Category Archives: Europe

Istanbul, Turkey

It was 13 hours overnight from Sofia to Istanbul and I had a sleeper car all to myself. I’m getting better at sleeping on trains despite the noise, the shaking, the frequent jerky stops, and the repeated visits by border guards and ticket agents.

Turkey requires a visa for Americans to enter but it can be obtained at the border. The night train from Sofia arrives at the Turkish border around 3am. Unfortunately the knock on my door from the steward did not translate to “Time to get up. Please get off the train and go to the visa window. Pay them for the visa stamp and then get in the second unmarked line to have your passport validated.” So I stayed tucked in my bunk.

About 30 minutes later a border guard opened my door and asked for my passport. I handed it to him and he flipped through it, obviously not finding what he was looking for. “Stamp, Stamp!” he said. Groggy from the couple hours of sleep I’d been able to catch I looked at him probably much like someone on drugs. Sensing this he told me to follow him and rushed me out to the visa window. I presented the passport, paid for the visa sticker, and then he grabbed the passport and walked away calling “Bradley! Quickly!” as he walked. So I followed. He jumped to the front of the second line and handed the passport to the man behind the window. What happened next is kind of a blur. A few one word questions were asked and apparently I provided the right one word answers as he stamped my passport and handed it back to me. I walked back to the train and a very few moments later we were underway. I’m not really sure how close I came to watching my luggage make its way to Istanbul without me.

Rolling into Istanbul at 8am the sun had risen a little. Enough to cast angular morning light on everything below it. I could already tell I wasn’t in “Europe” any more. The minarets from the Mosques stood tall and foreign in the post-dawn and the many domes stood in sharp contrast to the square ugliness of the post-Soviet architecture. Istanbul has some 3000 mosques and nowhere near as many churches. At this point I’m a little churched-out to be honest. I’ve been looking forward to this. Something more “foreign” less “European” for a little while. American culture has borrowed so heavily from Western European cultures and vice versa that, while each country is unique and has its own long heritage, there is some sameness to them after two months. This is something even more apparent by traveling overland. You are able to see the gradual blending of cultures. The architecture and infrastructure make a slow transition from one dominance to another around the borders. You can even hear a slow change in the language as passengers get off and on at the stops around a border. The language, or dialect, as I have no idea what anyone is saying, changes as well. The sounds are different.

Turkey is different. Built on a different set of cultures (Greek/Arab/Persian) and being located more in Asia than Europe it has proved culturally more resistant to choosing a side and has built a unique blend of the two, a wonderfully tolerant and secular blend of the two. Thanks to Ataturk (president from 1923-1938) and his sweeping reforms Turkey has grown into a politically stable, economically viable, better educated state.

I got to my hostel run by a group of Kurdish brothers and dropped off my bags and wandered map-less out into the streets. I walked the narrow cobblestone streets taking no particular route, maybe following foot traffic in hopes they knew where they were going, and found my way to what I thought was a magnificent set of mosques. I would later find out that one of them was actually formerly a Christian church and the other is the famous Blue Mosque. Getting directions to an ATM later I would be told “It’s up by the Blue Mosque” and would have to display my ignorance by asking “Which one is the Blue Mosque?” Here’s why. The Blue Mosque isn’t blue on the outside; it’s blue on the inside!

I did no sight seeing that day other than what I saw on my walk. I just took in the hundreds of shops and cafes and restaurants. All so very different from anywhere I’d been this far. In the restaurants I found something I’d been missing on this travel… SPICE! The majority of European food I’ve sampled thus far has been terribly bland. Here everything is punched up with a healthy dose of spice and sauce and flavor! I’ve sampled a wide variety of Turkish staples and have been pleasantly impressed each time. The shops offered a wonderful variety of crafts. Carpets, ceramics, instruments, clothes, hats, and much more. Of course, with no prices. I’ve bought very few souvenirs on this trip so far and I immediately thought “Turkey is going to be expensive!”

