Switzerland: Is this real life?

The train into Switzerland was a beautiful ride. The further into Switzerland we got the more beautiful it was. We arrived in Interlaken in the late evening. We had about a fifteen minute walk from the train station to the hostel, Balmers Herberge. The town was peaceful and quiet and the cool, fresh air was such a relief from the previous weeks of heat on the Mediterranean.

We checked into our eight bed hostel dorm, which was actually pretty comfortable, and luckily our roommates were friendly. Balmers seemed to be a decent hostel, but definitely had a younger “party” crowd, which made it quite noisy at night.

The next morning we took the local train up the mountain to the village of Grindewald. We walked through the village and then took a gondola further up the mountain to First. We had planned on doing a hike down to a little lake, which should have only been a less than two hour round trip hike on a fairly easy trail. It took us about an hour to get to the lake which was about what we expected. Once we got there, we looked at our map and saw that there was another route that would take us to a different stop on the gondola that was only about half an hour longer of a hike, so we decided to be adventurous and give it a go! So, about four hours into the hike, we realized we had gone down the wrong path, which was a much longer and much more difficult hike than we had planned, but the views we got were amazing! We walked alongside some herds of cows, with their chiming bells. We came across some mountain goats munching on some flowers, and crossed some beautiful little streams on rickety, wooden bridges. About halfway down, we arrived at a beautiful little cafe up in the mountains, which seemed to be the hikers hangout. We shared a sandwich and some water, and then hit the trail again. Once again, we chose the more intense path. Instead of taking the smooth trail that went around the side of the mountain we ended up on a path that basically went straight down the side of the mountain. At the end of the day every inch of our bodies were sore, but we enjoyed a cold beer and felt that we had earned it.

The next day we had planned on going up to Jungfraujoch, but the train tickets had sold out the night before. Instead, we spent the morning doing laundry and getting our bags reorganized. While we were waiting for our laundry we met a really nice guy from Seattle who was traveling by himself. We ended up talking with him for the two hours it took to do laundry. By the time our laundry was done it was lunch time, so we ended up walking to town and having lunch with our new friend. After lunch he was catching a train to his next travel destination. Although it was a short amount of time, it is always nice to meet other travelers that are on a similar yet completely different journey than ourselves.

We spent the rest of the day walking around town, looking in shops, and planning what we were going to do for the next few days.

The events that happened later that night changed my entire outlook on what I thought was a great hostel. We were getting ready for bed, I had just climbed up on my top bunk when I noticed something climbing up the wall directly next to my face…instinct set in…smack…splat! It was the dreaded hostel nightmare…a bed bug!!! I grabbed my flashlight and shined it in the cracks of the paneling on the wall and sure enough there were several more. In disgust I jumped off of the bed and was grateful we had put our bags in lockers that were outside versus having them be infested with bugs in the room. Scott went down to the front desk and explained to them what happened and what we saw. The guy quickly apologized and offered to move us to a private room on a different floor at the other end of the building. He told Scott that they would be removing the beds that we had been in and would be spraying the room to take care of the problem.. Originally we considered leaving the hostel and trying to stay somewhere else, but being the small town that it is, basically every hostel and hotel in Interlaken were booked for the night. When we got to our new room I spent an hour doing a thorough inspection of every inch of the room with my flashlight to ensure there were no bugs that would be feasting on us. I hardly slept all night thinking bugs were crawling on me.

Early the next morning on our way down from our room Scott poked his head in the infested room to see if they had moved the beds out like they had told us they would do. We were in shock to see that there were already two new people sleeping in those beds!!! We asked the girl at the front desk about it when we got downstairs and all she told us was “It's Saturday. We get anyone to come spray for bugs on a Saturday and the beds in the entire hostel are booked.” It is understandable that bed bugs can happen, but it is unbelievable that they didn't do anything about it and would allow two unsuspecting victims to check into a room when they knew there was a problem. It was sickening! We asked for a refund for our last night since we had originally planned on staying one more night, and then we booked a room at the Renaissance in Zurich, where we would be going after our day at Jungfrau. There is a definite point where we draw the line on budget traveling.

