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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Planes, trains, ferries, more trains, another ferry and some rental cars.

Traveling through sixteen countries over six months has meant using several different modes of travel.  Airplanes got us from the US to Fiji and then New Zealand.  From the North Island of New Zealand we took a ferry to get to the South Island as we drove almost every one of our 27 days there.  We flew from New Zealand to Australia and rented a car for our 35 days there.  We flew from Australia to Singapore and then to Vietnam.  Trains got us from Hanoi to the village of Sapa and back, and then to the city of Hue in central Vietnam.  We flew again from Hoi An to Saigon, then took a bus to Phnom Penh.  We got around there by tuk-tuk, which we also used frequently in Siem Reap in Northern Cambodia which we got to by way of bus.  A bus/van combo got us to Bangkok, and then we took a long train ride to Krabi, Thailand.  Another long travel day in a van got us to Penang in Malaysia.  We spent the next few weeks getting to and around China by plane, which was also how we got to India. 

In India, we had a driver with a van for our week there.  Then Etihad Airlines got us from Delhi to Abu Dhabi to Istanbul.  A ferry took us from Istanbul to Bandirma where we caught a bus to Ayvalik.  We took another ferry from the town of Dikili, not far from Ayvalik, to the Greek island of Lesvos.  We flew from there through Athens to Istanbul.  From Istanbul, we took a train to Zagreb where we got on an overnight train to Split.  We left Croatia on an overnight ferry to Ancona Italy, and we’ve been taking trains around Italy, which have been efficient and affordable.  We got from Ancona to Tortoreto to Rome for less than 100 Euros for all four of us. 

The overnight trips have been mostly enjoyable, we’ve had about four by train and one by ferry along with an overnight plane ride from Delhi to Abu Dhabi.  The overnight train from Zagreb to Istanbul was a bit different because we had two separate two-person bunks.  The girls slept in one while Ben and I were next door.   

We all got a pretty good nights sleep, although I was having trouble keeping the thoughts in my head to a dull roar as the train headed south toward Split.  Shortly before we got on the train in Zagreb I got an email letting me know that I would be filling in for Paul Daugherty on the Cincinnati Enquirer website for one of his daily columns coming up in a little less than two weeks.  While the train chugged along, column ideas somersaults in my head.  Still, it was a great way to travel, and unlike a couple of overnight trains that we took in Vietnam that arrived at their destination at five or six in the morning, this one arrived in Split at eight am.

Split was an important domino in our plans to get to Italy.  Flying into and out of Croatia is for some reason very expensive.  But the ferry could get us from Split to Ancona Italy for less than 300 euro for all four of us, while flying was going to cost about five times that.  

Split sounded a bit busy for our tastes after spending a lot of time in Budapest seeing as much as we could in our four days there.  We wanted to adjust our pace some, so we decided to head for Trogir, which is about 25 kilometers up the coast from Split.  Interestingly, the oldest part of the city is on an island between the mainland and a larger island of Ciovo.

The apartment we booked was on Ciovo, just across the bridge from the old city and gave us a great view of the marina.  

We got into a routine in our week in Trogir of checking out the activity in the marina each morning.  It's always fun to get a peek of a lifestyle you know you'll never be able to afford.

Inside the old walled city narrow cobblestone streets wind their way past shops and restaurants, giving it a very unique European flair.  The remains of an old castle dominate the far end of the waterfront and a fairly easy climb provides a great view of the city.

Trogir attracts a fair amount of tourists and many restaurants, especially the ones on the waterfront cater to those.  We did what we could to find ones that weren't targeting tourists as much and had some pretty good meals.  The basic dish was a grilled fish that was very tasty, especially served up at a restaurant near our apartment down an alley away from the waterfront. 

We made friends with a waiter who spoke pretty good English, and ate there twice, including on the opening night of action in the UEFA Euro 2012 championship.  Teams from 16 countries across Europe qualified for the tournament, and were divided into groups of four.  Two games would be played each night for the first few nights, and every evening every restaurant in Trogir that had a TV had the game on.  We also saw TVs being purchased and carried to restaurants to satisfy customers appetites for food and football.  
The intensity of the football frenzy in Trogir was heightened by the fact that Croatia was one of the 16 teams that qualified.  Their Purina-esque color scheme was on display at many stores and markets.
I like the looks of a lot of European football jerseys, and own more than a couple, but I resisted the temptation to buy a Croatia jersey.   I didn't want to be wearing it at the Madeira Kroger and have people asking me what aisle the Dog Chow was in.