And it would be…

The next day I took more time than I should have getting out of bed. I had a singular goal of the day. Get to the Syrian Consulate and apply for a visa. It was the last day of Ramadan and the next 3 days would be the holiday of Ede meaning there would be no chance for me to apply again if I didn’t make it in time.

Something the taxi driver decided to tell me on the ride to the consulate: Ramadan ends and thus Ede begins, at noon on the last day. Thus it would probably be closed. He was right. All the doors were shut and I’d missed my opportunity to apply until Ede was over 3 days later. He patiently waited for me to come back out of the building and then took me back to nearly where I’d begun. This being my first taxi ride in haggle-land I did a poor job of setting expectations and this round trip ended up costing me about $60.

I had him drop me off at the Grand Bazaar, handed over my poorly negotiated pound of flesh, and walked into the fray.

The Grand Bazaar is a spectacular bit of chaos. It is the largest covered bazaar in the world and is full to overflowing with shops, products, and people. The Turkish salespeople are incredibly persistent and crafty. They know your language, your country, state, city, weather, and will use all of it to get you into a conversation, once they’ve got you on the hook they use that to ply on your sense of respect, manners, and emotions. Not all mind you, but the vast majority I’ve come into contact with. Carpet salesmen are the most persistent. I’ll admit I’m vulnerable to respect-tactics. “Please, sit with me, drink my apple tea, won’t you be polite?” I didn’t buy anything, but I did get sucked into a long uncomfortable discussion in the back of a carpet shop.

It took only once. Now I lie. I got enough information from that one meeting, and a little internet research later on, to put together a convincing enough set of stories to diffuse most attempts.

“Would you look at my carpets sir?”

“I’ve already got two”

“But you don’t have a , I’m sure!”

“Yes, sorry, I have that and a

“Well then you need a leather jacket!” (this is always the fall back position.)

“Sorry, it is against my beliefs to wear leather”

Or avoid the whole transaction by smiling, putting up my hand and ignoring the five or six more “Excuse me” attempts. That does not always work.

I also got burned early on with what I saw as a simple transaction. I wanted to get a beard trimmer to keep the bristles under control so I found a shop outside the bazaar and chose a clipper package, negotiated a price, and made my way back to the hostel only to discover that I had indeed purchased the clippers, but had not received the power adaptor or any of the accessories… and so it grows.

How it is that the marketplace works with this open knowledge that they are going to try and take advantage of you, either on price or quality, is still lost on me. I can only think that you must also come to the table ready to do so, thus creating a level playing field. Honor among thieves and all that… In the end it may actually be more “honest” with this knowledge. Compared to the ubiquitous “sale” signs in western retail shops where they take some percentage off their heavily marked up prices to move product. Here everything is on sale depending on how good you are at the game.

The next few days the weather I’d been running away from caught up with me. I’d seen the trees changing color from the train windows and had some vague notion that autumn was chasing me but I had yet to feel the bite. It rained for 3 days and temperatures dropped to the mid 50’s. Other than a few outings to eat or drink, I stayed close to the hostel and read or played on the Internet.

Monday I was able to try again for my Syrian visa. Everyone from the hostel was wishing me luck as they’d all heard the same things I had. Americans will have a rough time of it.

I arrived at the small room in the Syrian Consulate for visa applications and filled out the English form, got my photo ready, and walked up to the window. The woman behind the counter smiled pleasantly and said hello. I said hello and pushed my completed paperwork through the small hole in the window and smiled. She looked down at the cover of the passport and her smile faded. “Ahh, American…” It was a tone of concern. “I’m very sorry, we cannot issue you a visa from here. You must get it from Washington DC.”

“Really? Is there nothing we can do?” I said, conjuring my best lost-puppy look.

“I could send this to Syria, but it could stay there for a month and still be declined” she offered.

“What about the border? Could I try there?”