After we checked out of the hostel, we hopped on a train up to Jungfraujoch since we hadn't gone the day before. The train ride to the “top of Europe” was extremely pleasant and the views were breathtaking. Once we got all the way up to the top we sat and had lunch to allow ourselves a little time to adjust to the elevation. We went all the way up to the Sphinx viewing platform, which is at 11,716ft above sea level. We wandered through the alpine exhibit and the Eispalast (ice palace), which was formed in the inside of a glacier. After the exhibits, we went out and walked around in the snow and got some great pictures.

We rode the train back down the mountain, which took almost two hours. Once we got back down to Interlaken we grabbed our bags and headed to the train station. We got to Zurich around 6:30 pm, checked into the Renaissance, ordered some room service, and had the best nights sleep we'd had in days. Next stop…Munich!


Dolce Vita!

Our time in Italy was short and sweet! Since we both had previously spent quite a bit of time in Italy on previous trips, we opted to quickly jaunt through Italy in trade for more time in other places. However, the little bit of time we did spend in Italy was “perfecto!”

We landed in Roma and took a shuttle to the Hotel Artemide where we stayed for one night. The hotel was great, the location was great, and the staff was great, with the exception of the evening desk attendant whom we think may have been boozing it up behind the desk, due to his slurred speech and bloodshot eyes.

Since we had less than twenty four hours in Rome we decided to hit up one major feature, and spend the rest of the evening relaxing and enjoying the delicious cuisine.

We both had been to Rome multiple times before, however I had only ever seen the Colosseum from the outside. So we braved the heat and the worst of summer's tourist lines and had a great time touring the Colosseum.

We had a delicious, overpriced pizza margherita for lunch and a bite of gelato walking back from the colosseum.

Later in the evening, we took a stroll to the Trevi Fountain and made some wishes with American pennies. We had done some research on Tripadvisor for dinner restaurants, but when we got to the restaurant we had chosen, it was closed. We were a little bummed, but we ended up having a delightful dinner at a little restaurant we found walking back towards our hotel. The food wasn't the best food we've had in Italy, but it wasn't bad, and the atmosphere was nice.

In the morning we headed to the train station to catch the train to Firenze. We ended up having to wait quite a while in line at the train station, to get our Eurail passes validated and reserve our seats on a train.

When we got to Florence we walked from the train station to the Relaiz Uffizi. The Relaiz Uffizi is an older, but nice, hotel we had stayed at a few years back. It sits above a restaurant overlooking the Piazza del' a Uffizi, which is a great location. We spent the day strolling the leather market, the Ponte Vecchio, passed by the Duomo, and ate lots of gelato. Florence has always been one of our favorite cities, and still is. It is so charming just to stroll the narrow streets and busy piazzas (however, we would definitely never come back in the height of tourist season).

The next morning we hopped on a train to Venizia. The train ride was pleasant and entertaining. We had another young American couple just across the isle from us, and an EXTRA friendly Italian man that sat next to Scott. The couple we sat next to were from a small town in Texas, and it was their first time to Europe. It was interesting to hear about their experience, and what their perceptions were about being out of the U.S. for the first time.

The extra friendly Italian guy sitting next to Scott, was a whole other experience. When the train attendant came by, we all were given a packet of cookies, a beverage, and a wet wipe. The Italian man opened up his wet wipe and proceeded to wipe down his hands, his face, and his entire hairy arms. Then he looks at both of us, holding the wipe up to his nose and says “Perfume! Perfume!” We both politely nodded our heads in concurrence that the wipes had a fresh smell to them. He then kept insisting that we smell our wipes. We both just continued to smile and tried not to laugh. He then took the wipe he had just finished using to practically bathe himself with and held it up to Scott's face insisting that he smell the “Perfume!”. At this point Scott is hanging half way out into the isle trying to avoid the guys insistent gesture. For the rest of the train ride the Italian guy continued to look over Scott's shoulder to look at his ipad, to see Scott's cards while we played Gin, and he seemed to be intently listening to our conversations even though he didn't seem to speak a word of English. It was reminiscent of a scene out of the movie Euro Trip.

