Budapest: paprikash, fancy thermal baths, and architecture of epic proportions

November 11, 2018
by Christina

We arrived at the Budapest train station late in the evening, and we were en-route when Dan made an unfortunate discovery: fresh reviews of our hostel complaining of bed bugs. And replies from the hostel essentially confirming them. We had a near-miss in the bed bug department in South America, and having no interest in repeating the stress, we went to get something to eat and decide where else to stay.

It was the sort of thing that pre-trip Christina might have gotten stressed over. There we were, in a big brand new city after dark, not sure where we were going to sleep, but all it took to fix it was looking over the other offerings online, making a new reservation, and walking the kilometer to get there. That’s the beauty of modern travel and having the internet in your pocket.

Our first impression of Budapest was how much amazing architecture there is, almost anywhere you look, from the train station itself, to buildings around the neighborhood. This is something that remained a theme throughout our stay.

We ended up staying three nights at Grand Backpackers Hostel, which was quite nice. It was an old building with high ceilings, but a new hostel, and the staff was all volunteers from around the world, which was fun.

Once we got checked in we ducked out for a quick doener kebab, which surprised us by being chicken and not pork, but it was plentiful and inexpensive. And there is a lot of it to be found around the city. (Also, note the cool guy jean jacket… and that’s just the teaser photo!)

After a relaxing morning at the hostel we set off for a run around the city. We ran from the hostel down to the Danube and ran along the ‘Buda’ side of the river (Buda being the west part of Budapest, Pest being the east part) to get the nice views of Parliament.

Our route took us around Margaret Island, which is a small narrow island in the Danube, with a nice running path, and occupied by a variety of sporting facilities including a water park. It was very beautiful in the fall weather.

We ended our run at Parliament, and took some photographs, including the ceremonial uniformed guards marching precisely out front by the flag pole. I was worried the police standing by would chastise me for taking a handstand video, but mostly they watched until they got bored and said nothing.

After our run we had a meal of traditional Hungarian soups at Főzelékfaló Ételbár restaurant nearby, then headed back to the hostel to have a shower. We also went and did some grocery shopping to supply a few meals that week, and cooked dinner that night at Grand Backpackers.

Our second day we walked past the Budapest Eye on our way to visit St. Stephen’s Basilica, which is very ornate with lots of gilt and beautiful paintings. They host organ concerts there, which I would have loved to see, but the timing didn’t work out for us, so I had to sustain myself by simply ogling the instrument.

We also stopped by the Opera House only to discovered it covered in scaffolding for renovations, both outside and in. We were able to enter and view the foyer and the gift shop, but were told that even the tour wouldn’t get to see much with the renovations of the main stage and there were no shows going on for the same reason.

After that we went to get lunch at a restaurant recommended at the hostel called Frici Papa, where we sampled dishes such as fruit soup (yes, it’s like a dessert with cherries and cream, but treated like a soup), mushroom goulash, and paprikash, the last dish having been made famous by the film When Harry Met Sally, but I had to go watch the clip again, all I had remembered was Pecan Piiiiiiie.

After our meal we took a walk around the neighborhood (there’s that cool guy jean jacket action shot!) and stopped by Szimpla Kert, recommended to us by our fellow AirBnB’er Barbara, who we met in Belgrade. It’s one of the “ruin” bars which are eclectic spaces filled with mismatched furniture and graffiti. Szimpla is supposed to be the first ruin bar, and its quite expansive and very cool. We went early in the day to get a good look at it, well before the party crowd, but it’s supposed to be a nice spot of nightlife and it looks it.

The morning of our third day we went to go visit Budapest’s velodrome, but sadly found it locked and closed, though we were permitted to stare at it through some windows and look at the framed historical facts on the wall (including some dedicated and infantile graffiti). Currently the center of the track is being used for ice hockey.

On the way back to the hostel we stopped for langos at Langos Kuko, which is a Hungarian dish involving fried bread topped with various fixings including a lot of dairy products. I got the Greek one, and my bread had not just tsatsiki, and feta, but also some kind of shredded cheese as well as the tomatoes and cucumbers. After that we stopped by the Imperial Pub for a beer.

After we collected our things and moved across the river to the Buda side to stay at an AirBnB we had found to get a feel for a different part of town. Once settled, we took a bus to the base of the Citadella hill and hiked up it, enjoying the statues, the view of the city, and the glorious fall weather. All in all a beautiful park where we stopped to watch the sunset.

Then we went to check out some baths. Budapest has a lot of hot springs and old Turkish baths, and of course, water, hot water, and bathing are some of my favorite things, so that was high on my list of things to check out. I also found this article about the different baths very helpful.

First stop was Rudas, which is adjacent to Citadella. Once there though, I discovered that as a woman, there is only one weekday when I can use the full bath area, and that day was not my day. The men get solo access four week days, women get one (Tuesdays), and the weekends are coed. So… sexism. Not a good look. There were other areas that I could have bought access to, but I decided I didn’t care to give them any of my hard earned woman-money, and so we walked on to Gellert.

Gellert is coed all week long, and one of the biggest, fanciest baths in Budapest, and therefore comes with a commensurate price tag of 5600 HUF (~$18 USD), which is twice the price of some of the other baths in the area. I decided to do it, but to wait until the next day when I would have more time for it. They also had a really cool light display on the building that night.

The next morning I got up and headed to Gellert in the morning. I paid my fee and was give a watch-ish looking wrist band with which to operate a locker. Entering the locker room I found a place to stash my things, not bothering with the changing cabins, and headed off to have a shower, …and discovered it was a coed locker room.

On my way in and while I changed I had seen only women, but I passed quite a few men on the way to the showers which turned out to be segregated. I finally figured it out without giving anyone a shock at least.

Gellert was a beautiful as promised, but there were a few things that drew my side eye. One, the big main swimming pool (not thermal) that you see in all the photos requires you to wear a swimming cap. Which if you didn’t bring you have to buy for another 1000 HUF. Second, the main outdoor pool was not in use, and considering that I weighed the number of pools I was buying access to when I decided what bath to attend, I was not psyched about that.

However, once I found the bits I liked, my eye rolling ceased. I like hot water, intolerably hot for some, so the 40 C pool suited me well, as did the sauna near the operating outdoor pool and one of the two steam rooms. I alternated cooking myself in the sauna/steam rooms with dunking in the cold plunge pools and floating dreamily in the more moderately temperatured bathing pools, and finished up with a shower.

Final bit of advice for Gellert: Once you’ve wandered around and think you’ve seen everything, double check the map because you may have missed something. The place is a large labyrinth and it took me a while to get oriented.

Our last full day in Budapest we went to see more of the city’s iconic architecture: Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle. They are both located on the Buda side of the Danube, and within a moderate walking distance of each other. They are also two of the biggest tourist attractions in Budapest.

The Fisherman’s bastion is on a hill and includes a church and a series of walkways overlooking the Danube and the Pest side of the river. It’s made of beautiful white stone and attracts large crowds of tourists. The church and some of the walkways require an entry fee, but there’s plenty to see and enjoy for free.

Walking further along the hill you come to Buda Castle, which contains several museums. It’s a pretty extensive building and grounds to walk around, and again, lots of people but also lots of cool stuff to see for free on the exterior, as well as views of Buda and Pest, and there’s a nice little gift shop where I got some stickers.

The next morning was our last in Budapest, so we packed up and had a light breakfast before checking out and taking two local buses to the north side of the city to catch our international bus to our next destination: Vienna!

