Monday, July 20, 2015

Eurotrip 2015 - Day 15 (7/11/2015) - Returning Home, and Final Thoughts

Prague does not have an idiot-proof way of getting to the airport by public transport, but it's actually pretty straightforward.  After checking put around 7:45 I took the A (green) subway from Muzeum (at the nearby National museum) to Nádraží Veleslavín, where I caught the 119 bus to airport Terminal 2.  There are plenty of cues to help a traveler on this route: the subway map on the train is marked with an airport bus symbol at that stop; there are signs directing to the airport bus at the station; and the stop announcements on the bus are also in English (if the airport isn't obvious enough), and also provide information that flights out of the Schengen Area leave from Terminal 1 while intra-Schengen flights depart from Terminal 2.

With the light Saturday morning airport traffic, I was through security by 9, with plenty of time to kill before my 10:25 flight to Zürich.  So I grabbed a bit of breakfast to spend my remaining Czech Koruna.  A couple of nice things about Václav Havel Airport: it has free WiFi as well as a rest area where you can sleep off a long layover.  The flight was delayed about 20 minutes, which made my originally scheduled 45 minuted layover in Zürich even tighter, but that plane ended up departing for Chicago a little late anyway.

Upon arriving in Chicago, I breezed through passport control (at least relative to my expectations, considering that I scheduled a 3 hour layover) and had plenty of time to switch terminals and check in for the flight to St. Louis.  As it turns out, my friend Alex was on the same flight as me - he was returning from a trip to China.  When we arrived in St. Louis we took the MetroLink together into the city, with him getting off a couple of stops before I did.  I then had the brilliant idea to walk the 1.4 miles home from the Grand MetroLink station instead of taking the bus partway - and thus went my reintroduction to the heat and humidity of a St. Louis summer, even at 9 in the evening.

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Some closing thoughts about the trip...

Istanbul was probably my favorite of the places that I visited.  It has a great combination of location, history, culture, and tourist attractions.  It might stand out particularly because of the culture, as that was obviously more different there than any of the other places I went.  Their society does seem to be as progressive as I had read, though, and my slight concerns about visiting during Ramadan turned out to be unfounded - we had no problems getting food whenever we wanted.  I also liked the change-up in architecture, with all the minarets everywhere.  It's definitely a great place to visit, and I would recommend it to pretty much anybody.

Santorini was a different kind place than I'm used to visiting on vacation (I'm more of a sightseer), but I'm glad that I went there.  The island is gorgeous and riding ATVs for a few days was a fun new experience.

I had slightly low expectations of Vienna, so I ended up enjoying it more than I anticipated.  A couple of people I knew didn't think there was much exciting there, though I also knew another couple of people who enjoyed it.  I fall into the camp that enjoyed it, though I can understand understand a lack of appeal if you're not into seeing palaces, museums, or other such sights.  It also gets extra marks in my book for having an expansive metro system.  Overall, I thought it was a good place to visit, even if it's not mind-blowing.

Prague seemed to me to have more character than Vienna (no, I don't really know what I mean when I say that), but it wasn't without its annoyances.  Part of it is due to having an old town where walking is just about the only way to get around (though the rest of the city is quite walkable as well).  For better or worse, this also means having tons of other tourists walking around the popular areas, and the things that come along with that.  It also helps to have a legit river running through the city and a hill-side park that overlooks the area.

One more thing that I learned on this trip - I can sunburn on my arms.  Of course "burning" in my case thankfully only means some leathery and then peeling skin (without any pain), and a nice "farmer's tan".  I came prepared with a hat (I had only previously experienced peeling on my forehead, and didn't want that to extend to my balding head), but never anticipated that 2 weeks of walking and lying in the sun would get my arms too. 

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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 14 (7/10/2015) - Prague's Remaining Bits

Today had another late start, which was fine since I had seen everything that I had initially planned on seeing in Prague.  After a shower and catching up on the interwebs in the lobby (I'm almost convinced that they have never had WiFi working on the second floor), I departed on foot once more for Old Town Square.  I made it there, even with a quick stop at Starbucks to pick up a muffin and a bottle of OJ, in time to join the free walking tour at 11 with the guide (Keith) that I had spurned the day before.  As an aside, he does not work for Sandeman's, but another company which I think is named Prague Green Tours.  Keith (an American who had lived in Prague for 10 years) was a nice enough fellow, and a pretty good guide.  He took us on a 2.25-ish hour jaunt from Old Town through a bit of New Town, into Josefov (the Jewish Quarter), and back to Old Town Square, pointing out some interesting buildings/structures and providing some historical context along the way.  These guides provide the free tours for tips, and I thought he was worthy of the 200 Kč I gave him at the end.