As we are finding more and more during our travels, meeting people and making friends is the most enjoyable aspect of the trip.  Our apartment in Trogir was located above a couple of cafes and about halfway through our stay we had made friends with a woman named Vinka who frequented one of those establishments.  We got to know her pretty well, enough so that she invited us to her house on the night of my birthday for a home-cooked meal, and of course, some football.  

Vinka and her mom lived close to our apartment, and their house had a terrace with a great view of Trogir.  What was even better than the view was the food and friendship.  Sylvana served up some home made pasta with home grown vegetables that were delicious.  It was one of the best birthday meals I ever had.
We also made friends with Boscho, a man who drove a van for a living and who offered to take us on the half-hour drive to Split on the day of our departure by way of ferry.  He's the one on the left in the picture above.  Our cab ride from Split to Trogir cost about 60 Euros and we offered to pay Boscho 50 Euros, but he refused saying it was his favor to his American family.  

Coming into Split by way of the highway provides a very unattractive view of seemingly endless condos and office buildings, kind of like the skyline of Deerfield Beach Florida.  But once you get down to the harbor and head into the old town of Split, you can't help but be smitten by the charm of the centuries-old city. 
Our ferry didn't leave until 8:30 at night, and we got to Split around 11:00am, so we had all afternoon to explore.  It's a great city to wander around, which we did until around 3 or so, just in time to see the start of the French Open men's finals between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in Paris as we grabbed a bite to eat.  Cafes had TVs set up outside to show the football later that night between Croatia and Ireland. 

Croatia jerseys of every variety were being worn and put on display in shop windows.  You could feel the excitement building as game time approached.  Croatia/Ireland was the late game and we had to get on the ferry in the midst of the Italy/Spain game.  The ferry was populated by it's fair share of Italians as Italy was the destination the following morning and the TVs on the restaurant deck showed the battle with the Spaniards which would end in a 1-1 tie.

Marley didn't have much if any interest in the football, so she hung out in our cabin while Annie, Ben and I sat amongst some enthusiastic Croatians to watch them take on Ireland.  Annie's got some Irish on her side of the family, but the excitement of the Croatians had us happy to seem them pull out a fairly easy 3-1 win over the Irish. 

Our quarters on the ferry were cozy, but it was fun to get settled in as a family on another overnight journey.

One aspect of traveling by ferry compared to trying to sleep overnight on a train is that there are no stops for the ferry to make crossing the Adriatic. That allows for a better chance of uninterrupted sleep plus there is not the sensation of the train hurtling along with the wheels on one side barely touching the rails as it rounds a bend.  Plus we knew when we woke up, we would be at one of the destinations we were looking forward to as much as, if not more than any other:  Italy!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Planning a year-long trip around the world involved a lot of thought when it came to what we would take with us and just as important, what we would NOT take with us.  All four of us enjoy reading, but we knew we couldn't lug a library of books with us.  So, we invested in three Kindles, plus we had an iPad, and I have discovered that my iPhone despite its small screen works pretty well as an e-reader.  We left Cincinnati in mid-December, just after The Hunger Games was released, and had it downloaded on our various devices.  Annie and the kids all had the book read by the time we reached Australia by the end of January. That led to a lot of discussions of the book between the three of them, so I thought I would give it a read.

I liked the first book, tolerated the second one, and by the third one just wanted it to be over.  I simply didn't care anymore, and I gave up about half way through.  The best thing that The Hunger Games did for me was remind me of a book I read in high school as part of an American Literature class.  It was one of my favorite classes because the teacher had us read some very interesting books.  One of those was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller.  The book had been in print for about 20 years, and was classified as Science Fiction as it dealt with the world 600 years in the future after a nuclear holocaust.  It's very well-written, with a sly sense of humor and a easy to read prose.

I was disappointed to discover that there were no electronic versions of the book-not on Amazon for the Kindle or through the iTunes book store.  So, finding a hard copy of that became my Holy Grail.  We were in Merimbula, Australia at the time, and there were a couple of book stores there that I went into and came out of empty-handed.  Along the rest of the way in Australia, I would occasionally investigate a book store and have the same result.

The search hit a long pause during our more than two months in Asia.  When we got to the airport in Athens on our way to Budapest, there was a decent selection of books in English, but none by Walter Miller.  Just a couple of days after arriving in Budapest, Annie and I and the kids were walking through the Castle District on the Buda side of the Danube.  It was late morning and our primary goal was to find a place for lunch before exploring the castles.  The Budapest guide book we were using mapped out a walking tour, and we kinda sorta followed it as we made our way through the narrow cobblestone streets.

