I absolutely adore this place. It’s filled with funky bookshops, boats, quirky cafes, and plenty of people that fit into that scene. I arrived and met my couchsurfing host at the restaurant she works at “Sillys”. I had a very delicious Thai chicken pizza and then my lovely couchsurfing host Allison wouldn’t let me pay for it!
In 2010, my wife and I were married in Morocco – two months later we took our honeymoon trip to Turkey. At the end of our trip, we were again at the Ayasofia Hotel where we had begun it.
Checking into the Ayasofya Hotel, we found ourselves with one last day ahead of us. Hanane was exhausted but there were a few things I still wanted to see before we left Turkey.
I walked up the street past the Blue Mosque and across the Hippodrome to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts while Hanane showered and took a nap in our big plush bed. The museum holds a wealth of Turkish and Islamic art from the Ottoman and Seljuk periods along with beautiful pieces and implements from as early as the 8th Century A.D.
The museum building itself is the palace of Ibrahim Pasha which was built by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s own architects. Ibrahim Pasha was Suleyman’s Grand Vizier from 1523 to 1536. The building has elements which date back to 1500.
Ibrahim was choked to death and his wealth taken by the imperial government when after the Sultan’s death he voiced support for the wrong prince. That’s why I usually don’t pick one Prince over another.
The museum is filled with Turkish carpets, illuminated Qurans, calligraphy (at which the Ottomans excelled), carved and inlaid wood, glass, porcelain and stone treasures. I went through quicker than I would have preferred but felt that this was more of an exploratory mission.
The Turkish ethnographic exhibits were interesting though quite a bit like modern life in rural Morocco, I saw many things that are used daily in the house of my in-laws laid out as museum pieces.
I would have enjoyed lingering but a Canadian film crew was there and had set up some very hot lights for a TV shoot in that section.
A modern Turkish arts section in the front was small but had an interesting exhibit of claiigraphic embroidery which I enjoyed a lot.
While I was out I booked us seats at a Whirling Dervish performance. Originally, I had thought we might be going to Konya to see the real thing (no admission and not really for tourists) but since we hadn’t I thought it would be a shame to leave Turkey without seeing the whirling dervishes for which the country is famed.
The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art is open from 9 to 5 (closed Monday). Admission is 10 Lira.
Place Jemma el Fna is filled with snake charmers, jugglers, men with monkeys, and the scariest dirty clowns I’ve ever seen. (originally posted on 20 FEB 2009)
My first trip to Jmaa el Fna was overwhelming. The sights, sounds, smells, animals (snakes, monkeys, donkeys, goats, chickens) and the humanity were simply overwhelming to the senses. I made friends with a nice American couple who were staying in the same hotel as me. We got food, explored the surrounding areas, and played cards together. This was before everyone on earth had a smartphone, before Instagram, and before travel had changed so much. People were either traveling with a laptop or a guidebook and it was still fairly common to make friends with strangers. My camera was an old Pentax and I wasn’t very skilled with it.
Morocco as a whole was a great place to be in that period. There was a lot of fear about terrorism still about – there had been the bombing in Casablanca though the bombing in Jmaa el Fna itself hadn’t happened yet. That bombing came in 2011 and killed 25 people sitting where many of these pictures were taken. The great recession was still new and an entire generation was cast out of college with nowhere to go and no jobs to be had. Many of them, like me, took to the road hoping to find something better than unemployment, wage slavery, and eating the shit of a failed capitalist society.
The Istanbul Archaeology Museum is located near the Topkapi Palace inside Gulhane Park in Istanbul. I first visited it when my wife and I honeymooned in Turkey in 2010. The museum has more than a million objects in its collections many of them from Byzantine, Greek, Roman, and even earlier civilizations.
This visit was not the most exciting part of our trip, especially for my wife, but she enjoyed the incredible collection of statues and the ancient sarcophagi, some of which date back as early as 400 BC.
As you enter the museum grounds there is a statue of a lion which comes from one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.The museum is massive. It took us nearly half a day to stroll through the main collections at a rapid pace.The sarcophagi are definitely worth seeing, though I was disappointed to read that the Alexander Sarcophagus is actually the tomb of a king named Abdalonymous.
One of my favorite finds was the snake’s head from the Serpentine Column in the Hippodrome. I thought the serpents looked rather headless. The Museum of the Ancient Orient was closed for renovations while we were there.