As the tour had ended back in New Town Square, I went over to a nearby vegetarian restaurant that I had read about in my guide book.  Called Country Life, it was actually an organic food store in addition to a vegetarian buffet where you pay by weight.  I don't know most of the things that I put on my plate, but they were almost all delicious (the lone exception being some berry tart dessert thing that I didn't finish).

Lunch complete at around 2 PM, I walked back through Wenceslas Square and to the National Museum (the exhibits of which are now temporarily in a new adjoining building while the old building undergoes a 7 year, originally planned for 5, renovation).  I'm not sure what to make of this museum's disjointed exhibits, which seem to have no common theme.  The one on the ground floor about death was interesting, and the large collection of stuffed/preserved animals (i.e., real former animals, not toys) was kinda cool despite the references to Noah.  But the tiny Jan Hus exhibit and the one about the naming of species did not hold my interest at all.  Oh, and the elevator system (where you need an attendant to badge in before you can go to another floor) was kind of a mess, especially since you couldn't just take the stairs.

Once that experience was over, I decided to try out a tip that Keith had provided earlier during the tour (which was prompted by a question I asked about the housing situation in the outskirts of the city) and take the 22 tram all the way out to one end and back.  I first bought a 24-hour metro ticket (good for the subway, the trams, and buses) at the museum station; this experience was kind of a pain in the rear - the ticket machines only accept coins, and I didn't have enough in coins to get the pass, and the guy who sold me a ticket at an adjoining convenience store made it seem like the biggest hassle ever that I was taking all his change (though I will give them slight props for selling the tickets at manned stations so you can actually use bills, but they need to allow more modern payment systems).  Then I took the C line (red) one stop down to I. P. Pavlova (like in Vienna, there are no turnstiles or anything to keep out freeriders), where I was able to hop on the 22 tram in the direction of Bílá Hora.  I took the tram all the way to the end, where I'm not sure how to describe the area except to say that it was different from the central part of the city, and then hopped back on the same line in the opposite direction to get back.  I got off the tram at Štěpánská, one stop before where I originally caught it, as that was a fairly short walk back to the hotel.

At this point it was approaching 5:30 PM and I had run out of things to do in Prague.  I tried researching if there were any shows going on that evening/night, but nothing that I found interested me.  I eventually decided to go see a movie, picking the 7:40 showing of Jurassic World at a Cinema City that wasn't too far away.  I walked there to buy a ticket, and then found a Subway literally across the street to grab a quick dinner (I needed somewhere fast that would accept credit cards, as I only had 100 Kč in cash left on me and 30 minutes before the movie was to begin).  I made it back to the theater at showtime and bought a medium sized popcorn to snack on (as an aside, I'm pretty sure the girl at the snack counter said that one of the popcorn tubs was flavored "ham and cheese").  The movie turned out mostly as indifferently as I expected, though it did provide a couple of nice laughs.  After it was over I walked back to the hotel and prepped for the return trip that was to begin the next morning.

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An album of all my favorite photos from the trip can be found here:
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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 13 (7/9/2015) - Lesser Prague

I found it easy to continue sleeping this morning since there was no window for the sun to remind me that the day was getting on.  When I finally got up sometime around 9, I had to deal with the annoying pushbutton shower that I spoke about yesterday.  I made it to Old Town Square a little after 10:30, hoping to join up the Sandeman's free walking tour that I thought was starting at 10:45.  In the meantime, I grabbed a trdelník (a twisty-rolled sugar-covered pastry thing that tourists seem to like) to tide me over until a late lunch.  I found out from the tour guide that the tour wasn't actually to begin until 11:02 (after the astronomical clock ring), and decided after a quick think that I didn't want to go on the walking tour after all (for a couple of reasons that will become apparent).

