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.

 

Every Shade of Green: Ireland

We flew into Dublin from Marrakech, where we would be starting our two weeks in Ireland. It was a nice change in pace having come from chaotic Marrakech. Also, my brother Brandon who is on summer break from college, flew in to Dublin to travel with us for a few weeks.

We spent one full day in Dublin before we embarked on a nine day Paddywagon tour that would take us all around Ireland and Northern Ireland. During our one day in Dublin before the tour, we went out exploring the city. We checked out the Temple Bar area where we had several pints, stopped by the Peterson's pipe store so Scott could buy a new pipe, and then had a full Irish breakfast at a restaurant on Grafton Street…and yes we even ate the black pudding.

The next day we met at the Paddywagon bus bright and early. Our first stop on the tour was the Guinness brewery. Not only was having beer for breakfast fabulous, it was also a great way to start to get to know the other people that we would be spending the next couple of weeks with. It turns out, we ended up with a great group of people on our tour who we became pretty good friends with over the next several days!

As we headed out into the countryside, the rolling green hills of Ireland were absolutely gorgeous sprinkled with random castles and farm animals. We stopped to hike around Dunmase Castle, where we had some amazing panoramic views.

We continued on towards the Dingle peninsula, making a quick stop in a small town called Adare. It was a cute village with thatched roof houses. We then made a short stop at a beach, and also stopped along the way to take pictures of the breathtaking cliffs on the coast.

We spent our first night of the tour in a hostel in a small village called Annascaul. It was pretty rainy and windy outside, so we hunkered down in the Randy Leprechaun pub with our new friends.

The next day we spent some time in the town of Dingle, followed by more hiking on the coast, a visit to the fertility rock, and then made our way down to Killarney which would be our home base for the next couple of nights.

On day three of the tour, we had an early start. We grabbed a quick breakfast at the hostel, and then headed to the local horse stables for a morning ride through the national park.

 

After our morning ride, we headed out for a scenic drive. We spent the afternoon doing more hiking along the Ring of Kerry, saw another castle, stopped at a delicious chocolate factory, and also did some hiking up to a really pretty waterfall.

The following day we headed to Cork, stopping at the Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone. Apparently kissing the stone will give you the gift of gab. Scott kissed the stone for the second time in his life…Lord help us! Those that know Scott, know that he needs no help in the gab area.

 

We stayed the night in Cork, where we enjoyed sampling more pubs. The next morning, day five, we headed to the Cliffs of Mohair, stopped off for a pub lunch, and then on to Gallway. The climb up to the cliffs was steep, and the drop off the cliffs was a little frightening, but once we got to the top I couldn't resist sitting on the edge.

When we arrived in Gallway, we settled into our rooms and then went out for a night on the town.

On day six of the tour we headed up to Northern Ireland, starting in the city of Derry. At this point, the tour kind of shifted from all castles and rolling hills, to an interesting history lesson about the less pleasant times in Ireland's past, including the potato famine and the troubles. We stopped at a museum where we learned about How Ireland was affected by the hardships brought on by the potato famine and how it affected the people of those times.

The first night in Derry, we walked decided to have a night in to recover from several nights out at the pub. So we walked down to a local grocery store with a group of friends from the tour and then we prepared a feast in the hostel kitchen. After dinner, we had a last playing several rounds of the card game UNO.

The next morning we did a walking tour of Derry which was guided by a local man who taught us about the history of the troubles, and about Bloody Sunday and the activities that followed. It was a little eerie to think of all of the violence that occurred not so long ago in a town that seems to be so peaceful now.

After lunch we went out to Glenveagh National Park, where we toured a historic castle and grounds. It was a nice mood lifter after such a heavy morning. The grounds and the castle were absolutely gorgeous, unfortunately, the weather was not so gorgeous…typical Irish rain.

The second night in Derry, we strolled around the town, we had dinner at a pub, and then made our way down to watch a local soccer match. On the way to the stadium we passed a group of soccer hooligans we had seen earlier at the pub. As we passed by they started chanting “Alan! Alan! Wolf Pack! Hangover!” Apparently, they thought Scott looked like the guy from the movie The Hangover. Scott played along by pumping his fist in the air and the guys would cheer. It was hysterical! We had a pretty good laugh.