Belgrade, Serbia: Tesla museum, cheap pizza, and clubbing on the Danube (and a ROME-AN BONUS)

November 03, 2018
by Christina & Dan

Christina:

I had to make a short trip back to the US for my professional society, and on the way back to Serbia to meet Dan I had a 12 hour layover in Fiumicino Airport… temptingly close to Rome. So I made my way through immigration, stored my bag at the lockers on the land side, and caught a bus into Rome to do a little touristing while I waited for my next flight.

Of the options for getting into town, bus was the cheapest and took a little less than an hour. There are trains which are a little faster, but the bus is maybe only 20 minutes longer. While on the bus I got online and booked a time slot at the Colosseum, then walked from the drop off point to the Colosseum where I was instructed to get in line for the ticket booths, though I’m honestly not sure why. I got the impression that if I had showed up later, I would have been put in the entry line directly using the confirmation on my phone…

The weather was rainy and windy, so I’m guessing I got to visit on a less crowded day, but as you might expect it was still packed. I enjoyed the architecture, but failed to follow the route properly, and it didn’t matter.

After that I got lunch and paid a visit to the Trevi Fountain (amazing) and the Spanish Steps (less so), before hunkering down with some tea to hide from the rain for a bit and then heading back to the airport.

The bus made it part of the way out of town before getting totally bogged down in nightmare traffic. Because that wind and rain? It had gotten really bad in some areas, downed a lot of trees, and created epic traffic.

After it took 45 minutes to move a distance that I could have walked on foot in 2 minutes, I decided I was better off trying to take a train to catch my flight. I had to argue with the bus driver on Google translate a bit, not sharing a common language, but finally the fact that I hadn’t stored any baggage under the bus convinced him to let me off, and I ran/walked the kilometer to the train station… only to discover that the trains weren’t running either.

And that’s how my 12 hour layover turned into 36 hours.

I arrived at the airport just at the time of my flight’s departure, and Air Serbia basically said “Too bad, you lost your ticket. No transfers/changes.” So, boo Air Serbia. So I booked a new flight online for the next day while sitting on the airport WiFi and I found Litus Roma Hostel, just south of the airport in Ostia. With the help of the airport information desk attendant I found the Cotral bus that went to Ostia for cheap (and was still running late, thankfully), and got a very nice night’s sleep, and then a traditional Italian breakfast in the morning.

The hostel made me think of the Shining, but in a good way, kind of? It was just a huge old building with high ceilings that seemed to have almost no occupants. I was grateful for the presence of my roommate, another long-haul traveler on her way to Thailand,  which helped to take the edge off of how quiet and empty it was otherwise.

It was located right across the street from the beach, so after breakfast I went for a walk and enjoyed the views before heading to the bus station and getting back on the same bus back to the airport. I had an uneventful wait once through security and then got on my flight to meet Dan in Belgrade.

Dan:

When Christina returned we stayed at Tash Hostel/Inn (their actual website is quite a throwback). The location was a great start for our trip in Belgrade. The best part was that it was located basically in a park and we were able to do a ring workout in the outdoor gym.

One of the main reasons that Tash Inn was a great location was that it is super close to the Nikola Tesla museum. We showed up early one day and were surprised by the huge queue to get in. There are tours about every hour, most are in English, and that one was already full. It’s possible to see the museum without the tour, but you pay the same price and don’t see any of the demonstrations (which I later found rather unimpressive). So we waited for the next tour in a nearby bar called Dylan Dog Pub, which is a Serbian pub themed after an Italian comic book set in London 🙂

We just barely made it back in time to the museum to join the next tour. It started off with a strange movie demonstration. It felt a lot like propaganda trying very hard to establish why Belgrade deserved to house the Tesla museum. He is ethnically Serbian, but was born in a city that is now part of Croatia and lived most of his life in the US. I didn’t care about any of that. I just wanted some cool facts about Tesla. He’s well known for being extremely eccentric, but the museum didn’t touch on this at all. So the movie was a bust in my opinion.

Next the tour guide showed us some working replicas of some of Tesla’s famous electricity demonstrations. They were pretty cool and the tour guides did as best as they could, but it was a huge crowd of people. Not a great environment to explain what’s going on and the descriptions were a bit oversimplified but still confusing. But there was lots of glowing plasma, so everyone was pleased in the end.

After the tour we were free to wander the museum. It was pretty much just one room of Tesla’s personal effects and a few assorted devices. Finally, there was a room with an orb that houses Tesla’s ashes, which with the lighting it was kinda creepy and cool. But overall the museum wasn’t that exciting.

After a short time at Tash Inn we headed closer to the city center to stay at a nice Airbnb located right next to Republic Square. It’s been a long time since we had an Airbnb that wasn’t a second home being used to collect rent. But there was a lovely family living here and they had some nice recommendations on where to eat, helped us out with navigation, and shared some local cheeses with us. It was closer to a couchsurfing experience and very nice.

Their recommendation for where to find traditional Serbian food was Kod Doglavog. It was very posh with a really cool brick cellar type interior. It was also a bit more than we usually spend on food. We were a bit soured on the experience when the waiter brought us bottled water and opened it as we were insisting on tap water. Hopefully now we learned our lesson and are prepared to battle this tendency to drink bottled water when there is equally potable tap water. Anyway the food was quite good despite these minor frustrations.

We did some searching on our own on another day and found another more laid back Serbian tavern just around the corner called Zlatno Burence. The prices were better so that meant we just went all out and ordered more things. The food has lots of similarities to Bosnian food (I think Bosnian chevapi is better though) and I guess it’s similar to most of Europe’s food in my mind, meaning stewed meat and potatoes, which is delicious. It also reminds me a lot of the sort of stuff my gram would cook. My favorite was the stuffed pickled cabbage leaves. It’s common all over the Balkans, but we didn’t end up eating nearly enough of it.

But by far the most popular food in Belgrade by quantity and availability was pizza. There were pizza stalls all over the streets and they particularly cater to late night partying. Like the last few countries we’ve visited, the parties go all night here. The difference here though is that the streets feel much more lively during the night and pizza and sausage stalls stay open late, whereas Bosnia and Bulgaria seemed totally empty until you walked into a bar at 3 am.

Anyway, the most distinct thing about Serbian pizza is that they provide ketchup and sometimes mayonnaise as a topping. The first time I was presented with this option I instinctively said no with probably some disdain in my voice. But that’s because I’m very opinionated about pizza. Usually I take all the toppings that get offered when I try a new food or ask them to make it like a local.

So when I ordered my next pizza slice I slathered it with this very thin and quite sweet ketchup. I don’t think it’s so good and I didn’t have the option for mayo. My suspicion is that, because the pizza here comes pretty light on the sauce and cheese, ketchup and mayo is kind of a substitute. Not my thing but I would give it a few more fair shots.  Also pictured is me buying a shot of honey rakija from a posh local store on a tourist street that just so happened to be under construction. I just like it as a weird scene.

But speaking of partying, Belgrade is well known as a party place and we partook in a few different ways. Our first night out was a two for one experience. First we showed up at a punk house called Okretnica. It was a bit hard to find. It was described as “underneath the bridge”. As far as I remember it’s roughly next to this local tavern. They were playing some awesome doom metal and it was a great atmosphere, very punk with squatters and cheap beer and tough looking peaceful folks.

Then we went across the street and changed up the pace. Drugstore is a famous techno club that Christina read about in an Finnair magazine on our flight from Japan to Crete.  It’s literally across the street from Okretnica but still a bit hard to find, luckily the punks all helped us out (some of whom also patronize Drugstore).