I then walked across the Charles Bridge again (just as I had the evening before), but this time stopped at the New Bridge Tower to go up to the viewing platform (for a small fee).  I continued on to Prague Castle (Pražský hrad), arriving just as the first of the forecasted afternoon showers began; the temperature also dropped from the high 60s (F) to the low 60s, with a strong breeze that made it feel even cooler.  I took refuge in St. Vitus' Cathedral (Katedrála Sv. Víta), but I found that I needed to go back out to the courtyard to buy a ticket to tour it (there's an area in the front where you can enter and take pictures for free, but you have to buy a ticket to enter the much larger cordoned off section).  The skies had briefly cleared a bit when I went back outside, and I noticed that an area had been cordoned off for the noon changing of the guard (which I had originally planned on seeing, but forgot about because of the rain).  I found a spot to watch, and the proceedings started after a few minutes of waiting.  There were a couple of sprinkles before and during the 15 minute event, but nothing too bad.


After the guard change, I went over to buy an entry ticket for the castle exhibits (most areas are free to walk through, but not the interesting exhibits).  I noticed that there was an English guided tour scheduled to start at 12:30, but it sold out (apparently 27 is the maximum number of participants) while I was stuck in line.  With that, I decided to buy a basic ticket and explore the 4 included exhibits without even an audio guide.  I first went back to St. Vitus' Cathedral (again entering just as the harder rain was starting to come down) and walked through that for a while.  It was clear again when I left the cathedral (and would remain so for the rest of the day, though the cool temperatures mostly persisted), and I next headed to the Old Royal Palace before stops at the Basilica of St. George and the Golden Lane.


When I was done with the castle, I headed back to a vegan restaurant named loVeg that I had passed on the walk up.  After eventually getting in (it's tucked away up a couple of flights of stairs, so it's a good thing that they have a sign and a couple of flags outside) and sitting down around 2:45, I ordered the vegan take on the traditional Czech goulash and a Fritz-Limo organic sparkling apple "lemonade".  The goulash was unexpectedly very flavorful, and makes me wonder if the regular thing (with beef, I think) tastes as good.

With lunch over, I next headed for the Loreto (Loreta in Czech), a Baroque-style church complex suggested by my guidebook.  For some inexplicable reason I bought another (bigger, though cheaper) trdelník on the way, though I didn't finish it.  Anyway, they do something interesting there regarding photography - while most places typically allow or ban photos for all tourists, the Loreto charges an extra fee for a pass (really, a sticker) that permits you to take photos.  Like a sucker (not really, it was mostly worthwhile), I opted for the photo pass (100 Kč) and the audio guide (150 Kč) in addition to the regular entry (150 Kč), for a total of 400 Kč (which is really only $16 USD).


After the Loreto tour, I headed to the Observation Tower on Petřín Hill and bought a ticket to ascend to the top.  I did not pay the extra fee to take the elevator, and instead hoofed it up like most people.  After taking pictures on the two observation decks, I stopped in the cafe for some ice cream, quickly walked through the exhibition hall on the lower level, and then left around 6:20.  I wandered down the ziz-zag paths of the hill's park, regained my bearings at the bottom, then found and crossed the Legií Bridge like I had done the evening before.  From there I took a different path back to the hotel (walking over to and through Wenceslas Square, as opposed to a more direct route through New Town), where I spent the rest of the evening/night


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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 12 (7/8/2015) - Vienna to Prague

After packing, breakfast in my room, and a shower, I was ready to check out of the hotel about 15 minutes later than my intended 10 AM departure.  The U-Bahn train breaking down after the first stop didn't help, either - I'm not sure what happened, but the train briefly started to move then stopped, then there was an announcement that, I assume since everyone did it, we should disembark.  Thankfully, the next train was only about 5 minutes behind, and we were soon on our way again.  After transferring from the U3 line to the U1 at Stephansplatz, I made it to the Hauptbahnhof stop (actually called Südtiroler Platz on the system map) and found my train's departing platform with a good 10 minutes to spare before the 11:07 departure.