The soccer game was a bunch of fun. We especially enjoyed the group of old timers sitting behind us cracking jokes at each other in their heavy Irish accents. The local team won the match, which made the game exciting.

The next day we packed up and headed along the Northern coast making two major stops at the Giant's Causeway and the Rope Bridge. It was rainy again, but we wouldn't let that stop our fun.

Our last night of the tour we spent in the city of Belfast. Although Belfast wasn't our favorite city, the history of the separation of the Catholics and Protestants was fascinating. In the morning we took a cab tour of both sides of the city that are still separated by a wall. We even got to leave a message on the wall.

On the way out of town, we stopped at the harbor where the Titanic was built and launched. There is now a museum and gift shop.

Our tour ended back in Dublin. There were several of us on the tour that didn't have flights out of Ireland until a couple days later, so we spent the next day in Dublin doing a walking tour and having dinner with our friends from the tour. At the end of our last night in Ireland, we had a big group hug and went our separate ways. Hopefully we will see our new friends again as we make our way across the world to some of the places they are from.

 

Madrid, You Were Good To Us

We arrived in Madrid in the late afternoon on a Friday. We took the train from the airport to the Sol station, which would put us at about a five minute walk from our hotel, hotel Miau. The walk should have been an easy walk, however in good Achen fashion, we followed our Google map about a mile in the completely wrong direction…uphill…in the sweltering heat…carrying all of our gear. Let's just say, some not so friendly words were said between each other. But don't fret! We quickly made up like we always do, the minute we got to our hotel and had a chance to cool off…literally with giant bottles of ice water.

After a short siesta, we spent the rest of our evening strolling the streets surrounding La Plaza De Santa Ana and meandered our way to a small tapas restaurant called Maceiras. The restaurant was small but crowded, with friendly but assertive wait staff. The menus were hand written in Spanish on round wooden boards (they also handed us an English menu, probably because Scott does not look like he speaks Spanish…which he doesn't). We ordered several delicious tapas, stuffed ourselves, headed back to our hotel, where we could hear crowds mingling and music playing from the plaza directly below our balcony. The Spanish have it figured out! This is the way to live life. Take your time. Take siestas. Share varieties of delicious food with each other. Drink sangria!

We spent the next couple days doing lots and lots of walking from plaza to plaza, stopping at tapas bars along the way. We also had the strangest experience on one of our walks, which could be one of the funniest. While walking past the Palace and Gardens, we were past by a large group of bicyclists that were all COMPLETELY naked, shouting things, with only words painted on their bodies! We were so caught of guard. It was both disgusting and hysterical. It is an image that We're sure will be forever engraved in our brains!

Laundry day

 

We took in a flamenco show at a place called Las Tablas, which was wonderful. It was Scott's first time seeing flamenco and we were thoroughly impressed.

 

We also opted to go to the bull fights. It was a once in a lifetime experience. The tradition involved and the decadence of the costumes and movement of the matadors is truly a beautiful art form, but not for the weak stomach. It was a ONCE in a lifetime experience…and we did feel a little bad for the animals, but appreciated the cultural aspect of it.

 

We left Madrid relaxed and definitely fuller figured than we arrived, but enjoyed every minute!

 

 

Mas Tapas! Por Favor!

Madrid is such a wonderful city that holds a very special place in our stomachs. We are so fortunate to have our great friends Amber and Fernando who live in Madrid that were able to give us excellent advise on all of their favorite places to get good grub.

The first evening we arrived in Madrid we followed Amber and Fernando's advise and walked down Calle Huertas, which was only about a five minute walk from our hotel, and had tapas for dinner at a small restaurant called Maceiras. This restaurant lived up to it's hype, and we even came back on our last night in Madrid for another sampling of the delectable offerings.

The first night we ate at Maceiras, we ended up ordering way too much food, which was all delicious and worth every Euro. We ordered the patatas bravas, the champinones (mushrooms sauteed with pork shoulder), chorizo, croquettas (cheese croquettes), and empanadas de pescado (fish empanadas). We paired our meal with an Estrella beer and sangria.

Patatas Bravas
Croquettas de Queso
Empanadas de Pescado
Chorizo
Champinones

 

Our second time at Maceiras, we ordered the patatas bravas again because we couldn't get enough the first time around. We also ordered pimientos (peppers), and Merluza rellena de gambas (fish stuffed with shrimp, covered in a tomato based sauce). Once again, we were not disappointed with any of our choices.