When we got to Venice, we dropped our bags at the Novecento, which was another great hotel that had been recommended to us by Scott's sister. We headed to a restaurant for lunch that had been recommended to us by the concierge at the hotel. It was a fabulous little restaurant that seated no more than twenty guests, not one other person at the tables around us was a tourist, all of the pasta was freshly made, and the chef even came out to talk with guests.

After lunch we ended up going into a Venitian mask store that was just a couple doors down from the place we had lunch. All of the masks were so beautiful and all hand made and painted in the store. We ended up purchasing two beautiful masks that we had shipped home. Come to find out, the place we bought the masks was the place that made all of the masks for the movie “Eyes Wide Shut”, they had also made some masks for Leonardo DiCaprio, and were the number one recommended mask shop in our guide book. We completely lucked out because neither one of us knew about it and unknowingly chose the best!

We spent the rest of the day strolling along the canals, browsing in shops, and eating pizza by the slice at little pizza shops. It was perfection! We were so glad we did so much strolling the first day, because the next morning we woke up to thunder and rain. We spent the morning enjoying our nice comfortable bed because we knew we would be staying in a few hostels for the next couple of weeks.

Italy still truly is one of the best places to visit. The food is great, the people are friendly for the most part, and it is always so charming.


Greece: A Little Slice of Paradise

We flew from Istanbul, thru Athens, to Santorini. We chose to fly on Aegean Airlines, which turned out to be a great little airline. We were thoroughly impressed. We were served sandwiches on the first leg of our flight, chocolate chip cookies on the second leg of the flight, and the planes were fairly new and very clean.

We landed on the island late in the evening. We took a taxi from the airport to the post office in Oia, per the directions of the place we were staying. The cab ride apparently was an adventure in itself…however I missed it because I was asleep in the back seat the entire time. Scott said the cab driver was speeding down the winding highway that runs from Fira to Oia along the coast. He said the cab driver was passing cars on curves, barely making it around before another car came from the other direction. Either way, I was oblivious to it, and I woke up in paradise.

Now when I say that Greece was a little slice of paradise, let me clarify that not all of Greece was paradise. Santorini was definitely the slice that I speak of, and Athens on the other hand was as far from paradise as you can get…I'll get to that later.

The taxi let us off near the post office, where we had a short walk to the restaurant Lotza, where we got checked in to our villa. Walking up from the post office to the restaurant, was like stepping into another world. As we lugged our packs up through the archway that leads to the main pedestrian walkway of Oia we were passed by a string of donkeys carrying people down the hill. The street was crowded in a pleasant, festive way with both locals and other tourists browsing the shops and enjoying dinner at the street side tavernas.

When we got to Lotza a kind young man who spoke little English walked us from the restaurant down the street to our little villa. Once we entered the gate and walked down the stairs to our villa all the noise of the bustling town disappeared and the only thing that remained was a beautiful view of the still water and the caldera. It was definitely paradise.

Our room was a little cavelike, but simple and clean. We had great air conditioning, which was a Godsend, a little kitchenette, and a decent bathroom (minus the fact that you can't flush the toilet paper).

We spent the next couple days discovering the little island, and most importantly enjoying the delicious cuisine.

One day we took the bus from Oia to Fira and spent a few hours wandering around that little town, enjoyed a delicious lunch and then headed back to our little house with a view. It was very relaxing and we could have stayed forever.

After three days of relaxing in Santorini we decided to fly to Athens where we would have a day and a half to see some of the historic ruins.

We landed in Athens in the middle of the afternoon and rode the metro into the city, which popped us out right near our hotel, and the Monastiraki square. Athens was definitely not the same paradise as Santorini. The streets were filthy and the walls covered in graffiti. Everywhere you turned there was a homeless person or someone trying to sell you something or begging for money. Athens was definitely not a place that felt safe to walk around at night.