The building is nondescript and you just climb this long set of stairs. We showed up at around 12:30 am and it was still not very busy but filled up shortly thereafter. Supposedly the building used to be a slaughterhouse but there was no real indication of the former use of the space. It was a fun place to hang out for a bit and I’ve always wanted to go to a rave. I don’t really know what I was expecting. The music was super repetitive, there was lots of awkward dancing and there were crazy lights.It wasn’t really nuts and I’m glad we did it but I guess it’s not really our scene.

On another night we went out to party in pure Serbian fashion at a splav. Splavs are these (maybe permanently) moored river boats that serve as nightclubs. It’s more of a summer thing, but there are a few that are open during the winter. There is a big group of them along the Sava river and I actually don’t know which one we ended up at but it was roughly here.

We chose it because it seemed to be the most authentically Serbian. It was blasting a music called turbofolk which is like a techno version of Serbian folk music. More than a few Serbians turned their nose up at this style of music when describing it. Maybe it’s a bit like country music in the US. I’m not a huge fan of the music I guess, but I still loved the experience.

It’s one of these very Balkan clubs where you are expected to come with a group of people and stand around an assigned table. As a clueless foreign couple we were vaguely directed towards the back of the club where there were a few other small groups not willing to buy bottle service. The nice thing was that we got a great view of the river out the back of the splav and an open window for some fresh non-smoky air.

There was a single singer during our time there. I guess she was singing the turbofolk classics. We had no clue what was going on, but it was awesome people watching and the lights in the place were insane. I think I expected more of this sort of overstimulating lighting situation at Drugstore. I would love to come back in the summer.

On our final day in Belgrade we went for a long run along the river. There is a beautiful running track all along the river. We also included a jog through the Belgrade Fortress. It’s beautifully lit at night and we didn’t get to see the whole thing, but it was definitely worth the detour.

That night we went to a very different type of splav, which houses the Drustveni Centar NNK. This was recommended by some folks that were at the punk house. It’s another kind of art community center. The boat itself had some interesting history. Apparently one of the King Alexsandars and Comrade Tito at one time owned this boat and used it for entertaining. This is the story at least.

Now it’s tied up somewhere around here. It has a rather precarious entry, a leaky roof, and at one point during night we were there it came untied and floated a bit down river before someone realized. It felt very boxcar kids to me. We saw some experimental short films, poetry, and music. It was great experience just being there and seeing a different side of Belgrade.

On our way out of town the next morning we had to leave from the new central train station (Prokop). I purchased the tickets from the old central station and I think I got hit with an upcharge of around 7 euros for buying in advance. Yikes, given the tickets were 15 euros to begin with. Anyway, the point is you can just buy your tickets on the day of, since the train was totally empty. That said, the station is really really new. Like still under construction new. It seemed eerily empty when we arrived. So I don’t actually know where the ticket office is, but apparently it’s possible.

And so we were off for our next destination: Budapest!

Sarajevo: misadventures in bus logistics, Bosnian rock, and a bobsled track

October 29, 2018
by Dan

When Christina took off for a brief trip back to the US I was left with the opportunity to do some exploring on my own. From Sofia to Belgrade, where I planned to meet back up with Christina, is a pretty straight shot, and so I wanted to find some other destination to visit on the way. My top picks were Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Prishtina in Kosovo. Sarajevo is quite a bit out of the way, but Kosovo seemed like there might be some issues passing back into Serbia.

Kosovo only recently declared independence. It’s still a disputed territory and Serbia doesn’t recognize the border. The regional politics in former Yugoslavia still seem very murky and a bit tense to me. I had only very vague understanding how Yugoslavia dissolved, but even after doing a lot of reading and traveling through the area, I still don’t feel like I really understand the last half century here. So I decided to visit Sarajevo.

The journey from Sofia to Sarajevo is not a common route, and there are rarely timetables or any information for buses in the Balkans. To make the journey easier I planned to travel to Nis, Serbia from Sofia since it is a rather large bus hub and in the general correct area.

The bus for Nis left at 7:30 am. I arrived in plenty of time to the central bus/train station in Sofia but gracious, the ticket buying procedure was difficult. There is a huge array of bus companies with ticket stands, but it’s not so obvious where each of them go. So I wandered around for a bit and had trouble getting help from anyone working in the kiosks. Eventually a ‘helpful’ beggar came up and helped me buy a ticket. But then it turns out I got a ticket to Plovdiv, deeper into Bulgaria. I was not amused and time was running out.

Luckily I was able to refund the ticket and a friendly fellow customer pointed me to an entirely different bus terminal across the street. But even there I had trouble finding the actual bus company that went to Nis. It didn’t help that my pronunciation of “Neesh” was terrible. Anyway, I finally found the correct ticket stand Матпу (pronounced “Matpu”) located roughly here.

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Soon I was on my way to Nis and the bus arrived around noon. I inquired about getting to Sarajevo at the ticket office and found out that the only bus to Sarajevo from Nis departs in the morning at 6:00 am. I didn’t mind the stop over and I was glad to get to see another city. I made a last minute reservation at Sweet Apartments for a pretty darn good deal. It was an unnecessarily nice private room and right in the city center.

I spent the afternoon just wandering the nearby fortress and enjoying the fall weather. A unique feature to the town is that there are what appear to be metro station entrances all over, but the town is tiny. So I went down on of these entrances and found that they are actually huge underground shopping areas. That was unexpected.

The next morning I took off on the ten hour journey to Sarajevo. I felt bad killing so much daylight days with bus travel, but the ride was very scenic. Along the way, the most beautiful town was Visegrad. It was in the middle of this mountainous valley with a river running through the center of town and huge cliffs on either side. There were some beautiful bridges and a church on this peninsula jutting out into the river. I know nothing of the place, but I would definitely travel back there to explore.

I arrived Sarajevo in the early afternoon at the bus station which was a bit far out of town so I went to buy my bus ticket to Belgrade since I was already there. This was important because the buses to Serbia leave from that side of town, which is the Serbian Republic part of Bosnia Herzegovina. I didn’t realize how complicated the governance of the region is, but it’s basically split up into semi-autonomous regions that are mostly separated into various ethnic regions. I’ve read a lot about the modern history of Bosnia and it’s still very confusing.  I don’t understand at all how this is a reasonable solution to the genocide that occurred here in the ’90s or how it’s really any different than the legislative system that was set up after Tito‘s death and crippled Yugoslavia and led to its break up.

Anyway I decided to buy my ticket in advance and encountered something that I didn’t expect in Europe. I was purposefully given the wrong change twice. And I was about to go back a third time because I was charged a higher price than the printed ticket value, but just gave up. Also the information desk told me that the only way into town was taxi. But there is a bus stop that goes directly to city center just a two minute walk up the road. I had let my guard down for this type of stuff and it was a frustrating introduction to the country.

I arrived at Hostel Eternal Flame, which is pretty new I think. It’s located in a theater and maybe they are kind of officially squatting because they aren’t allowed to post a sign for the hostel. Anyway, everyone has trouble finding the place even with the instructions that they send out, but it was a lovely place with friendly guests and staff, and a great location in the city. During that first night I took a wander around and it definitely gave the impression of being a pretty tough city.