As we headed toward what looked like a couple of possible spots for lunch,  we walked by a small book store that advertised second hand books in English for sale.  Annie and the kids were walking slightly ahead of me and just as we passed it, I said I was going to duck into the store just to see if by any chance they would have it, expecting the same results that I had gotten from all the other book stores I had stopped in over the previous three months.

I asked the shop keeper if he had A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller and he smiled and shook his head, shrugging his shoulders.  He pointed toward the bottom section of one of his book shelves, where there were about a dozen books under a label "Science Fiction".  They were mostly paperbacks, with some Isaac Azimov and Arthur Clark selections.  But second from the bottom in the second of the two stacks of books, there it was:  a hard-cover copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller.  I was stunned.  Finding that book in a tiny bookstore in the castle district of Budapest was one of the highlights of the trip up to that point.

I happily toted that book around with me the rest of the day, remarking several times to Annie and the kids how I couldn't believe that I could make such a discovery in a small book store in Budapest.

We had gotten to Budapest from Turkey by way of Greece.  In planning the trip, we had no definitive plans to stop in Greece.   Athens was in some degree of turmoil as we plotted our route around the world, and ruins aren't at the top of our to-do list. But as we plotted our way into Europe with an eye on Budapest and Croatia, Greece became a convenient stopping point on our way west., so we booked a few days on the island of Lesvos.

Leaving Ayvalik was the most difficult departure we've had since we left Cincinnati back in December.  We just loved it there for a bunch of reasons laid out in my previous blog.  Still, the idea of adding another country to our list gave us some motivation to get on the ferry in the town of Dikili and make the 90-minute journey west into the Aegean Sea.
We booked a two-bedroom apartment on the water about 25 kilometers north of the main port on Lesbos, Mytilene.  We would be flying out of Mytilene around 8:30 in the morning of our departure to Budapest, so we didn't want to be too far away from the airport there in order to avoid an early morning wake up call.
The woman we rented the house from said she had an associate who could get us a car for a few days and he would have one waiting for us when we got off the ferry from Turkey.

Sure enough, Stratis greeted us with a sign as we walked out of the ferry terminal.  Turns out he wanted Euros for payment for the car, and all I had was Turkish Lira.  I offered to try to find an ATM nearby, but he said it was no problem, I could just pay for the car in Euros when we were done with our stay a few days later.  With that, he took off and so did we. 

The location of our beach house was quiet.  Very quiet.  Morgue-in-the-middle-of-the-night quiet.  Seems Skala Mistegnon isn't exactly a must-see location for vacationing Greeks.  

The beach house was one of four connected units with a nice view of the Aegean Sea looking toward Turkey to the east.  The beach itself was pretty rocky and not very inviting from a standpoint of throwing down a towel and chilling for a while.

With all that, it was a beautiful spot that we had all to ourselves.  I mean, entirely to ourselves.  Annie and I took a walk down the beach past three or four restaurants that were deserted in the early afternoon hours.

One thing that kept us entertained was the herd of cats that appeared once word got out through Kitter (the cat version of Twitter) that people had moved in who were feline friendly.  Ben and Marley were generous in their feeding of the cats and we had regular visits from about a half dozen or so.

The cats weren't allowed in the house, but we spent plenty of time on the patio with them and really liked one of the orange tabbies we named Joel.  He got that name because we all love the song Uptown Girl and sing it every time we cross a border.  Actually, no, it's because he looked like one of our cats at home named Romeo, and the kids at first named her Juliet.  But then Ben noticed that Juliet had nuggets, so she/he became Joel. 

Joel and the rest of the cat contingent stayed behind as we ventured out to explore the island a day after a 15-hour storm.  The deluge kept us house-bound most of the day and caused some flooding to the south of where we were, in the major port town of Mytilene.
Our desired destination was a coastal town about an hour's drive to the north where the owner of the house we were renting had a restaurant and another rental property.  Mithymna sits on a very pretty bay, and has some great waterfront dining and shopping.  We had a great lunch at our landlord's restaurant and enjoyed strolling around the town, wishing the place we were renting was closer to a more active community.

Four days among Lesbians was plenty for us and we were looking forward to heading for Budapest, even though it meant a long travel day.  The cheapest airfare we could find from Mytilene to Budapest called for an eight-hour layover in Athens.  Our luggage was checked through, so we only had our backpacks with us, giving us the possibility of exploring the ancient Greek capitol if only just for a few hours.

A woman working at an information desk at the Athens airport told us that it was about a 45-minute train ride into the city.  Since it was just before 11am, we decided to hop on the train and head into the city for some lunch and time looking around.  The metro stop was right in the old city of Athens, basically at the foot of the Acropolis.