We stayed at a hotel called A for Athens, which was actually really nice once you got inside. The room was huge and clean, and very comfortable. The hotel also had a rooftop terrace where we had drinks our first night.

We walked all the way up to the Acropolis and saw the Parthenon and other ruins. We also walked all the way to the first Olympic stadium, Hadrian's Arch, and the Temple of Zeus.

The day we walked to all of the sights, we were on our way to Hadrian's Arch, and witnessed the most horrific thing yet on our entire trip. We passed a family walking the opposite direction, the parents with two young boys. Just after we passed them, a man on a motorbike came zipping past us. Then we heard the loud screech of his brakes. We both turned back when we heard him lock up his brakes, just in time to see the motorbike slam directly into the back of one of the little boys we had just walked by. A crowd started to gather around the boy and the frantic parents, while one man called for the police. We stayed around for a few minutes, but with the already growing crowd of onlookers, we weren't going to be any help, so we headed on our way. The image of the boy getting hit stayed with me the rest of the day. I couldn't help but hope that he was okay and that he only had minor injuries, but we will never know.

From a historical standpoint Athens was very interesting. The food in Athens was also great, but from every other aspect, Athens was not a great place to be. Every restaurant we passed someone was trying to lure us in, but what we found out, was if you sit down in a restaurant as opposed to buying the same food take-away, the price quadruples. We found that we could order to gyros and two bottles of water for 6 Euros for take-away, but if you ordered just one gyro and sat in the restaurant it was 8 Euros for just the one.

We would definitely return to the Greek islands in the future, however visiting Athens once was definitely enough.


Istanbul…Not Constantinople!!!

Getting There…First Class

Our flight to Istanbul was the first time either one of us had been on a first class international flight where the seats leaned back completely flat. It was actually comical trying to figure out how to work all of the controls for the eight different positions of the seats. We landed in London had a quick connection to Istanbul and there we were, in the city of minarets and mosques.

We checked in to the Ottoman Park Hotel in the old part of Istabul, which was a decent hotel, but did have a pretty steep climb to get to the sights. If we were to come back to Istanbul we would probably stay somewhere that was a little closer to things.

Mosques, Minarets, and Our Favorite Place

The first evening we arrived in Istabul we had a nice relaxing night in to recover from the 30 hours of traveling.

The next morning we woke up bright and early and enjoyed an interesting breakfast on the terrace of the hotel which had an excellent view.

After breakfast we made the trek up the hill and our first stop was the Hagia Sofia. It was a beautiful place, the only downside was there was so much restoration going on, that a lot of the mosaics were covered up and blocked off.

Next we headed over to the Topkapi Palace, which took a couple hours to walk through, including the harem, and we still didn't see the entire thing. At this point, the heat of the day began to become a little overwhelming so we decided to head back to the hotel for a while to cool off and get out from under the sun that was beating down on us all morning.

We opted to have a more relaxing afternoon, or so we thought. We decided to head over to one of the oldest hamams in Istanbul (Turkish Spa). Boy were we in for an experience. When we arrived they ask you to remove your shoes and give you a pair of the clunkiest wooden sandals to wear that were almost nearly impossible to walk in. They then took us upstairs to a tiny changing room where they gave Scott a little cloth to wrap around his waist, and I was given a cloth biki top and the most awkward, unflattering shorts to wear. After changing they took us down to an extremely hot room where you sit on a giant marble slab in the center of the room that was over a hundred degrees. We sat in the room for about 30 minutes waiting for our treatment. It was miserably hot to be in there that long and the only way to cool off was to pour a bowl of cold water over your head from a little faucet that was at the other end of the room. Finally they came to take us back for our massage. First they had us sit on the ground and they dump really cold water over our heads, which was refreshing after sitting in the heat. Next they took a really rough loofah exfoliating all of our limbs, and torso. We then hopped up on the two marble tables in the room where they cover you completely in bubbles! So many bubbles! They then continued with a massage that included folding us up like pretzles and slapping us on the back and legs about every two minutes. At this point the heat in the room was so overwhelming I was on the verge of passing out. I think the masseur noticed by the look on my face, so he proceeded by pouring bowl after bowl of cold water over me. Then they sat us back down on the ground, covered our entire heads with coconut shampoo and washed our heads including our faces and once again came the bowls of cold water. We were then ushered out of the room where they had us change out of the soaking awkward clothes and wrapped us up in Turkish towels and were seated in a slightly cooler room where they offered us beverages. We both gulped down our drinks as fast as possible and then went back to our changing rooms to get back into our normal clothes so we could leave. We weren't sure if it was a relaxing experience, but it did take us the rest of the day to get our body temperatures back down.