I had reserved a first class seat on the Railjet train to Prague's Hlnavi Nadrazi (or praha hlavní nádraží, in the native script), and the 4+ hour ride (scheduled for 4h11m, but we were delayed about 10 minutes for various reasons along the way) was very comfortable.  They even provided us a complimentary bottle of cold water early in the journey.  The only downer was that when I tried to order the only vegetarian dish (a penne thing) available on the menu on the dining car, I found that they had sold out of it and pretty much everything else except for a roast; but this was understandable as one of the staff explained that we were only a little over an hour away from our final destination at the time.

After arriving in Prague, and being stopped for a check by the immigration police (interestingly, I didn't see anybody else being pulled aside on the platform; but enough racial conspiracy theories for today), I found my way on foot to the Hotel Prague Star which (as a happy coincidence - I did not book it that way intentionally) was only about a half mile away.  Unfortunately, the hotel turned out to be mostly a disappointment.  First off, I waited at the empty reception desk for a good 15 minutes before the clerk returned to check me in.  Then I found that my room (a single) didn't have any windows - though I kind of expected this going in after reading the reviews; at least the temperature was comfortable, and not super-warm like the previous place in Vienna.  Next I noticed that the hotel only provided one towel (i.e., no separate hand towel and bath towel), and it wasn't very big or soft.  And then the WiFi wasn't working in my room, nor apparently anywhere else on the second floor (though it did work in the ground floor lobby and seemingly on the first floor); and the receptionist girl was not very helpful about getting it fixed - she simply acknowledged that it wasn't working.  While I'm complaining, I'll throw in an observation from the next morning - the shower was one of those annoying varieties where you have to push a button to turn it on and then you only get about 10 or 15 seconds of flow before it shuts down; but at least you could preemptively push the button before each expiration to keep the flow continuous.

Anyway, after checking in I went to grab a bite at a kebap and pizza joint that I had passed on my walk to the hotel.  They ended up not having any felafel, so I ordered the vegetable pizza, which was topped with broccoli, corn, red & green pepper, and mushroom.  It wasn't bad, and I ate 7 out of the 8 slices of the pretty substantive pie (probably normally enough for 2 people).  The whole meal, with a Sprite, cost less than 200 Czech Koruna (something like $8 USD), a price that I suspect is significantly cheaper than Vienna (my guess is that it would cost maybe 25-50% more there).


After eating, I walked over to the nearby Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) to have a look around.  I walked up to the National Museum at the end closer to my hotel, then down to the far end.  From there I proceeded on to Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), where I was fortunate to arrive shortly before the 5 PM ringing of the astronomical clock (Orloj).  After that, I headed west toward the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) and crossed it into Malá Strana (now known as the "Little Quarter", but originally the "Lesser Town").  From there I walked south mostly along the west bank of the the Vltava River and then crossed back over the Legií Bridge (most Legií) into Nové Město (New Town) and made my way to the hotel.


I relaxed in my room and in the hotel lobby (where I could actually get online) for a while before later heading out again to Wenceslas Square for a snack.  I stopped at a fast food stand to try the fried cheese sandwich (which I had seen Anthony Bordain eat on a show about Prague cuisine that I had watched with my mom about a month before), but I wasn't a huge fan - maybe it's better elsewhere.  I then returned back to the hotel to call it an early night, but not before stopping at a mini-market for an ice cream bar.

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An album of all my favorite photos from the trip can be found here:
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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 11 (7/7/2015) - Schönbrunn and Random Places

As alluded to in the last post, the plan for today was to get in a bunch of places on my last day in Vienna.  This included Schönbrunn Palace, but also other places that I had either initially overlooked (Kunsthistoriches Museum), later discovered (Parliament, Imperial Furniture Collection), not fit into an itinerary for a previous day (Hundertwasser House).  I started the day with a quick trip to Hofer to pick up some more juice and water (I had drank it all in the heat of the night before) and then breakfast in my room.  I then headed out to Schönbrunn around 9:30, transferring from the U3 to the U6 then to the U4.