But more than anything, the most difficult aspect of visiting Sarajevo was the scars of war. I guess I suspected this going in and the reason that I even know of Sarajevo is from hearing about it as a kid in the news. But I didn’t go to see Sarajevo to learn about the horrors of genocide; I typically avoid that. I think I went because I wanted to see the new recuperated Sarajevo and put a new picture of the city in my head. That’s been the case in a lot of places that we’ve visited, but Sarajevo felt a bit different. To me the city still feels very defined by the awful war in the 1990s.

So I felt a lot of sadness staying there. There are still bombed out buildings and bullet holes here and there. Not preserved as a monument, but just because they haven’t been rebuilt. The city is absolutely covered in cemeteries with very telling dates on the gravestones. You have to stay on designated trails when hiking the surrounding areas because there could still be landmines. The main tourist area has places where mortar blasts have been filled in with a red acrylic as a memorial and they’re not hard to find. The main tourist area is exactly where people were being killed during the siege of the city.

The thing that really stuck in my head during the visit was that if I was someone trapped in city during the siege, I would have been the same age as the kids that had to run out to get water because they were harder targets for the snipers. I don’t really know how true or common that was, but it’s the story that people think of when talking about the siege and just the concept in general got to me.

So I couldn’t bring myself to visit the war museums.

The main site that I wanted to see there was the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics in the nearby hills. I saw video several years back of people taking longboards down the track. It looked insane. And it is insane. I chose to hike up the mountain to the track. It’s a nice hike through some quiet residential parts of town and along the way are some abandoned buildings covered in graffiti. I love abandoned buildings, but these gave me the same sad feeling that the buildings in Kep, Cambodia gave me because they are abandoned as a result of very specific tragedy.

The bobsled track itself was mostly in pretty good condition and there were plenty of tourists in the area that took the cable car up the hill. The graffiti was phenomenal down the whole track. It was difficult to take good pictures, but it was impressive. The walk was really fun and I would come back to run up the track or better yet, if I could get a bike with some decent brakes I would love to ride it down. I would love to visit again.

Inspired by the awesome views of the city from the bobsled track and the fact that there are mountains all around the city, I searched out some other hiking opportunities. The easiest hike from the city is to Skakavac Waterfall. You can actually walk all the way up there from the city center, but it would be a pretty long trek. I took the 69 bus from Kosevo Park in the city center to the town of Nahorevo. From there I hiked to the trail head. It was still a decent distance and pretty steep, and the view out over the city is great.

At the trail head is a mountain hut owned by a guy named Dragan. It’s very rustic and the wind kind of whistles through the building and shakes it. I liked the vibe. He had bean soup that day so I had some of that and a coffee. It was the only thing I ate all day and I’m glad I did. I had already walked almost an hour and the hike to the waterfall from the trail head along the “mountain” trail took another hour. I had read that the “tourist” trail wasn’t very interesting and presumably easier. The mountain trail wasn’t bad but a bit slippery with all the leaves and my awesome shoes from China are already worn flat. But it was fine.

The waterfall is really cool. There isn’t a large volume of water, but the water kind of bounces off all the rocks and mists up. It’s unique. I think it would be cool to swim there on a warm day. As it was, it was a little chilly but really windy, so I kept moving. I came to a larger crossroads without any trail signage. It was a huge picnic area with lots of paths crisscrossing. I took my best guess and I think I ended up going quite far out of the way and hiking through wet grassy areas with pine trees. I felt like I was probably on the wrong trail.

I eventually arrived at a nice mountain lodge and was again at a loss for where to go. I asked a family that was finishing up their meal and they offered to let me hike with them to their car and then drive me down to the city. It was about another hour of hiking and I had a blast talking with them. The guy is a Scot and has been living there since ’94, so it was pretty clear why and I avoided talking about the war. But I’ve since seen his name pop up in some of the credits for documentaries about the area.

Mostly we talked about current political environment and also about how much he loves these mountains. He comes and hikes here every weekend with his family. I was really fortunate to meet up with them.

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One night I went out drinking with some folks from the hostel. It was a bit of a challenge finding a fun bar without the help of a local, but the great thing about drinking in the Balkans is how cheap the beer is. There is still a huge mark up on beer in bars, but the base price of beer is so low (I’m talking like <$2 for half a gallon of beer) that it’s still reasonable on a tight budget to go out to bars.

The place I ended up enjoying the most was actually right next to the hostel called Underground Club and their symbol is like the London Underground. So it obviously wasn’t playing underground music with a set up like that, but it was fun. I went two nights and both times there were bands doing original music or covers in Serbo-Croatian. Bosnian rock is pretty cool. The shows started after midnight so those were some pretty late nights.

On my final day in Sarajevo, after staying up way too late for too many nights I went for a run to the Goat’s bridge. It’s a really nice pedestrian path with some excellent views.

That I headed out to catch the night bus to Belgrade. I was exhausted so I was able to sleep pretty much without problem through the night and had the whole row to myself.

From Athens to Sofia: the Acropolis, churches, Vitosha mountain, and boza

October 16, 2018
by Dan

On our return from Cairo we reversed the express bus route from the airport and headed back to Petaluda house, where we had stayed during our last pass through Athens.

Our general goal was to go to Sofia Bulgaria but we planned an additional night in Athens to make up on the touristing we missed last time. We filled our one-night, two-day stay by visiting pretty much everything on the combined Acropolis ticket. It’s a ticket that covers the Acropolis and several other archaeological sites around the city. I was really uncertain how worth it it would be. The base ticket to the Acropolis was 20 euro and an extra 10 for the combined site (valid for 5 days). OMG that hurt.

First up was the Acropolis and Parthenon, the icon of Athens. It was cool to see the scale of the place and there were excellent views of the city in all directions. Unfortunately there was scaffolding covering one side and a crane sitting in the center. I think the economic crisis kind of just stalled the work that they were doing and so the crane is now a permanent monument to modern construction equipment inside the Parthenon, kind of like Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel.  My feeling was that the coolest part of the Acropolis was being able to see it from all over the city.

We started off the next morning with a visit to the Panathenaic Stadium, the stadium used for the ancient Athens games. It has also been restored for the ceremonies for the Athens Olympics and as a finishing point for the Athens Marathon. There is a paid entry, but looking at the stadium over the fence was sufficient for our purposes. Apparently running on the track is possible from 7:30 am to 9 am. Unfortunately we were so beat from yesterday that we used the morning to sleep in and missed that, but it’s definitely something I would prioritize if we come back.

Next we headed to my favorite site on the unified ticket, the Temple of Zeus the Olympian. I am fond of making this ignorant joke that everything to see in Greece is just pillars. It’s pretty true though and this was just pillars. BUT! these pillars were all original and you still get a sense for the scale of the temple, which was huge. And you can get a lot closer than is allowed at the Parthenon. Also the view from here of the Acropolis is excellent. So in my opinion, if there was only one thing to do for cheap on a very short layover in Athens, this would be this. Nearby also is Hadrian’s arch. I know the desire was stupid, but I really wanted to walk under it. Confounded flimsy rope fences.

Then we wandered around to a few of the other sites. I wasn’t super excited with most of them, but I’m not a huge Greek history buff. We just kinda wandered around looking at the bases of pillars. I would have been fine just seeing these from across the fence without the ticket.

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Our final site was the Ancient Agora. This was pretty cool and it definitely seemed like a great place for history aficionados. For us it was just cool to walk around. The best part was the Temple of Hephaestus, which is pretty much fully restored/preserved temple. Here the restoration work was done such that it all looked quite original. This was much more of what I was expecting from the Parthenon. Unfortunately, you can’t go into any of the temples.

