the kind owner did indeed store our luggage for us!  In exchange, we bought a few pastries which turned out to be incredibly delicious!  I love Greece and it's people!

The cheerful cafe owner on the right and her equally cheerful employee on the left.

From Athens, we flew to Izmir, Turkey and then took the shuttle van to the seaside city of Kuşadası which was our home for a two days while we explored the famed Greco Roman ruins at Efes and made a return trip to Greece.

This was my third trip back to Turkey but it was Bro's first time.  It was fun to introduce him to things Turkish that are familiar to me.  Like dondurma.  He had his first taste in Kuşadası.
He fell for all the vendor tricks! He also discovered the marvelous flavors of Turkish ice cream - we indulged in some mulberry.



Our dolmuş selfie!


To get from Kuşadası to Efes, we took the dolmuş - the iconic local bus of small town Turkey.  It was a bit of an adventure and a very different experience for Bro.

Efes was as amazing a place as I remembered it to be.  I think Bro really enjoyed it as well.  Unlike the ruins we had seen in Greece, the ruins here are much more intact so you can more easily use your imagination to realize what they might have originally looked like.

At Efes with the Celcus Library in the background.

After spending a few hours strolling through Efes, we caught the dolmuş to the nearby town of Selcuk which is where I stayed on my last visit here.  The day we were at Efes was a Saturday and I know that's market day.  Bro loves markets as much as I do so I planned for us to go there.



Bro was definitely in his element poking through the baskets of fruits.  He ended up getting a bagful of figs and a Piel de Sapo aka Santa Claus melon, which was dirt cheap at just 1 lira - that's about 40 cents!

Our second full day in Turkey was actually spent back in Greece!  We took the ferry from Kuşadası to the nearby Greek island of Samos.  We arrived in to a place that was pretty much shuttered up for the tourist season.  It was deathly quiet and as a result, very peaceful and quiet; there were barely any tourists around.  We hired at taxi to take us from the ferry terminal to the seaside village of Pythagorio and back.  We spent the day exploring Pythagorio.

The harbor at Pythagorio.

The only historic site we visited was Lykourgos Castle.  We happened upon the Roma ruins that are strewn about the castle grounds and the cemetery first and then the castle after that.   The museum was open but we weren't interested in going inside.


Posing by a section of the defensive wall of Lykourgos Castle.

The next morning, we were standing outside Kayseri airport waiting for our tour van to pick us up.  We would spend the next couple of days on a conducted tour to eastern Turkey.  For me the highlight was our visit to Mount Nemrut.  We did the typical get-up-at-crack-of-dawn-hike-up-to-mountain-to-see-sunrise-and-fallen-heads thing.  We hiked up in the dark on a very cold, windy, damp morning.  No fun, that part.  Seeing the fallen heads though was amazing!

At the Eastern Terrace of Mount Nemrut.

Within the boundaries of Mount Nemrut Dağı, we also visited other sites remaining from the days of the Commagene Kingdom - Arsameia, Septimus Severus Bridge, and Karakus Tumulus.  I knew nothing of the Commagene Kingdom before visiting these sites and now, I know a wee bit more.  Someday, I will read up on the history.

Arsameia.

Septimus Severus Bridge.

Karakus Tumulus

That was just the morning of October 14.  In the afternoon, we visited a few more cultural sites.  The most interesting was the Bronze Age ruins at Gobekli Tepe, a site the predates Stonehenge.  I had never heard of the place before and so it was a very educational experience for me.


We also managed to squeeze in a quick visit to see the famed beehive homes of Harran.  Who knew there were adobe homes in Turkey?


We ended our day with an early evening walk in Urfa - through the part of town occupied by mosques, a pool and a cave that are all associated with the life of the prophet Abraham or Ibrahim as he is known to the Turks.

Rizvaniye Mosque and Halil-ur Rahman Lake also known as Balıklıgöl or Pond of Holy Carp.

From eastern Turkey, it was a roadtrip back to Cappadocia, back to a place that I absolutely LOVE.  I couldn't wait to share familiar views with Bro and to see new ones as well.  This was my third trip back to Cappadocia and yes, there were new sights and experiences for me!  We stayed in a cave hotel in the small village of Göreme which is where I stayed on both of my previous visits - I know the place well :-)

It was a short visit but we packed it all in! I had rented a car and we used the Red, Green and Blue Tours that pretty much every travel agency in Göreme offers, as guides for where to go and what to see.  Highlights from Cappadocia include visiting all the valleys - Rose, Red, White/Love, Pigeon, Monk's, Devrent/Imagination and Ilhara.  We also went to two Open Air Museums - Zelve and Göreme. 

Güllüdere (Rose Valley).