“Impossible… sorry”

And do it goes. No Syria for me, and thus no Jordan or Lebanon. While I’m sure it is some slight relief to Summer and my Parents that I won’t be crossing Syria, and I knew this could happen, it’s still a bummer. I’m still investigating other routes, and while they might be off the table for this trip, I will visit this region, for me it’s a necessity.

After the answer from the Syrian Consulate, I moved forward booking the rest of my Turkey tour. I’m headed to the middle of the country to explore the Cappadocian region and then to the South to hang out on the Mediterranean Coast for a week, where I will hopefully be able to hide from winter a little longer.

More on Istanbul and Turkey to come…

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Photos: Sofia, Bulgaria

Thanks for the requests and suggestions. You’ll notice more pictures of people near the end of the set. I prefer to take pictures of people, however I still need to get over the awkwardness of just asking if I can take the picture, or just taking the picture and being unapologetic about it.

As to video, I’ve been working on that as well. I’ve got some short videos that I’ve taken over the course of the journey that I’ll put up. As soon as I can get them converted into something small enough to upload. As for the video blog, I’ll do my best. I’ve been over thinking the whole thing. what shots, what order, what to say, narrative, etc… I’ll try and stop that and see what happens.

For now… Sofia

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Belgrade, Serbia

“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” -Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)

How different is that from today?

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“Didn’t we bomb this place?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure we did.”

Actually NATO did.

From Wikipedia:

The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (code-named Operation Allied Force by NATO) was NATO’s military operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that lasted from 24 March to 10 June 1999 and is considered a major part of the Kosovo War. It was only the second major combat operation in NATO’s history, following the September 1995 Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

NATO’s proclaimed goal was to force the Serbian government to end the civil war in Kosovo between the military of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Serbian paramilitary police forces on the one hand and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA or UCK) on the other. The Yugoslav Government claimed that it was protecting the minority Serbian population of Kosovo against attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The US State Department previously had classified the KLA as a terrorist organization.[6][7]

And here I am less than 10 years later looking at a city absolutely thriving! The streets are alive with people; the cafes are full of youth and laughter. It’s an old city, but a very clean city. You look down the alleys and you don’t see garbage, you see garbage trucks. Everything could use a coat of paint and some plaster but this city is on its way to recovery after decades of economic strife. (in 1993 inflation ran away at about 300,000% causing currency to be printed in values of up to 500,000,000,000 Dinar notes. Which were worth, at their height, equal to 6 US Dollars)

funny money

To be honest the fact that I knew there had been a war here in my adult lifetime was a big reason I wanted to visit. At the time of the war I’m sure I couldn’t have picked it out on a map. Also, it being a place nestled in Europe that is effectively off the lists of tourists held great attraction for me. I’m sure it will get much harder than this but for now this is the top. Available English is dramatically reduced and Serbian is a combination of Cyrillic and Roman alphabets. NOTE: I can’t read Cyrillic.

Very lucky for me I ran into an American named Matt after getting off the train in Belgrade. It was night and while I had the directions written down I had no idea how useless they would be. Like I said, luckily there was Matt, he speaks some Russian and can read Cyrillic. He didn’t have a hostel so he decided to see if the one I was booked at had any beds. The directions I had to my hostel were transliterated so showing them to the Serbian/Russian speaking cab driver did very little good. What would have been even more challenging without Matt would have been deciphering the street signs, which of course didn’t match my written names at all.

Example: Cika Lubjana

Street Sign: цика лубйиана

We arrived to find basically a two bedroom apartment converted into a hostel. There were six beds in one room and four in another. The “funky room” pictured on their web site was basically a small dining area with a picnic table in it where the staff, and occasionally the guests, would sit together. I’ll say they really did a good job with their advertising here. The pictures looked much better than the real thing. There was one bathroom and the shower was a bathtub with one of those hand held nozzles, no curtain. The finishing touch had to be the transparent acrylic toilet seat inset with coiled barbed wire. Those quirky Serbs…

It took a while for the staff to warm up, so I mostly avoided them. The restaurants and cafes were very cheap and I would visit a different one for each meal. This also gave me an excellent view on the unending stream of humanity flowing up and down the pedestrian mall.