We we spent the evening hanging out at the hotel where they let us keep our bags and use the shower for the day, then headed off late at night on a long overnight train journey from Athens to Sofia.

It was our first overland travel on the European leg of our journey, and I kind of assumed that train travel would be a breeze at this point, but that’s really not the case in the Balkans. The train from Athens to Sofia was not so straightforward as it looked on the map. The simplest solution was a 12 hr overnight bus. But this was a bit expensive. The cheaper option was to take the train (but only if you booked in advance and in person).

We booked the ticket at the main train station in Athens (the metro stop is named Larissa for some reason). Booking the ticket was simple to do, but watching the paper shuffling shenanigans was painful. There was stamping, stapling, sorting, filling, and everything was handwritten on contact paper. None of the tickets looked particularly convincing. The route itself seemed equally confusing. Train to Thessoloniki, a different train to the border, then bus across the border, then a train to Sofia. And we had arguably three tickets….? It turns out that one of those was a receipt. But it all worked in the end.

Getting onto our first train was a total mess. All the cars were numbered ‘2’ and no one knew how to find their seat, and of course, reversing course down a narrow train car stuff with people and their luggage just added to the confusion. It wasn’t a comfortable sleep, but after that the journey went surprisingly smoothly and we didn’t have any trouble with transitions. It’s not that anything was labeled or that we knew where to go. But whenever everyone got off the train, we followed. Then when we asked where to go next, we usually were brusquely shooed away in the right direction without really finishing our question. But we arrived in Sofia midday and set off walking to our hostel.

There are metro and bus systems in Sofia, but they are also a bit confusing and we found that pretty much everything was in walking distance. We stayed at Hostel 123, which I think turned out to be my favorite hostel during this trip so far. The staff were very welcoming and treated everyone like a friend and then that carried over to all the guests. So I feel like we met some really nice people during our stay. There was one guy from Chile doing a bike tour through Eastern Europe. I was jealous of that. And finally we had solid WiFi after quite a long time. Egypt and Greece were not so developed in that regard. Plus there was a huge breakfast spread every morning. It was a really great time spent there.

The main draw to Sofia for me was that my good friend Ivan (also the project lead during my doctorate) is from Sofia. So I’ve seen plenty of family vacation photos and heard stories of drowning in yogurt topped with feta (but not the Greek kind, it’s better in Bulgaria). So for me, just seeing what life was like in Sofia was a great experience.

But in general Sofia is a really easy city to visit. It is actually quite a small town and all of the main places to go are very centrally located downtown. It’s also a very calm and peaceful place. The main sights are churches and various ruins from the Roman city of Serdica which are scattered all over the city. It’s also especially beautiful at night.

The ruins were the first thing that we ‘visited’ just by walking randomly down the street. My impression of the ruins is that they provided a really cool backdrop for the city. They are all over the place. The most notable are the ruins at the Serdica metro station which were unearthed during the construction of the station in 2012. You can actually walk through the ruins on the way to the metro, which is pretty unique. There is also a hotel called Ampitheater of Serdica, which houses ruins from the amphitheater. They have a lounge area set up among the ruins. I like how the ruins have been integrated into the modern city, maybe not the best for preservation, but action figures are also a lot more fun out of the packaging.

The churches here were really phenomenal. I’m a bit temple/churched out so we saved these towards the end of the stay, but I’m really glad we went. I particularly think that Orthodox churches are really beautiful. That may mostly be because they are exotic to me, but still familiar enough for me to appreciate details.

Of the churches we visited, the Aleksandr Nevski Cathedral was the most ornate inside (but sorry no pictures allowed). It was interesting to contrast it with the nearby Russian church of St. Nikolas (also no pictures inside). They were very different sizes, but the general architecture and artwork was nice to compare.

I think that the most interesting aspect of these orthodox churches is that there is no seating areas and the altar area is separated from the congregation. My understanding is that Catholic churches used to be similar but slowly incorporated some aspects of Protestant churches to give what I think of now as a normal Catholic church.

Also nearby (these are all within like two blocks) was the older and more rustic St Sophia Church. The cool feature of this church is that there are tombs underneath and they have installed acrylic floor panels and cool lighting so you can see down into them from the church.

The final church that we visited was a bit out of the city. Ivan introduced us to his good friends from university, Nikola and Vikki. We only had a portion of the morning together, but they took us out to Boyana church and then out for coffee, and it was really great to meet them!

Boyana is a church that was built in three stages, with the earliest being 10th century. Through some fortunate series of events it survived the Ottoman rule and calls to renovate it. So now it consists of three sections from very different eras and has some really well preserved paintings on the interior (again no pictures inside were permitted). I really appreciated having a guide to point out all the cool details inside. So thanks a bunch to Nikola and Vikki for setting that up!

Another unique feature in Sophia is the presence of municipal hot spring water. There are spigots set up near to the mosque and history museum, here. Christina was pretty bummed to learn that there aren’t hot spring baths there though. We filled up our water bottles a few times, but I fully do not understand mineral water and the European fascination with it. Each time we went there were tons of locals filling up jugs of water.

We also spent a good deal of time shopping for winter clothes since we aren’t really prepared for below freezing weather. Sofia turned out to be great for this. There are tons of thrift stores of varying levels of sophistication. My favorite was Zig Zag in terms of selection and style.

The odd thing about these shops here is that most everything is sold by weight, which turns out to work surprisingly fairly. Obviously stuff like silk is going to be a killer deal, but it general it scaled pretty well for the stuff that we bought. Though, I stupidly bought a jean jacket because it looked cool, whereas a down jacket would have been a much more intelligent purchase in terms of warmth and price. So I’ll have to live with that. It really does look cool though. Keep an eye out of photos of it going forward!

There were also several new clothing stores that had pretty decent sales going on. The difficult thing with the ‘proper’ or firsthand stores was that they usually only had one of anything in any given size. So the stuff was new, but the shopping experience was just as time consuming as thrift shopping. Also the thrift shop stuff was usually in really good condition compared to what you find in the US. I think there might be official sorting centers that make sure the clothes are in clean good condition because they didn’t take any of our old clothes that we were trying to get rid of.

Anyway, these firsthand clothing stores were particularly frustrating when looking for shoes. I don’t get how they make the decision to get this model of shoe in a size 40 and this other shoe in 41. So we didn’t end up getting any new clothing items and stuck with the excellent selection in the thrift stores. I found the whole process delightful. It was fun to shop for things that we needed and great that there were thrift shops, and just fun to see how something like this differs in another country.

In terms of food, Bulgarian cuisine is pretty similar to Greek. There were a few notable dishes that are really worth mentioning. The first is moussaka, which is also Greek, but the difference here is that the Bulgarian version is less healthy and way tastier. Greek moussaka has eggplant, but Bulgaria’s is just meat and potatoes as a base. By all accounts, given my preference for eggplant, I should favor the Greek version but it turns out I’m 100% a Bulgarian moussaka guy.

Next up is a tripe soup called shkembe chorba. I still have trouble with tripe conceptually and don’t like the texture. So I wanted Christina to order this, but accidentally ordered it for myself just by asking about it at a restaurant. It turns out to be really good. Even I liked the texture of this tripe. The closest American equivalent would be that kinda soupy mac and cheese that you make if you add too much milk. It’s actually a lot like that, plus paprika. Mentally, I think I would have loved the stuff a lot more if the tripe was replaced with macaroni. Maybe I just want some mac and cheese right now. Anyway it was a bit of a surprise how much I liked it.