If you want to visit the museum, it is open Tuesday – Sunday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is 10 lira.
I’d always had a desire to visit Macedonia, the birthplace of Alexander the Great. No other character in history held such fascination for me until later in life when I learned of the many great wanderers of the ancient world like Pausanius and Herodotus. My chance came in early February of 2011 – it was a quick stop in Skopje before a whirlwind trip back to Turkey and then back to Morocco. I thought Skopje would be more like Volos in Greece, Skopje was not what I had expected….
One of the things that surprised me about Skopje, Macedonia was the prices of hotels. I suppose this surprise came hand in hand with the incredible number of bronze statues, the massive amounts of construction, and…this is my opinion only but it makes sense…the fact that Skopje is the closest city to Kosovo and thus had a huge number of NGO employees, UN staff, and other people who are on expense accounts going through it on a daily basis.
Honestly, I had thought that I would find a hostel for around 10 Euros or be able to find a hotel for 20 Euros but that, my friends, was a pipe dream.
The Hosteling International Hostel was in a lousy location and wanted 22 Euro per night, more (at the time) than in Hawaii, Istanbul, or the low end of accommodation in France. Frankly, the place didn’t look like it was worth the price. I took a low end hotel room for 25 Euro per night. 3 Euro per night to have my own bathroom and bedroom was worth the price difference.
It was only after I was getting ready to leave that I stumbled on the Art Hostel, which looks like just the kind of funky, fun atmosphere place I was originally looking for and sits firmly in my price point.
I looked at the Hotel 7 which was fairly close to downtown and cost about 40 Euro per night, it was okay and believe it or not, that price was among the lowest I found, but let’s face it, when I’m traveling and paying 40 Euro a night, I want more than just okay.
I realize it’s not very realistic, but since traveling in places like South Korea, I sort of expected to find something like the Duvet Boutique Hotel in Skopje when I’m paying that much. I went in and really liked it, but the lowest price I could get them to was 95 Euro per night. It just wasn’t THAT nice.
If I’m going to pay that much, I might as well have gone to the Aleksandar Palace Hotel Skopje, which since it was winter, I”m sure I could have talked into giving me a room for 95 Euro.But, I didn’t want to pay 95 Euro so I slogged around all day until I found a place that had a nice view, decent mattresses, heat, a TV, and a price of 30 Euro. I managed to negotiate Hotel Square down to 25 Euro, but it wasn’t easy. They had wi-fi in the rooms which was important to me and the location was great. The funny thing is they have online rates that are 80 Euro + and I just want to let you know, for that price, you can do much better.
I met an American worker from the UN and he swore by the Hotel Aristocrat Palace, but then he had a car to get there. Frankly, it reminds me of the dirtiest joke in the world which has the punchline….the Aristocrats. I could make up one about this hotel, but the truth is, it looks like it really is a nice place and the price point seems to be about 50 Euro. Definitely where I will stay when we go back to Macedonia.
In any event…these are the pictures I took while I was there – I wish I’d obsessed less about hotels and focused more on exploring the place – but frankly, I was in a hurry and didn’t have nearly enough time.
I cried at Hiroshima. 140,000 men, women, and children killed by a bomb from my country. Awful. Absolutely awful. I paid $200 to take the bullet train to Hiroshima and back to Osaka. I would have regretted not going. I think Japanese people are better than American people – it’s why they don’t have to lock up their bikes and they don’t have to be scared to walk around on the streets. At the very least, their society is better than ours. The truth is, we are assholes.
Travel to Bulgaria like I did and you will find yourself clueless as to what an amazing and historical place the capital city of Sofia is. Upon arrival, my new friend Tim sat me down in front of the computer and told me “Watch this, it will save us a lot of time and make your stay here more enjoyable. Later we’ll meet the guy that made it. ”
Now, if you want to see a little of what I’m seeing before I start writing about it and showing you my photos, you should watch it too. Very enjoyable and Tim was right, it saved a lot of time by telling me everything I need to know at the outset.
The next morning Tim took me on an amazing walking tour of Sofia. Here is a bit of what we saw:
In 2012 while living in Istanbul, I was fortunate to make many friends and have many adventures. This was the beginning of one of them.
If a Turkish night train sounds dangerous to you, you might want to consider getting some travel insurance before you begin your cheap trip to the Balkans.