After our hamam experience, we walked up and down the crumbling streets looking for a restaurant to eat at and came across a little local market. We wandered through the market we finally found a kebab place to eat and had some lunch.

The next day was a little better of an experience. We walked to the bazaar, which had so many little shops. However, compared to the souks of Marrakech it seemed more like a little shopping mall. After the bazaar we walked through the spice market, we crossed the Galata bridge, then walked all the way up to Taksim square.

The street leading to Taksim is considered the “new” part of Istanbul, however it was still pretty dingy. However, it was kind of charming with the little red trolley that carts people up and down the shop lined streets. We wandered off the main drag to find a little place for lunch called Durumzade. We had heard about the little kebab place on Anthony Bourdain's show. The durum kebabs were delicious!

Finally, we arrived a Taksim square which seemed pretty peaceful considering the protests that had occured just the night before. There was still some evidence of the police armored vehicles and barriers, but no protests during the day.

We opted to take the trolley back down and the tram as close as we could get to the hotel to avoid trekking through the heat.

In the evening we went to watch the whirling dervishes, which was fun for about the first five minutes, and then almost put us to sleep. After the show, we sat at a street side kebab restaurant. We sat at a long table with a bunch of locals that sat patiently waiting for the sun to go down to break their fast for Ramadan. The moment the time to eat rolled around the narrow streets became a little festival of feasting.

Our last morning in Istanbul we went to the Blue Mosque. We were handed little plastic bags to put our shoes in when we entered and all the women had to cover their heads. The tile work in the mosque was impressive, however we thought the mosque was much prettier from the outside.

After the mosque we headed down the street to the Cistern Basilica. Out of all of the sights we had seen in Istanbul, this underground hidden gem was our favorite. It was cool and quiet and did not have nearly the crowds as the other sights. The reflection of the pillars off of the water was beautiful and we enjoyed watching all of the fish swimming around the pilars.

We then headed back to our hotel to check out and take a cab to the airport. Overall, we would say Istanbul was an “interesting” experience.

Durams and Doners!!

Duram kebabs vs. Doner kebabs? That was the challenge of our time in Istanbul. Anyone you ask in Istanbul “where can I get the best kebab?” you will get a different answer. The hotel we stayed at recommended a place called Hamdi when we asked where to get a kebab. We were expecting the meat filled sandwich when we ordered the kebab, but instead we were served a plate of meat with veg. None the less, it was delicious, but not our favorite.

We tried a place called Durumzade for lunch one day…and it was a winner! It was a small little joint a couple blocks off of the main drag in the “new” town. We had heard about it on Anthony Bourdain's show. They freshly prepared our food as we ordered it. The meat was skewered with a hint of spiciness and served on a warm tortilla like bread that had been used to soak up all of the fat and juices from the meat. This was amazing!!! We would highly recommend this place to anyone who likes delicious hole in the wall joints.

We also tried another Durum kebab at a little place right near the whirling dervish show. Scott enjoyed his kebab, however there was a little too much fat on the meat for my taste.

The verdict for us was the durum kebab at Durumzade by far was the best meal we ate in Turkey…Second up was the delicious baklava we picked up at a little shop on the way back to our hotel one night.