Finally I have to mention the beer. It’s really cheap here (and in the rest of the Balkans that we visit later). During our travels beer has always been pretty expensive compared to food and lodging, the world over. But here it’s as cheap as water. The 2.5 liter bottle in the picture below was like 2 USD. It’s not particularly great beer, but it’s all pretty darn good.

The craziest or most unique thing that we tried was a regional drink called boza. It’s a lightly fermented grain beverage. Apparently most foreigners dislike it. I had hopes of defiantly loving it. But it is pretty, pretty weird and doesn’t quite agree with my tastes. We got a big bottle from a bakery and I made a point to drink the whole thing. I can’t even really describe it. I think it tasted kinda like gravy or a beef broth but creamy. But also it was like none of those things. It was just strange and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. [Note from Christina: I would describe it as tasting a yogurt-sour liquid bread.]

Oh, also back to food, my absolute favorite Bulgarian food is this spread called lutinitza. It’s made of tomatoes and eggplant and capsicum and it’s amazing on bread. I left the country with a half full jar but still feel like I didn’t eat enough of the stuff. Luckily it’s common in neighboring countries, but nothing beats the Bulgarian version.

In terms of exercise we had some grand plans but ended up just running once during our stay. The large central park, Borisova Gradina, turned out to be an excellent spot. It was great just for running but also nice for run touristing because of the grand monuments from the communism. The park was especially gorgeous with the fall weather. There were all sorts of paths leading through canopies of golden trees.

I also went for a run in South Park. It was not as picturesque nor did it contain so many monuments but it was nice large park to run around in. Actually most of the parks that we walked through seemed very well suited for running and the city itself was as good as an urban environment can be for running; not very crowded and with driver’s that respected pedestrians. Basically this meant that it was easy to run to the park to run instead of walking to the park to run.

I think the capstone tourist event was climbing Mount Vitosha, just outside of the city. Here we got a slightly better look at Sofia public transit, since we generally walked otherwise. We took the train to metro station GM Dimitrov, then bus 69 to the end at the Simeonov Lift. I was pretty impressed with the bus stops which had timetables and live updates.

Figuring out which bus served a given destination though was a bit tricky and google maps doesn’t have bus routes. I ended up using a combination of these two sites to figure out where we were going. Later on I learned of the moovit app that seems to work pretty well in the Balkans, but I don’t know how well it works in Sofia.

The metro system was surprisingly difficult to understand. There aren’t many lines and the ones that exist kind of seem to go in a loop. The most frustrating thing is that when you get into a station and know your destination, it’s really confusing to know which side of the track to go on. The platforms are specified by the general neighborhood (google may or may not know the name) where the terminal station is, not the station names? So knowing the name of the terminal station, or the next station in your desired direction isn’t enough. It’s a unique and very frustrating system, but simple enough that it’s not a huge issue. The nice thing is that the tickets are flat rate of 1 USD though.

Once we arrived at the mountain base we bought a ticket on the cable car to go up to the ski lodge area. I never learned to ski when I lived in Colorado because it’s such an expensive sport. Well, off season ski lift prices in Bulgaria aren’t cheap either. But it got us up there (there may be an all bus alternative fyi). It’s about a 30 minute ride to the top and the views along the way were really phenomenal, so at least there was that. Fall is really amazing here.

At the top of the cable car we arrived at Aleko Hut and started up the mountain. We just followed the walking directions that Google gave to reach Black Peak. Go figure: no information on how to navigate the city by bus, but walking directions for the off season hiking trails at a ski area far out of town. Overall it was a pretty easy hike and well marked. We followed the switch backs up even though they were not necessary while the ground was dry. Some folks just hiked straight up the along the ski lift.

Eventually we joined a gravel road for about 1 km and then headed into a really cool boulder field. The hike to the top took about 1 hour from Aleko Hut. At the top we got great views of the plains at the top of the mountain. There were some cool weather structures up there also and it was awesome to see the clouds changing and moving over the mountain.

We spent a lot of time taking fun pictures on the mountain. I suppose I regret not just sitting up there and enjoying the scenery and the cool breeze more. We knew we had to rush down in order to catch the last cable car at 4:30 pm. But I specifically bought beer and snacks to enjoy at the top of the mountain. It was a bit tight, but we did have enough time to sit and enjoy a beer at least.

By the time we headed down it was starting to cloud up and we were rushing to catch cable car before it stopped for the day. All was going well and then it started to hail. We walked right into the clouds from the sun. It was an interesting transition descending into the hail. But it also made the going slow and a bit treacherous. We basically went straight down along the ski lift. The switchbacks would have been nice, but it was easier to follow the trail this way. In the end we made it down no problem and caught the cable car in plenty of time.

From there we simply reversed the route home with soggy shoes and took a warm shower. There is a lot more to see in Bulgaria and I would love to go explore some of the other nature and hiking in the country and stuff my face with moussaka.

At the end of our week in Sofia, Christina headed off for a shorting meeting in the US, and I went for a solo to visit Sarajevo.

Egypt: pyramids, snorkeling, and living that cafe lyfe

October 14, 2018
by Christina

Our Aegean Airlines flight delivered us to the Cairo International Airport without incident, feeding us spanakopita and Greek yogurt for breakfast. Was that the easiest thing for them to feed us, or was it performative Greek-ness? We may never know.

We found the signage in the Cairo airport lacking, and waited through the line in passport control to be told to go to one of the banks nearby to buy a visa, but there were no signs saying that this one particular bank was where you had to go, you just went to where the long line was. The visa was just a sticker you bought, that you stuck in your passport yourself, and got it stamped at passport control, which was easy once we had the visa.

Outside of customs we went to hail an Uber to go to my friend Ahdab’s house. The taxi drivers were very pushy, but after the tuk tuk drivers in Agra I think nothing may phase me. My favorite line was “Uber expensive. Good taxi, small price!” When our Uber driver arrived but remained stationary and far away from us for a while, we ultimately had to get Ahdab to call him for us. He was waiting in the shade? If not for Ahdab’s intervention, it would likely have been easier to just take a bus into town and take Uber from there, as we got charged additional parking fees to have the Uber enter the airport.

The ride to Ahdab’s was fascinating. First there were the views of the deserts surrounding the airport, then the many empty or half-empty and unfinished red brick buildings along the highway. We also go a sneak peek at the Pyramids and the Nile en route.

Ahdab was one of my classmates in my yoga teacher training, and I was really excited to get to see her. She lives in 6th of October City, and was there to greet us and feed us breakfast, which was delicious.

After that she had work, and we were exhausted from getting up so early and having spent a night on the ferry before that, so we more or less collapsed until dinner time, when we got to have a home-cooked dinner with the family, which was soooo nice. Ahdab’s mom made green sauce-veg dish called mulukhiyah, chicken and rice, which was all very delicious and very Egyptian.

The next day Ahdab and her friend Salim took us for a walk around the part of town called Zamalak. It’s located on the north end of Gezira Island on the Nile in Cairo and it used to be a garden housing exotic plants from all over the world. We went to a small market, saw a pottery art show and sculpture garden at the Gezira Art Center, got fresh juice (pomegranate! mango! cane juice!), and then took a rest at a cafe to have tea and shisha. The juice shops and the cafes are something that seem to be very common in Egypt, and something that we enjoyed a lot.

After that some of Salim’s friends joined us for a boat ride on the Nile, which is, in fact, a river in Egypt.