Paşabağ (Monk's Valley).

Baglidere (White/Love Valley).

Zelve Open Air Museum.

Göreme Open Air Museum.

My favorite new place was Selime Monastery, a rock cut monastery complex (complete with church and cathedral) located in the Ilhara Valley.

Selime Monastery.  It was cold and rainy but that deter me from exploring this fascinating place!

We capped off our four week long Greece/Turkey odyssey with four and a half days in one of my all time favorite cities - Istanbul!  I told Bro I saved the best for last.

Again, I had booked an apartment for us. We stayed in the neighborhood of Cihangir, off the tourist path.  We had fun scouring the supermarkets for food - we figured we would have breakfast at home and eat out for lunch and dinner.

We really enjoyed our time exploring Cihangir and nearby Taksim   I had help from my Turkish friend and former Istanbul resident, Ayşe, to plan our daily itinerary. There was so much to see and do in Istanbul and really, not enough time to cover everything but we did what we could and what we wanted to.  A few of the highlights of our time in Istanbul include visits to the iconic landmarks like the Aya Sophia, the Sultanahmet Mosque, the Basilica Cistern and grand Topkapı Palace.

Exploring Cihangir.

The entrance to our apartment building was through the door on the left.

Breakfast in our apartment.

Istiklal Caddesi in the heart of Taksim.

Bro also had his first visits to a mosque with Yeni Cami where I led him to the exact spot where I took the photo that won him his iPad mini. 

Yeni Cami.

We also went to two mosques that I had never been to before - Süleymaniye Cami and Rüstem Paşa Cami.

Rüstem Paşa Cami.

Süleymaniye Cam.

I took Bro to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar but it was the small Plant and Pet markets that really caught his attention!   I was surprised by the leeches....yes, they sell leeches in the Plant Market!

Dazzled by the Grand Bazaar.

Checking out the offerings at the Plant Market.

We walked across the Galata Bridge and watched the iconic fishermen of Istanbul cast out their lines and reel in their catches.


We did the Bosphorus Cruise - very touristy but a must-do nonetheless.

On the Bosphorus ferry.

One of my favorite vistas in Istanbul.  Photo of Yeni Cami and the fish restaurants taken from the Bosphorus ferry.

On our second day, we visited the three iconic landmarks of Istanbul - the magnificent Aya Sophia, the glorious Sultanahmet Cami aka the Blue Mosque and the dungeon like Basilica Cistern.

Aya Sophia.

Sultanahmet Cami aka the Blue Mosque.

In the dark bowels of the Basilica Cistern.

We topped off our list with a visit to Topkapı Palace. Although I have been here once before, I did not explore all the nooks and crannies as I did this time with Bro. We really checked out the place well!



Less touristy, we took a day trip to Büyükada, the largest of the nine Princes Islands that are technically a part of Istanbul.  We had a very enjoyable horse carriage ride around the island and found time to just sit and people watch.





Of course, you can't go to Turkey and not enjoy the delectable cuisine.  By the time we reached Istanbul, we had had more than our fair share of kebabs and the like.  In Istanbul, we discovered the foodie joy of eating in a lokantası.  We happened upon one on our first day, in Taksim and then we discovered the one in our neighborhood - right across the street from our apartment.  We ate at
Özkonak three nights out of the four that we were in Istanbul.

Balkan lokantası, Taksim.

Özkonak lokantası, Cihangir.

Last but not least were the grilled chicken wings or tavuk kanat as they call them in Turkish.  We stumbled on the small eatery that serves these finger licking good, delectable bites on our way to Rüstem Paşa Cami. On our first visit, we shared a plate.  We left obsessing over the wings and on our last day in the city, we managed to find our way back to it - it's a challenge in the labyrinth of streets around Rüstem Paşa Cami.

Közde Kanatçı Muro in the Fatih neighborhood of Istanbul.

We didn't cover everything there is to see and do in Greece and Turkey but we most certainly made the most of our short time in both countries!  I ended each day thrilled by what I had experienced and always looked forward to what the next day held.  I fell asleep each night exhausted from the day and that was a good thing!

If it's not obvious by now, we had a phenomenal time on our trip!  We left with warm memories for a life time and we should be so lucky to some day be able to come back and discover even more of both Greece and Turkey!  Yes, I hope there will be a fourth trip to Turkey in my future!

This a travelogue details our trip to Greece and Turkey  It includes a selection of the photos and videos that we took along the way.  To make it easier to navigate, I've created a "Table of Contents" (below) which has links to each of the postings. To read each blog posting, simply click the link for that particular posting. Click on the Back button on your browser to return to the "Table of Contents".

I hope you enjoy reading about our travels as much as we did experiencing them!

The Trip

Planning & Research