Hairy Coos and Irn Brus

Our journey from Dublin to Edinburgh started bright and early. I guess technically I should say dark and early, since we had to get a cab to the airport before the sun even came up. Half asleep from the little sleep we had the night before, we threw some clothes on and lugged our bulging backpacks down the stairs of the B&B down to the cab. As we were getting ready to climb in the cab, my brother Brandon randomly got a nose bleed. So there we were, a little delirious and half asleep, just rolled out of bed, Brandon with a tissue stuffed up his nose, all crammed in the back seat of a cab at 4:30 in the morning…I'm sure it was a sight to see. As we were driving, Brandon taps my arm and discretely points to the cab driver who kept bouncing his left shoulder up and down about every five seconds. The cab driver had some sort of twitch. His shoulder twitch almost perfectly lined up with the beat of the music on the radio. It looked like some sort of awkward dance move! We were holding in our laughs to the point where I had tears running out. When we got out of the cab at the airport, we finally burst out laughing. We were already off to an interesting start.

We got on our flight and landed in Edinburgh early enough to still eat breakfast at a little place that Scott used to eat at all the time when he stayed in Edinburgh several years ago.

The city was absolutely beautiful, I'd almost say it was enchanting. Walking up the old cobblestone roads with the castle as a backdrop was so fun. I now understand how J.K. Rowling was able to think up the setting for the Harry Potter books while she was in Edinburgh.

We spent three days in Edinburgh before we toured some other areas of Scotland. The first night, we had dinner at a restaurant called The Last Drop that was in the Grass Market Area, followed by a ghost tour. The ghost tour was actually really cool. They walk you through the city, down into the old underground damp quarters where hundreds of people lived in horrible conditions back in the day. They told us the story about how they had all been consumed by a fire and hundreds of people died down there. Next, we toured the graveyard where there apparently resides one of the most documented poltergeists. Luckily for us, we saw absolutely no ghosts or had no poltergeist experiences on our tour.

The next day, we did a Sandeman's free walking tour that was actually pretty interesting to learn more about the history of the city. We spent the rest of our time Edinburgh exploring the city by foot, and even did a whisky experience tour where we got to try different whiskies.

Our accommodations in Edinburgh were less than par for the course. We stayed in a hostel to save some money so we could splurge a little more when we got back to Paris, but at least we had a place to sleep and shower that was close to everything else.

From Edinburgh we embarked on a three day tour of Scotland that included the Isle of Skye, Loch Ness, and Inverness. We opted to do another bus tour, since we thought it might have been a disaster to try and rent a car and drive on the other side of the road. Tony our tour guide was from Glasgow and had a great sense of humor. Tony and Scott got along great, probably some sort of ginger connection.

There were a few really nice people on our tour bus, the rest were just plain annoying.

Our first major stop of the tour was at the William Wallace monument. Since then, we have been dying to watch the movie Braveheart. It was a pretty steep hike up to the top of the mountain where the monument sits, but totally worth the hike.

During the tour we also got to see lots of hairy coos and tried out the Scottish soda Irn Bru, which is sweeter than any other drink we've ever had.

We also saw lots of castles, did lots of hiking in scenic areas, and did a cruise on Loch Ness where we had a Nessie spotting.

We stopped at Glencoe, which turned out to top our list of most beautiful places we've travelled to. The mountains and valleys were so green, with random cascading waterfalls sprinkled around the mountains. Once again, no adventure would be complete without some sort of mishap. So, before we got to Glencoe, the tour guide told us to be careful when hiking down the slope because it might be a little wet. Well, that was a gross understatement! Scott had packed his sneakers in his backpack which was under the bus with the other luggage, so he only had his sandals to do the hike in. Oh well, how bad could it be? It was bad…very bad. Every other step we took on the hike, our feet squished down into the marsh about two inches allowing muddy, marshy water to freely flow into our shoes making it very slick and extremely uncomfortable. Scott's feet were completely covered in mud and he couldn't take a step,without his feet sliding out of his sandals. He finally took his shoes off and hiked the rest of the way without shoes. On the way back up to the bus we crossed a tiny stream of water where Scott washed the mud out from between his toes and rinsed his sandals. Unfortunately for me, my entire socks and shoes were soaked for the rest of the day, but it was totally worth the pictures We got of the breathtaking views.