I arrived at the palace around 10 AM, and the entrance was thankfully far more obvious than at Hofburg.  I was able to skip the ticket line due to having bought the Sisi ticket at Hofburg the day before, though this didn't have much of an advantage at the entry queue.  I took the tour of the imperial apartments (this was included with my Sisi ticket and I believe is equivalent to the "Imperial Tour", thus missing some items from the "Grand Tour") with the audio guide, an activity that lasted about 45 minutes at my brisk pace.  While the stuff on the inside of the palace wasn't earth shattering, palace gardens (really a park) in the back were pretty mind-blowing.  I walked all the way up to the Gloriette at the top of the hill and paid the €3.50 to summit the panoramic terrace - which was probably not essential, but I feel worth it.  I spent nearly twice as much time out in the back of the palace as I did inside, not leaving the grounds until about 12:15.


Next on the day's mad dash through Vienna was a stop at the Imperial Furniture Collection, which was actually located about 3 blocks from my hotel - I only went because it was included in the Sisi ticket.  But before getting there I stopped around 12:40 at the Ströck cafe in the Westbahnhof metro station for some lunch - a toasted open-face tomato & mozzarella ciabatta and a strawberry cake, which were both pretty good.  I found the furniture museum pretty easily, and was not too surprised that the place was lacking in visitors.  After the first couple of rooms on my walk through the museum I began to suspect that this was going to be a very short visit; however, the exhibits became more focused and, to me, more interesting.  I still went through in about 50 minutes (including the temporary exhibit), and left in a (somewhat) hurry around 1:50 to try to catch the 2 PM tour of the Austrian Parliament building.


It took me 15 minutes to get to the Parliament building, but my tardiness turned out to be inconsequential - tours of the building were suspended until Friday (July 10; it was currently Tuesday) because Parliament was in session.  I took the chance to take some photos of the building anyway before walking over to the nearby Rathaus (city hall) as a potential consolation - though I didn't know much about the building or the tour policies.  I found out that they only offer guided tours once a week on Wednesdays, so that was also out.  An interesting side note: a 2-month film festival had set up shop in Rathausplatz, just behind the building - I'm not sure if that's a yearly thing.


Next, I strolled through Volksgarten and passed the Hofburg Palace on my way to Maria-Theresian Platz (no, I didn't plan this all ahead of time nor know the names of some of these places until I looked them up either at the time of exploration or writing), which sits between the matching Naturhistorisches (Natural History) Museum and Kunsthistorisches (Fine Arts) Museum.  The Naturisthorisches Museum was closed that day, so the choice to go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum (which was #3 in my Top 10 Vienna book anyway) became that much easier.  I'm not an art buff, so I don't know if I can pass sound judgment on the place, but I thought it was a pretty good museum (even given my weary feet).  There were a lot of sculpture pieces in the Greek and Roman sections that I thought were pretty cool (I stopped taking pictures because there were too many), and I even appreciated a couple of paintings in the "Picture Gallery".  However, I think the building itself is a more impressive work of art than any of the pieces contained within it.  I spent a couple of hours wandering through the museum (only using the audio guide for the first half) before leaving about 15 minutes before it was to close at 6 PM.


After leaving the museum, I briefly walked through Musemsquartier on my way to the Volksgarden U-Bahn station to catch the train to Landstraße (Wien Mitte), and from there walked to the Hundertwasserhaus.  After snapping a few pics (that's really all there is to do there - I don't know that I would suggest it as a thing to do), I walked over to the Donaukanal (Danube Canal - the city sits along a canal of the Danube, and not the actual river) and walked northwest along its bank until it split off to another sub-canal that headed back in the direction of Wien Mitte.  From there, I took the U-Bahn back to Neubaugasse and found a nearby kebap joint to have a quick dinner (felafel dürüm) before walking back to the hotel.

I returned to the hotel around 7:45, and would spend the rest of the evening there except for a short walk a bit later to go get an ice cream cone (forget what I said earlier about will power) - which turned out to be a messy experience (literally, due to melting).

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Eurotrip 2015 - Day 10 (7/6/2015) - Hofburg and Belvedere

I was in no hurry to start the day, and indeed when I did I had a false start.  After showering and getting dressed, I didn't bother looking in on the hotel's €13 breakfast, thinking that I could go until lunch without eating.  As I walked by a building next door with an Aldi-looking symbol but a Hofer sign, I noticed that there did appear to be a market down there (it was closed the evening before).  I later found out that Aldi operates under the brand Hofer in Austria.  I went in and bought some danishes, pears, and orange juice (enough I hoped for the 3 breakfasts in town) for a little over half of the cost of a single hotel breakfast.  I took the goods back to my room and had a quick impromptu breakfast.