I just walked most of the time. My head cold had made its way to my chest and I still wasn’t feeling 100%. I very effectively got lost trying to find the Tesla museum but by the time I found it, it was closed and would be closed the following day as well. I kept walking and people watching. Eventually finding myself at the two buildings that Belgrade has apparently not chosen to rebuild after the bombings and it’s hard to imagine what it was like here when that happened, maybe these shelled out carcasses serve as a reminder.

I hope to visit this place again in 10 years to see how much further it has come. With 30% growth for the past several years and a hope to join the European Union… I can only imagine what it will be like.

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Budapest

My 7 hour train ride to Budapest was fairly uneventful aside from being sold a reservation for a seat that didn’t exist. At this point I always get a reservation even if I’m told I don’t need one. In at least one case (Budapest to Belgrade) I think the combination of Reservation + Eurail pass kept me from having to buy a ticket in a non-Eurail supported country.

I must have walked the length of the train three times – “408, 409, 410, 411, 413” – as if I’d just overlooked the 40ft steel box labeled “412” and it would be there on the third go-round. Anyway, I spoke to the conductor after looking fruitlessly for my missing train car, and was told that it was out of service and he unlocked a second class cabin that I could have all to myself, for a while…

I watched a man carrying a laptop head towards the bathroom at the end of my car. He shot a glance my direction as he passed. I waited my turn and, after what seemed like a very long time, he eventually exited and looked my way again. I took my opportunity and in what I felt was a short amount of time returned to my cabin to find the grumpy looking German all set up in the seat across from where I’d been sitting. I’d had little to no sleep the night before and wasn’t feeling social. The sum total of words exchanged in the 5 hours he sat across from me was a “hello” from each of us.

Upon arriving in Budapest-Keleti station I was set upon by several large matrons wondering if I needed a room for the night. They had their three ring binders ready and open to show me pictures of the rooms they had available. I declined, as I already had some portion of a room reserved somewhere at a hostel.

After Vienna, Budapest was certainly a different tempo. The blockish Soviet buldings and aged uncared-for paintwork let me know I’d entered “Eastern Europe.” I wandered around for a little while looking for an ATM as the currency had changed at the border and then found the signs to the subway for the train I needed to take. I walked out of the grey stone and dirty floors of the train station to find a shiny white new underground with fancy turnstiles and escalators. I was a little surprised but then decided it was probably a fairly recent addition. When the subway car arrived I realized they had only partially invested in new toys for the underground. It looked like an old over-ground tram retrofitted to operate on these new tracks.

I got to my hostel, was assigned a bed number in the 12 bunk dorm, and tossed my things into a locker. Surprisingly I felt like I had more privacy in this long large room than any other multi-bed dorm so far because there were curtains at the end of each set of bunks. You knew there were 11 other people sleeping in the room but you couldn’t see them.

Most of my stay in Budapest was to be in this bunk or in a coffee shop. I’d developed a fairly nasty head cold and couldn’t go too far from a tissue source. You see, my face was leaking and before I left I probably sawed off a good ¼ inch of nose using the single serving TP that was readily available.

I did get one good day of walking in and one good night of drinking before I decided I needed to just take it easy. In that day I saw most of the sights and learned a few things about Budapest. Like, did you know, Budapest is actually Buda and Pest? One on each side of the river Danube. There’s also o’Buda but nobody goes there so it was vetoed in the name combo. Plus how silly does O’BudaBudaPest sound? Or PestO’BudaBuda? I could go on. Thankfully at whatever committee meeting there was to name the place they erred on the side of brevity.

The Buda side seems far less cared for than the Pest side. Graffiti is on pretty much everything below 6ft. and many of the more interesting buildings are boarded up. The Pest side is where the wonderful Parliament building is along with most of the shopping and restaurants. I didn’t get to visit any of the famous bath houses, which apparently are quite wonderful, but I’m sure I’ll have time for that when I get to Turkey.