After that we went to dinner at Abou El Sid where our friend Sameh joined us as well. Sameh was our neighbor back in Washington, DC, same floor of our building, but had since moved back to Cairo not long before we left for our trip, so it was fun to see him again!

And Dan got to eat pigeon! This was especially comical given that he had recently been heard exclaiming at pigeons who annoyed him that someone should eat them, why does no one eat pigeons?! Well, it turns out Egpytians eat pigeons, and they are pretty tasty. The flavor is stronger than chicken, closer to turkey, but more tender. However, there’s less meat and you’ve got smaller bones to navigate, but all in all, pigeon gets a thumbs up as a meal!

After dinner we went to Roof Top Bar which had a great view of Cairo for a few drinks, and then dropped in to Jazz Club, which sees a lot of really good music acts and is a Cairo institution in the music scene.

Of course, we had to go pay a visit to the Pyramids of Giza, possibly one of the most iconic archaeological and tourist sites in the world. We took an uber from Ahdab’s place to get there, and walked to the entrance. You might imagine that the pyramids are remote, but they are actually surrounded by city, but still in a large swath of dessert. We bought a general entry ticket, and an entry into the smallest pyramid, Menkaure. There are warnings to count your change: heed them. If we hadn’t we would have gotten short changed, and evidently it’s pretty common.

There’s a particular point near the pyramids called “the panorama” that men hawking camel and horse rides say they will take you to for the photograph of all the pyramids in a row. Well, you can walk there, so we did, and in total we ended up spending almost 5 hours and walking 8 km around the place, which is much longer than necessary to see everything, but we were having fun.

It’s amazing to think that after 3000 years the pyramids are still standing, and it felt surreal to be walking around them. The tour into the Menkaure Pyramid was a little underwhelming however, and the guards were encouraging people to take photos (against the rules) and then asking for tips (because they let you break the rules). But also there isn’t much to photograph. On our way out a tour group arrived and it caused a serious traffic jam. Maybe touring the bigger pyramids would be worth it? Dunno.

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The sphinx was the most crowded location, mostly because it was the most compact. It was very cool to see something so iconic in real life, but the atmosphere was a lot of tourists elbowing each other for pictures, so that part doesn’t live up to the glamour of it.

We enjoyed some tea at Marriott Mena House, which has a lovely tea room with a view of the great pyramid, then headed to downtown Cairo where we got a lunch at Abou Tarek, which only serves koshary and is famous for it. It’s a mix of pasta, rice, chic peas, lentils, marinara sauce, fried onions and vinegar, and it’s delicious comfort food. It’s something I have plans to approximate in my own kitchen at home (once I have one of those again, and by that I mean both “home” and “kitchen”).

We had some tea and shisha at a nearby cafe, took a stroll around Tahrir Square, where the revolution happened in 2011, then headed back to Ahdab’s place after our long day of touristing.

The next day we bid Ahdab farewell to go pay a visit to the Red Sea. It was really nice getting to see her again, and so kind of her and her family to host us during our visit! Thank you guys so much! We had a wonderful time.

From Cairo we took Go Bus to the city of Hurghada, which is about 7 hours south of Cairo situated on the Red Sea. We got in late and I had managed to come down with a cold, so we slept in late. We stayed at Sea Waves hostel, which offered breakfast included with the room, and I really enjoyed taking my meal on the roof deck.

We went to Star Beach (for a small fee) in the afternoon. The water was beautiful, but very shallow for a long time, until a steep drop, but I braved it and went for a nice swim,  and did NOT step on any of the enormous sea urchins I found at the entry to the deeper water.

That evening we explored the markets and got something to eat, and more juice of course. We found Hurghada to be very lively at night, just as Cairo had been, but despite it being a much smaller town, there were lots of people out and about later in the day.

Something that we were constantly harangued about on the streets was snorkeling or diving, but mostly it was people not involved in the dive shops trying to herd us in and take a cut. After looking at reviews we decided to book a trip directly from Diamond Divers.  Our trip was first thing the next day, and we were transported from the shop along with the diver’s oxygen tanks to the boat. There was a lot of hanging around, which made us worry at first that we had chosen the wrong company, but our fears were for naught.

We were the only snorkelers on a fairly large dive trip, and basically turned loose to swim as much as we wanted at the first location. The water was so clear that I didn’t feel like I missed seeing anything by staying close to the surface, and there were areas that might have been cumbersome to swim over with all the diving gear. And I’ve never seen so many fish in my life, it was amazing. I was so excited about them schooling around me, until one of them decided to bite me on the elbow and it’s amazing how quickly things changed from serene to ominous, but ultimately it was just the one fish who took a nibble.

After that we had a lovely buffet lunch, really good actually, I wasn’t expecting much, so it was a nice surprise and we were really hungry.

Then it was off to the second dive spot. For this one I got my camera loaded into a waterproof pouch to try and take some underwater pictures, which turned out more or less okay. The second location was beautiful, but generally deeper and with fewer fish. Still lovely though.

After three nights in Hurghada we headed back to Cairo to stay a few nights with Sameh. We got to meet his two German shepherds and spent some time hanging out at the house and relaxing.

The next day we went to the Egyptian museum, which was interesting in several ways. One of these was that the museum is preparing to move to a new and fancy location adjacent to the pyramids, and so seemed like a bit of an archaeological site itself, with its old architecture and cases, and certain areas roped off or boxed up. I kind of liked the strange feeling of the space, and I was happy to see if before it metamorphoses into something else entirely.

There were lots of really cool artifacts, but of course, the highlight was the mummies (which you aren’t supposed to photograph, sigh). It was really amazing and almost unbelievable to be looking at the body of a person who died thousands of years ago. Skin, hair, nails, etc all thousands of years old. It’s amazing that human remains can last so long. Mind totally blown.

After the museum we stopped at a cafe and then to get some juice before heading back to Sameh’s place. We took the metro which was nice, but warning: don’t accidentally get in the women’s car with a dude. It was both “awww”  inducing and hilarious to watch Dan terrified at the rain of “La! La! La!” (“la” is “no” in Arabic) that came down upon him from the female passengers, but the doors closed right behind us and we were trapped until the next stop. And as we were trying to switch cars we missed the train… sigh.

That night Sameh invited some other friends over and we had a little gathering and snacks. As we were chatting with his friends, we discovered an amazing coincidence: one of them knew Ahdab, totally independently!

The next day we were lazy and slept in, played soduku and snacked, then finally got out of the house to go see a few sights in the evening. First we visited Al Azhar Park, which is a popular place for couples to take engagement photos (as it turns out).

Finally, we went for a tour of Khan el-Khalili market and Moez Street. It’s full of vendors selling all kinds of cool goods, and it’s got some really amazing architecture. In general, Egyptians seem to stay up late and everything is very lively after dark, almost to the point that there seem to be more people out and about in the streets at night than during the day.

We ended our tour of the market with a bountiful meal at Naguib Mahfouz restaurant, where we got to try pigeon a second time, and then hung out to watch an oud player and drink some tea.

The next morning Sameh very kindly drove us to the airport before heading to work. It was delightful getting to catch up with our old neighbor. Thank you so much Sameh for having us and showing us around!

We checked in with Aegean and got through security without incident, then from there we were headed back to Athens and our delayed visit to the Acropolis…

 

Chania, Crete, Greece: raki, gyros, and Christina’s Y2K Nostaligia Tour

October 4, 2018
by Dan

For our trip to Greece we chose a very special place for Christina. As a teenager she lived for 7 months on the island of Crete and so we were returning to get to explore her old stomping grounds. She really enjoyed getting to see everything with a new adult perspective. It was great for me because I got to visit all the places and experience all of the things that she would tell stories about.