By now it was a bit after 10.  When I went out again, I noticed that the clouds overhead were threatening rain (indeed a few tiny drops fell), but I didn't bother going back yet again to get rain gear.  It turned out that I would not need it anyway, as the clouds passed by the afternoon and it was again very warm.  My first stop was the Hofburg Palace, which I transited to by U-Bahn.  The palace grounds do not have an obvious entrance, and I spent the good part of an hour trying to find the proper place to enter and get a tour.  I eventually found out that the Michaeler Gate is considered the main entrance, though it wasn't until my second time returning there that it sunk in that this gate was only concerned with the exhibits there (and not the entire palace grounds - for which there are lots of disparate exhibits and entrance fees).  I bought an admission ticket for the Imperial Silver Collection, Sisi (whom I later found out to be Empress Elizabeth) Museum, and Imperial Apartments.  In the process, the ticket clerk convinced me (not that he was trying particularly hard) to get the Sisi Ticket, which is also good for one entrance each to the Schönbrunn Palace (which I planned to see the next day) and the Imperial Furniture Collection (which I didn't know existed) - all for €28 instead of €37.90 (though the cost of only the Hofburg and Schönbrunn exhibits would surely have been less).


Anyway, I first went through the Silver Collection.  This started out a bit slowly, but eventually become more impressive.  Next was the Sisi Museum, which I paid attention to for all of 5 minutes before skipping the rest of its audio guide stops.  The Imperial Apartments recaptured my interest, and I resumed the audio guide for its duration.  After the tour I headed for the U-Bahn and took that to Taubstummengasse, which was the closest stop to the Belvedere palaces as far as I could tell.  After another ATM visit, I stopped at a place called Cafe Goldegg for some lunch (after seeing a vegetarian section on their menu).  The waitress noticed my confusion with the regular menu and kindly brought over an English version.  I then ordered the Ayurvedish Vegetable Curry (Ayurvedisches Gemüse-Curry) and a bottle of Almdudler (described as Austrian herb lemonade, but more like ginger ale).  The curry was topped with quinoa cakes and served with rice and chutney - an unexpected but welcome option in such a cafe.

I next walked to the Belvedere and bought the combined ticket to both the Upper and Lower Belvedere.  Upon entering the Upper Belvedere, I was a bit dismayed to find that the palaces were essentially art museums.  I knew from the Vienna guidebook that there was art in them, but I figured/hoped that the palaces also had lots of fancy rooms - I guess I should have read it closer.  There were indeed a couple of fancy rooms, but it was mostly art.  So I did my best to appreciate the art as much as I could (there certainly were some cool pieces).  And there was a pretty cool garden/park between the upper and lower palaces.  Speaking of the Lower Belvedere, it does have a couple of pretty sweet marble galleries.


After leaving the Belvedere around 5 PM, I walked over to the Karlsplatz station (by the Hochstrahlbrunnen and Soviet memorial Heldendenkmal der Roten Armee, aka Russendenkmal) and took the U-Bahn back to the hotel.  Back at the hotel I rested for a while and recharged my cell phone battery, which was close to dead.  A couple of hours later, I ventured out to grab dinner at a kebap joint on Mariahilfer Straße - I actually had a quarter of a tasty spinach (and feta) pizza; that plus a fanta filled me right up for a cheap €5.  After that I walked back to the hotel, where I caught up on some reading and journaling, as well as made ambitious plans for the next day.

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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 9 (7/5/2015) - (Wearily) To Vienna

Boarding for the flight to Athens happened an hour later than planned, and in the meantime I voluntarily checked in my backpack for free at the request to reduce demand for overhead bin space.  It was closer to 1:30 by the time we boarded the busses, and then the plane, and then took off.  Consequently, we arrived in Athens around 2:15, and hour later than scheduled.  After picking up my backpack from baggage claim, I found an open group of 4 consecutive seats without separating armrests in the area, where I was able to lie down and rest my head on my bag.  I got some sleep for a while, but it was not of decent quality.  Sometime around 5, a couple of airport officials came by and woke up the guy sleeping in a similar fashion on the chairs directly behind me and told him that sleeping there was not permitted and that he should leave the baggage claim area.  I took that cue to get up and leave myself, politely "thanking" the officials for providing that information.