Next stop, Belgrade, Serbia.

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Pictures: Vienna and Budapest

Here are some pictures from Vienna and Budapest. I’ve had a cold so the photography has been suffering in new places.

Here’s some fun highlights…

Vienna

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No, not getting arrested, just finding out what it would take…

Budapest

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I didn’t get his name but he seemed friendly enough…

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Vienna

About 6am we woke to prepare for the trip to Vienna it would be a 7 hour trip and we would get in at around 5pm. We boarded our train and found ourselves between 2 older Australian couples who weren’t traveling together. Everyone was friendly and talkative. I learned more about Australian history and politics in those first few hours than I’d known before. It was an interesting dynamic. Across me on my left was Phil, the retired socialist oil man, and across me on my right was Mike, “the employer”, a businessman and conservative, but arguably more open than Phil on most topics.

They debated the use of Australia as a resource factory for other countries. Going on about how they had everything they needed to make whatever they needed but their country only bothered to export the raw materials to other countries for manufacturing.

Oh, and Phil wanted to nationalize McDonalds, but that was just that he could wipe its scourge from fair Australia’s landscape.

After about 3 hours Mike and his wife, who had a dutch name I cannot remember, exited the cabin to catch their next train to Salzburg. So Summer and I were left with Phil and his significant other who had finished their second bottle of wine and were soon to pick up a couple small bottles from the passing beverage cart. They were both very nice and funny but Phil got increasingly random as his buzz wore on. Every so often while talking about something fairly banal he would say “I hope you’re not poor, because we don’t care” which I found an interesting comment from a self-proclaimed socialist.

Luckily we were able to change the conversation frequently to the stunning Austrian landscape. Everything you’ve seen in movies is true. You picture someone running up a hill in a puffy dress singing and spinning. Heidi is now on my list of films to watch sometime, to see if the Aussies were correct in their repeated “Yep, this is Heidi country.”

We arrived and found our tram, our stop, and our hostel. We were getting much better at this. Our accommodation was a college dorm room and we were directly across from the University of Vienna. There was no elevator and four floors of very steep spiral stairs to get to our room, our shower was halfway down the hall and the toilet was a few doors down. Still, all things considered, it was a comfortable enough room.

We only really had one day in Vienna so we headed towards the Hapsburgs palace but didn’t go in. The Hapsburgs fortune is secure with what they were charging to look at their very valuable belongings. We ran into several classically clad gents outside the archway selling tickets to a concert that evening. Hearing Mozart in Vienna seemed like a must and I’m very happy we did it. Neither of us was dressed for a classical concert in one of the most famous venues for such a thing but we were assured it was a casual event. Undoubtedly catering to tourists like ourselves.

The concert was held in the Musikverein Golden Hall, considered to be one of the three finest concert halls in the world. Why? I’m not sure. It just is. The players were all dressed in classical knickers and powdered wigs. Well, maybe not actually powdered, but they were white. The first hour was dedicated to Mozart and several operatic arias and the second hour introduced another of Vienna’s favorite sons, namely Johann Strauss. It was a very nice night and would become a very long night.

Summer’s flight left at 7am and with a 40+ minute ride to the airport by cab we had to be up very early. So instead of turning in and getting some rest we went to a college pub nearby and decided to have some drinks and enjoy our time together until she had to leave. When I was younger I could stay up for days, 6 was my record, but that ability has faded with age. We both started out with the goal of staying up all night and failed. I decided to stand watch but still fell asleep for short periods of time always waking up with a jolt thrusting my watch into my fuzzy field of vision.

We made it with time to spare to the airport and had time to drink a ridiculously expensive cappuccino in the airport café before Summer needed to proceed through security and onto her plane. It was another hard goodbye-for-now, unsure when our next meet up on this adventure will be. Regardless it was fantastic to have her with me for as long as we could manage and I’m looking forward to the next time whenever that is, at home or overseas.

I stumbled off, needing a nap, to the train station to get my ticket for Budapest.

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