We arrived at the small Chania airport and headed out to catch the bus into town. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to locate the bus and buy tickets. I was following this website, which is trying to sell airport pickups, but had surprisingly good info about the bus.

It doesn’t actually say where to catch it and I don’t actually know which direction the exit is on the map, but the bus is just to the far right and its not a very extensive place. It’s easy to find and CHEAP. Usually airport transit prices are jacked up, but this was a quite reasonable 2.50 euros, which is an inflated price for the island yet shows how reasonable transit costs are.

We checked into an awesome apartment that we found on AirBnB. Chania is pretty small so everything is more or less centrally located, but this location couldn’t have been better. Basically right between the bus stop and the historic waterfront, ten minute walk to the beach, and right around the block from a supermarket. It was a really cool studio with high ceilings and a loft for the bed, a decent kitchen, and a washing machine. The only real trouble we had was with the bogged down internet. It seems to be a bit slow in all the places we stayed in Greece.

I’ve come to realize that the first thing I should do in any new country is visit a grocery store. I have always known this to be important, but now I feel like it has to be my absolute first priority to get a pulse on the food situation.

So a few notable things that I’ve noted about Greek grocery stores. First is that feta is not that cheap, which was a bit of a let down. But fresh fruit and veggies are and that was a very welcome change from Korea and Japan where produce was just unbearably expensive ($20 for a watermelon, are you nuts!?).

I also noted that the super markets don’t seem have a lot of selection for cheese and nothing for fresh baked goods. Greece has an interesting culture that has kept small specialty shops alive. So the best (only) place for bread and pastries are bakeries and cheese shops, which are amazing.

Finally the Greek snack game is not super strong, but they have a really interesting soda selection that is super regional in terms of brands, production, and flavors. This is the best article I found online about it. I found some of the drinks hit or miss, but it was definitely a fun place to purchase soda.

Also, on the topic of Japan, the Japanese get a lot of credit for their vending machine culture. It’s well deserved, but Greece had some really interesting vending machines. We saw a fresh orange juice squeezing machine, an “unexpected overnight” vending machine that stocked toiletries (toothpaste, saline solutions, etc) but mostly condoms, and finally a freaking contact lens vending machine with prescriptions down to -9 diopters. That’s insane, hardly anyone has that bad of a prescription. I did, but never met anyone else.

Chania is a small place so it was easy to do the touristing highlights in a day, but the real appeal was wandering about and just taking things slow in a picturesque place. This town is really postcard material. The old water front is a charming mix of cafes and restaurants with a backdrop of old ruins of buildings and walls. It’s slammed with tourists, but it’s still really lovely. We found ourselves along the Old Venetian Harbor often. Probably my favorite part of the whole area was the Mosque of Janissaries which was been converted into a shop for local artists.

We also took at turn at the Nea Chora beach. The water is actually pretty terrible for swimming here, it was murky and oily. But it was a nice place to people watch close by and a good spot for sunset. We spent an afternoon there and enjoyed our time.

One of my favorite things about Greece is the Greek coffee, which is the same as Turkish coffee as far as I can tell, but I’m sure there is an international disagreement over this. Anyway, my personally preference is for the sugared version of the drink (gliko). Later on I started noticing that a lot of Greeks seemed to prefer a frothy iced coffee beverage which is called a freddo espresso and this subsequently became my favorite Greek beverage.

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We quickly found our go to cafe and lunch spot in town. By pure luck we stopped by this coffee shop. We stopped in because of the science and math themed artwork on the walls. We kept coming back because the coffee was good, cheap, and the owner Lukas had amazing restaurant recommendations.

The first was for a nearby gyro spot called Oasis. It’s a small hole in the wall with two guys serving up simple gyros for 2 euro each. You just walk up ask for a gyro and they prepare it wrapped up in some paper and a napkin and off you go. I love no frills shops like this that serve one thing and make it simple, cheap, and delicious. My only regret from Chania is not eating more of these.

Lukas also gave us a top notch recommendation for a good dinner spot. My parents had given us some money to celebrate our anniversary and we did it here. We went all out on a meal at Christosomos. It’s at the end of the Venetian harbor and a bit off the beaten path. The view from the restaurant isn’t much, but the place is very cute and everything else was spot on. The wait staff were super friendly and the food was fantastic across the board. The house wine was a steal and ranged from good to excellent. It comes in half liters and seeing as we were able to compare two of the offerings.

The amazing thing was that, even though we went all out and were stuffed full and a bit wobbly, and this sort of restaurant is totally out of our typical budget for this trip, we didn’t actually break the bank. If this were a week vacation while we were working, we would have been raving about how cheap fancy meals are in Greece. You can check out the menu on their website. We loved this place.

One of the greatest Cretan traditions is the after meal service. The tradition here is that after the meal (lunch, dinner, maybe breakfast I don’t know) you will receive a small desert and shot glass of cold raki.

It’s a clear liquor distilled from the left over material from the wine making process. It’s often of varying proof and locally made and available for purchase from markets in unlabeled plastic bottles. It’s served without any input on your part and I’m sure I would have been pleasantly absolutely thrilled by this practice if I wasn’t aware of it from Christina’s descriptions of life on Crete. Anyway, here a some more pictures of meals that all included raki, including a seafood meal that made me dreadfully sick during our departure from the island.

Speaking of interesting alcohols, we made a few cheap and interesting wine purchases at the supermarkets. We went with the red in the large liter and a half clear plastic bottle and a white served up in a clear glass with a pop top lid. The red wine tasted like communion wine, which was treat.

The white wine though was something quite unique called retsina. Traditionally it was a wine stored in resin sealed casks, then it became a flavor of wine (because of the resin), then it became a way to mask crappy wine, and now it’s supposedly going through a revival as something distinctly Greek and not always crappy. Well it is a little crappy. At least the one we got. It’s definitely weird and I thought it tasted like a rosemary infused white wine. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but I loved the experience and the fact that I randomly found something so distinctly Greek and odd.

Back to the actual adventuring. Our main goal during our stay was to go around visiting Christina’s old haunts. She lived a bit outside of Chania in a little town called Chorafakia. There isn’t much written about it, but we were easily able to reach it by catching a bus from the main station. Unfortunately, on our first attempt we were unaware that the bus didn’t operate at all from about 10 am to 3 pm so we ended up pushing our adventure towards the end of our stay. But we did it.

We spent some time walking around looking for the house where Christina used to live. She was going off of vague memories and some google maps research. There is lots of new construction so she wasn’t feeling super confident. I absolutely loved the area. There were beautiful views of the sea and the nearby mountains. The entire area was filled with beautiful flowering fragrant trees and olives and fruit. It was some serious postcard material and I can’t believe that she used to live in such a beautiful place.

Our first success on Christina’s “Y2K Nostalgia Tour” was finding a small sign for horse stables where Christina used to ride horses called Zefiros. We had some trouble finding the entrance and eventually ended up walking up the driveway of an adjacent house where someone was moving in (or out?). The movers didn’t mind at all when we asked if we could climb the fence at the top of the to have a look around. We found the training arena and the stables abandoned and overgrown.

Afterwards we were able to quickly hunt down Christina’s old home. It was situated adjacent to a deep ravine with an amazing looking cave. We didn’t have the time to fight our way through the brush and explore it, but it looked liked a wonderful place to run around as a kid.