Leaving Istanbul is like leaving home. As I say goodbye to my friend Gaye, I can’t help but feel sad to be leaving this incredible city that delights the eyes, mind, body, and soul.
Still, the fact that the bag with all my ‘good’ clothes in it and another bag with the rest of Hanane’s and my things from Turkey both sit in Gaye’s basement means that I’m coming back.
Not to mention, I’ve got a flight to catch to Malaysia at the end of the month. And then another flight from Istanbul to North Africa when I get back. So, like friends and those we love, for Istanbul it is really only a ‘see you later.’ That helps.
Also helpful is the fact that I’m boarding an overnight train from the former Constantinople and into Sofia, Bulgaria. Not only is Bulgaria new and unknown to me, I’ve got a berth on a sleeper car. There’s something just incredibly cool about that. The cost of the ticket…about 30 euros including the sleeper.
The train itself looks old and as if it has come out of a Soviet Republic. I admit I knew nothing about Bulgaria before leaving and it was only when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going into the former USSR, that a friend told me I was wrong. Still, it was Eastern Block and hardcore communist, so I suppose that excuses my American ignorance a bit…that and the fact that I am American. Usually I do better, at least I don’t think Cuba is in Australia or Asia.
An American couple are in the cabin next to the one I share with a Bulgarian mountaineer who is just returning from Nepal. He actually lives in Seattle, he tells me Nepal was the most disgusting place he had ever visited.
The story continues below, but I thought you might want to see all the pictures I took first…the the slideshow is next with the story below it.
Next door, the American man and woman are getting progressively more smashed and I swear I hear one of them crash down from the bunks to the deck. At the border crossing at 3 am they go to the tiny duty free stall and carry back what looks like a bottle of whiskey. When we arrived at the border the Turkish engine detached while we went through a relatively painless customs procedure. The conductor had to wake the Americans by pounding on their door for about five minutes. This was, of course, before they went to the duty free.
The two hour wait at the border was because we had to wait for the Bulgarian engine to come to us. We arrived in Sofia about 3 and a half hours late at right around 1:30 pm. Prior to that we made a stop in Plovdiv where the conductor this time spent ten minutes waking the Americans who staggered out with their clothes hanging on them the wrong way. As I had gone to sleep I heard them having progressivly more slurred conversation. Something like “Just because you fell, doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of getting up there, I mean you did it.”
I kind of loved these two. Getting shitfaced on a night train from Istanbul to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to talk with them because I was afraid it would spoil the nice spell they had charmed me with. when they staggered past to get off the train at Plovdiv the man, who looked a bit like Johnny Depp said “Hi” to me in the drunkest tones and the smell of bourbon wafted up. I took their pictures as they looked around the platform completely confused. I just didn’t want to forget them. Even if they wouldn’t remember their trip.
Arriving in Sofia, it was cold. The train station was freezing and the effect of having cyrillic alphabet all around me was that giddy feeling of culture shock that I both love and hate. I felt completely disoriented. My phone wouldn’t work in Bulgaria, but I was very pleased to find that Bulgaria has the decency to put a wifi hotspot in the train station. Sitting in the cold station, I found my couchsurfing host’s number and then called him with Skype. You have to love technology.
He told me to go to the bus station and get a cab to his house instead of using one from the train station since the guys at the station would rip me off.
The cab was just about three euros and that took me to Tim’s door. In my pocket was the drunk American girl’s hat which I’d spotted in their cabin as i got off the train, picked up, and kept as a souvenir. It was very fluffy and very blue. I imagine it was how the two of them felt when they woke up later.
In 2011 and 2012, Vagobond was taking me all over Europe and Asia and even into North Africa. I was doing my best to save money so that we could emigrate from Morocco to the USA, and in the process, I often got lucky in discovering places I might have otherwise missed. I’ve placed a small slideshow of this visit at the bottom of this post.
World travel is at it’s best when you find something completely wonderful and completely unexpected. As I mentioned before, in order to get the cheapest flight from Fez, Morocco to Volos, Greece – I had to arrange a couple of stops and layovers along the way. The first one was just to get out of Morocco.
The cheapest flight was to Alicante – which I was tempted to take because I love Alicante – but the problem was getting a connection that would lead me to Volos. I needed to get to Milan and a flight from Alicante to Milan was nearly triple the cost for a flight from Girona to Milan and would have involved going several days earlier. I know, that wouldn’t have been so bad, but the truth was, I was already feeling a bit guilty about leaving my wife and new baby at home for a few days so I didn’t want to stretch this out any longer than necessary to get me to the sailboat and then back home.