Pimientos
Merluza Rellena de Gambas
 

The second day in Madrid we opted to have lunch at a restaurant in La Latina area called Casa Lucas. We started with a refreshing tomato salad with goat cheese and fresh basil. We also ordered some croquettas de jamon, and one of the dishes that Amber had recommended, Alella (chicken with sauteed onions served on toast with a corn mousse on top). Once again, the tapas did not let us down.

We also walked down to the Mercado De San Miguel that has a huge selection of fresh produce and stands of different prepared food.

That night after watching a flamenco show, we opted to have dinner at another restaurant in La Latina area again, Juana La Loca. We ordered their famous tortilla dish, which is completely different than the type of tortilla that we are used to. It's an egg and potato type dish with a crust…delicious! We also ordered the lomo (a meat dish), and an artichoke dish. We only ordered three tappas to save room for churros y chocolate later that night.

Tortilla
Artichokes, Garlic, and Parmesan
Lomo
 

We opted to have churros at Chocolateria San Gines. It is a famous churro y chocolate shop that has been featured on several shows that we had seen, so we figured why not give it a shot! The verdict….delicious!!!

At this point, our waistlines were starting to show the results of our tapas gorging. So on day three we shared a small piece of tomato and mozzarella flat bread we picked up at a little place called Pappizza which can be found all over the city. We spent the rest of the morning walking around the city, hopefully burning off some of what we had eaten the past two days. We walked all the way to a little restaurant to meet up with Amber and Fernando and their new little addition Quique.

We all shared a delicious chilled tomato soup, a fresh salad with crisp apples and cheese, pulpo (an octopus dish), foie gras, and a beef dish. It was all very delicious, however we were so caught up chatting and catching up, that we didn't take any pictures of the food, only the adorable baby.

Our last morning in Madrid we opted for one more go at churros for breakfast. We went to a local chain called Valor. They not only serve churros y chocolate, but they also looked like they had lots of other sweet options. Our verdict was that both Chocolateria San Gines and Valor had delicious churros, they were different but equally good.

 

Paris on Strike, DLP, Rain, Rain, and More Rain!

The night before Scott's parents were scheduled to leave Paris to head back to the states, they went to check in to their flight online and realized that their return flight had been completely changed. Their flight that was originally scheduled to leave on a Thursday morning returning to Baltimore had now been changed to Friday landing in Washington DC. After receiving assistance from the concierge at the Renaissance, we were able to get ahold of the airline, only to find out that over a thousand flights had been canceled due to air traffic controllers going on strike. We finally were able to get them on a flight through London Heathrow for the next day.

The next morning Scott and I had planned on sharing a cab with his parents to the airport and then hopping on a train from there to Disneyland Paris (DLP). So, come to find out, all of the French trains were on strike as well. Due to all of the cancelled flights and trains, it took about thirty minutes to be able to catch a cab. So we ended up taking the cab all the way to DLP, which was not a cheap ride, but since there was no other options and we had already paid for one night in a hotel near the park and already bought our tickets, we ended up having to eat the cost. This was definitely another lesson we have learned on this trip, always prepare to spend more than what you had budgeted for because uncontrollable circumstances do arise.

We finally made it to DLP by about noon. It turns out “when it rains, it pours”…literally. As we walked into the park the rain started coming down. We tried to make the best of the situation. Lines were short, the park was less crowded, and at least it wasn't hot.

We really didn't plan on going to Disney in Paris to ride every single ride anyway. We are huge Disney nerds in the States, and just wanted to see how different it would be in another country.

Some of the attractions were in English, some were in French. The parks were much smaller than in California and the food was not nearly as good. Lots of the little carts that you would expect to be selling goodies all around the park were closed except for a couple popcorn stands (which actually sold kettle corn instead of regular popcorn). No churros, no corn dogs, and to our dismay, the ice cream shop on Main Street closed at 7:00pm.

Our overall assessment of DLP, was that the park is probably really nice when it's not raining, it's rather small compared to the parks in the U.S., the food could be better, and gosh darn-it why would you ever close the only ice cream parlor at 7:00pm! Either way, we still had a great time, because even if it's raining, it's always a good day for Disney…and like we've said before “you've got to just roll with the punches.”