The area is filled with ancient buildings or what's left of them, as well as an intriguing mix of restaurants and shops, including a flea market.  It's probably a good thing we couldn't buy anything since we're traveling for so long, as we came across some very interesting items, including an old manual typewriter with the keys in the Greek alphabet.

I never belonged to a fraternity in college and didn't date many sorority chicks, so the letters were, well, Greek to me.

Much to the dismay of our adorable twin twelve-year olds, Annie and I decided that since it was a gorgeous day and the Acropolis was right there, we would make the climb to the top.  That turned out to be one of the best decisions we had made in a while, as the view was spectacular.

The partly cloudy skies were clear enough to give us great view in every direction.  The Acropolis itself is undergoing a fairly major renovation, so construction equipment and scaffolding obscured some of the structure.

Marley and Ben were actually glad that we made the climb to the top, which really wasn't all that dramatic or draining of a trek.  Plus it brought to life another piece of history in a way that a classroom just can't equal.

Ben and Marley were not disappointed to discover that the area was closing down to visitors less than an hour after we arrived.  That still gave us enough time to get enough of a taste of Athens and get back on the train to head to the airport for our 6pm flight to Budapest.

Conveniently enough, Budapest was a featured destination in the Aegean Airlines in-flight magazine and it beautiful and did not disappoint in person.  There's a lot to see and do there and the apartment we rented for our five days there was in a perfect location.  We stayed on the Buda side of the Danube, which is more residential than Pest.  Pest on the east side of the river, has more bars and restaurants and is home to the striking Parliament building on the eastern banks of the river.

Our home in Budapest was a five-minute walk to the tram, which came by in both directions about every five minutes. 
From there, the tram ran north and then east across the Danube, or south in the direction of one of the busier tram/train station stops, Szell Kallman Ter.  That's where the number 2 Metro line connects and heads east under the Danube River to Pest.  We took that route our first day in part to research the overnight train we planned to take to Split, Croatia in a few days.

That's one of the major challenges of traveling for several months:  we spend a good amount of time in our current location figuring out how and when and where our next stop will be.  We couldn't find a definitive answer online about booking the overnight train to Croatia, so we decided to take a trip to the train station that we thought that train departed from.

The tram/train system in Budapest is very efficient and there is very little time spent standing around waiting.  From the time we left our apartment, caught the tram, got on the metro and got to the train station to ask about the overnight train, it took only about 20 minutes.  It's the second oldest subway system in Europe, and the oldest on the continent, but it's clean and quick.

The Keleti train station is on the Pest side of the river and is one of those classic old European train stations.  The exterior is imposing and lends an air of importance to the edifice.

After a couple of false starts we found the International Ticket office and learned that the overnight train left from the Western Train station over in Buda, but that worked because it was much closer to our apartment and much easier to get to.

Getting to the Castle section of Budapest meant taking the tram to the train station and then catching a bus for the quick ride up the hill.   We spent some time around St. Matthias church near the Fisherman's Bastion.  Both are steeped in history and are in remarkable condition for dating as far back as they do.  The tiles on the roof of the church looked like they had been installed a couple of weeks ago, not a couple of centuries ago.
The church sits adjacent to the turrets of the Fisherman's Bastion, which was first built in the early part of the 20th century, and then restored in the late 1940s after being heavily damaged during World War II.  The views from the Bastion are spectacular, as Buda and Pest hug the waters of the Danube River.
It's one of the prettiest cities I've ever seen, with grand architecture and the Parliament Building facing the Danube highlighted by the Fisherman's Bastion and Buda Castle looking back in the other direction.  Five bridges cross the Danube in Budapest, with the most striking being the Chain Bridge. It was also rebuilt after being destroyed along with all the other bridges during the Second World War.
It's even more attractive at night with the waters of the river reflecting the lights from the buildings on both sides as well as the Chain Bridge uniting the two ancient cities.
All this beauty helps offset the city's ugly history.  It's been the battleground between a wide variety of peoples dating back centuries.  Conditions got extremely violent toward the end of World War II when the Pearl of the Danube became one of Adolf Hitler's last-gasp targets.  Much of the city was destroyed in the early months of 1945.  Then in the 1950s it was caught up fighting Soviet-influenced Communistic policies that led to the revolution of 1956.  A lot of the action on the streets during those years happened in and around where we stayed and the places we went to catch the trams and trains.  

Having such history, both of the recent and ancient variety, is one of the great allures of European cities.   We saw both in Athens and Budapest, and can't wait to see and experience more as we add Rome, Paris and many places in between to our travel itinerary.