So, I flew to Girona. I’d been to Barcelona before but never to Girona. I figured it would be just another RyanAir town and I might be able to get lunch, have a nice walk, and then after my 7 hour layover – head on to Bergamo/Milan.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Girona itself is scenic, historic, charming, and filled with a veritable treasure trove of things to see and do. I’m not sure how it would be to spend a few days there, but my seven hours were very nice.
From the airport it was just a couple of Euro to get the bus into the city center. From there, I just started walking.
Geographically set at the confluence of the Ter, Onyar, Galligants and Güell rivers, it has been a focal point of this region in Catalonia since prior to being part of the Roman Empire.
The Old Town is on the east bank of the river, with pedestrianized narrow streets surrounded by the old city walls. The “Rambla”, running parallel to the river, contains many street cafés and touristic restaurants. Tourist information is at the south end of the Rambla, beside the river. The newer town center on the west bank has wider streets contains more shops and hotels, plus slightly cheaper restaurants.
The town around the bus station is pretty blah in terms of just being newish concrete buildings with nothing particularly inspiring in terms of shops, restaurants or architecture. I walked along with what seemed the natural flow of traffic and soon found myself at the riverside La Rambla.
After enjoying a coffee, I walked up the cobblestone streets towards the largest spire in sight. It turned out to be the Saint Felix Church which since I always enjoyed Felix the Cat cartoons appealed to me greatly. With 2000 years of history, Girona is truly a jewel of culture and history.
The Força Vella (the old town) is surrounded by a beautiful wall which appears to have been either preserved or restored in a very authentic way. Inside, I especially enjoyed strolling through the ‘Call’ or Jewish quarter which was like wandering through a veritable maze of cobble-stoned, narrow and steeply sloping streets.
Inside the cathedral, I was told to not take any pictures by the harried attendant who was also telling about twenty other people not to take pictures. I stopped but I had already taken this one.
With a wide Gothic nave and a very impressive Baroque façade it felt like I was stepping back in time.
Of course, I had to visit the Arab Baths, El Banyos d’Arabs. It must have once been an incredible hammam. It was a nice reminder of the power the Arabs once wielded over southern Europe. The legacy of the moors is directly responsible for some of the most beautiful architecture in Spain.
Some interesting facts about Girona:
* The ancient cathedral, which stood on the site of the present one, was used by the Moors as a mosque, and after their final expulsion was either entirely remodelled or rebuilt.
* The cathedral contains the tombs of Ramon Berenger and his wife, the Count and Countess of Barcelona.
* It is possible to walk the entire length of the walls and climb the towers, where visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Girona and the surrounding countryside.
* The slogan of Girona is “Girona m’enamora – Girona inspires me with love”
For those interested in famous architects, the Red Bridge of Girona (which truly is red) was designed by Gustav Eiffel. I’m amazed at how many things I’ve seen that he designed – in fact, I’ll probably write a future post about his work.
And for those who are fans of Salvador Dali, there is a Dali Museum in Girona that I wasn’t able to see on this trip but that is reputed to be beautiful and wonderful.
After that, a sandwich and a beer and I hopped on a bus back to the airport to catch my flight to Bergamo/Milan for another 7 hour layover.But first I took a picture of this wine shop- you don’t see a selection like that anywhere in Morocco…
Travel to the places that don’t make it into most magazines or guidebooks is usually much more interesting and exciting than reading about Bali or Boracay from yet another person who has ‘discovered it’. Certainly I didn’t discover Pernik, but it was a pleasure to get to see it in this way.
We woke up bright and early to go up into the forest with my friend Borislav’s grandfather. He was much more bright eyed than either of us, but one thing I figured out quickly is that Balkan people can drink all day and all night and seem to not suffer from it at all. And they usually seem to start the day with a shot of schnapps.
As for me, I usually suffer if I drink the night before. The sidewalk was icy and it was C-O-L-D but that didn’t stop this 80+ year old man from being the first one down the street, the first one up the hill, and the first one to wherever he was leading us. To be fair though, usually the one doing the leading should go first.
