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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.

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