He led us past the nuclear reactors and over the river and then past this amazing testosterone driven machine where the testosterone apparently gave out with a flat tire. Then we crossed the road and went up among the gypsy houses and gypsy dogs.
Now, let me be honest here. These were very kind, simple, and humble people. Their apartment was anything but luxurious but filled their needs. That’s why when we got to the massive house they live in during the summer, I was so surprised. It was gorgeous. Decorated like a boutique hotel, each room different with a different flavor. In the basement, the canned preserves, the still, and the big vats of wine just sitting and waiting to be poured into old coke bottles.
The weather was turning worse, we took a winding path through trees and down icy trails and no one fell but if they had I would have remembered Katya telling me that the funniest thing in the world is the confused look on people’s face when they realized they are no longer standing up. Even if it was me.
Finally, our historic guide decided to go back home where it was warm and asked Borislav to complete the tour by showing me the various monuments and statues in the town of Pernik. In fact, we did see those but given the blue faces we had, we deemed it best to duck into a cafe and grab some coffee.
We did manage to see the old church, the statue of the town protector, the old mining building, and some other statues and monuments that the cold weather made impossible for me to remember.
After that we went back to his grandparents for lunch with his aunt and while there was some rakia, I avoided getting so much of the hospitality of these wonderful people this time that my head would feel like it might explode.
There are plenty of things that make Brussels a great place and it’s probably not those stuffy EU suits going about their dull business. Instead it’s the things you don’t have to avoid in the street. Belgian waffles, great beer, and of course, the beautiful comic art murals that grace the sides of buildings that are centuries old.
I love that Brussels is so proud of it’s comic heritage that intermingled with the ancient buildings are full scale murals of famous comic strips.
The Notre Dame church is the Belgian starting point for a very famous Vagabond/Pilgrim trail that runs all the way to Santiago Spain.
The route known as the Camino de Santiago is neither a road nor a highway. It’s a walkway trod by travelers of all kinds for more than 2,000 years. Christians have traveled it for nearly 1,300 years.
Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. Some of it wends its way over the remains of pavement laid down by the Romans two millennia ago. Its a route that writer James Michener no stranger to world travel”calls the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world. He did it three times and mentions passing through landscapes of exquisite beauty. The European Union has designated it a European Heritage Route.
Christians are attracted to this remote corner of Europe because of a legend that Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of the apostle James the Greater. As such, it ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendoms great pilgrim destinations.
The Camino de Santiago has its origins in pre-Christian times when people of the Celtic/Iberian tribes made their way from the interior to lands end on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. For them, watching the sun set over the endless waters was a spiritual experience. As part of their conquest of Europe, the Romans occupied Iberia by 200 B.C. They built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in northwest Spain, to mine the areas gold and silver. Some of the original road remains on todays Camino.
Casablanca is famous for the movie, and most espeically for Rick’s Cafe. I admit it – it was one of the first places I visited when I got there. At the time, I had no idea I would end up getting married in the Sahara… However, there is more to Casa than just Rick’s just as there is more to North Africa and Morocco than the Sahara Desert.
Casablanca is the largest and most important city in Morocco and one of the largest and most important in Africa. The King Hassan II Mosque is the largest mosque in North Africa and the third largest in the world. With a regional population of more than 6.8 million people, there are numerous embassies, consulates, shopping malls, and the widest variety of food choices anywhere in North Africa. Casablanca was a port of the Phoenicians and the Romans and today is home to the Mohammad V International Airport – so if you are flying to or from Morocco – chances are that you will be in Casablanca at some point. While the old medina in Casablanca isn’t as magnificent as that of Fez or Marrakech – it is still a lot more exciting than walking around most other places and you will get a great feel for Morocco as you explore it. The waterfront offers some amazing seafood and grilled meat options. There are fine hotels in Casablanca and then there are really overpriced ones and finally there are run of the mill, share the toilet with the other guests hotels. I’ve stayed in the hostel and stayed in some of the most expensive riads and frankly…the biggest difference was that the wifi was free in the hostel and the people were friendlier. Middle of the road, hundred euro a night is your best bet in Casablanca.
I didn’t realize this until a couple of years after I left Morocco, but I wasn’t the first Damitio to live there. There were Damitio’s brewing beer in Casablanca from the 1930s until 1956 when independence from France was gained. It turns out I wasn’t the first Damitio to live in Hawaii either – we seem to get around.
Here are a few pictures from this magnificent place.