There were open seats in the arrival hall outside baggage claim, but none in groups without armrests that allowed lying down the the way that I had previously been; there were also a lot more people out there.  I grabbed a seat in a corner and tried to nod off as best I could (slouching and resting my feet on my bag seemed to work the best), but this sleep was of even worse quality than previously.  I also charged up my phone at a nearby outlet for a bit, in anticipation of needing it to find my hotel once I arrived in Vienna.

Around 7:00, I headed up to the departures hall to check in for my Aegean Airlines flight to Vienna.  On the way to the gate I realized that I was still pretty early (the flight didn't leave until 8:55), and I stopped to nap and charge for another 20 minutes or so.  I eventually went through security (they have security on the concourse, with a checkpoint for each of 3 groups of gates), found the gate, and waited.  Once again, the airline called for voluntary (free) bag checkers, and again I volunteered - it means that I don't have to worry about finding a space for my big backpack in the overhead bins, and so I can take my time boarding, but at the expense of having to later wait to claim the bag off the conveyor.  The 2h20m flight to Vienna was pretty much on time and uneventful, though they did serve a breakfast of a heated cheese pastry and yogurt with honey.

After claiming my bag in Vienna, I came across signs and ticket kiosks for the City-Airport Train (CAT), which is an express train that runs between (you guessed it) the city and the airport.  I didn't immediately buy a ticket, wanting to weigh my options, but once I left baggage claim and saw the regular train schedule I walked over to the CAT ticket office and bought a one-way ticket for €12.  I also stopped by an ATM and withdrew some cash (thank you Capital One for not charging ATM fees and for providing a great exchange rate!).  I then boarded the CAT and took the 16 minute ride to Wien-Mitte.  At the adjoining U-Bahn station I bought a 72-hour metro pass, and then took the U3 (orange) line to Neubaugasse, where I was able to walk to and find Hotel Fürst Metternich pretty easily (with help from my phone).

My room was ready for me when I arrived at the hotel, which was unexpected since it was just before noon.  When I went up to put my bags away, I noticed that the room was pretty warm.  After looking around, I realized that there was no air conditioning.  I immediately begin regretting booking this place, as it was significantly warmer in Vienna (high 80s, low 90s, F) than it had been in either Istanbul or Santorini.  Other than that, the room was fairly well appointed, and the location was pretty good (it's just off Mariahilfer Straße, which is a main shopping pedestrian boulevard, and close to 2 stops on the U3 line).  It would probably be a good place to stay in any other season but summer.
After a change of clothes, I ventured out toward the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) to catch the 1:00 English tour of the building.  The walk only took about 20 minutes, but it may have been a mistake (vs the U-Bahn), as I was visibly sweaty by the time I arrived.  I arrived 10 minutes early, so I tried my best to cool off beforehand, but the lobby was not all that cool either - I don't know if air conditioning is a big thing in this city.  The tour started about 5 minutes past the hour and lasted about 40 minutes, taking us through the intermission rooms, the seating area, and backstage.


After the tour, I walked over to Stephansplatz and found a Japanese noodle bar named Japanika (probably a chain, but I don't know) to have lunch  - I figured it was a good bet for vegetarian options compared to the other things I was seeing around there.  I couldn't read the German menu, but I could tell that there was a vegetarian section and I ordered what I think was noodles with vegetables and tofu.  The dish turned out to be pretty forgettable, with dry noodles and suboptimal tofu.
I went to Stephansdom (St. Stephens Cathedral) thinking that I would be able to catch the 3:00 English guided tour, only to find that the English guided tour occurs daily at 10:30.  In any case, I paid for the audio guide for the main level, neglecting the package that included extras such as a view from the north tower.  The audio tour was at least worth being able to get inside the area that was gated off from those who didn't pay - i.e., most of the main level.


Next on the agenda was Karlskirche, the other major church in Vienna.  Karlsplatz is only one stop from Stephansplatz on the U1 (red line), which I took.  This church was less grand (or at least smaller), but was perhaps more finely furnished - I'm not sure if that is due to recent restoration work that was still ongoing.  The audio tour included a trip up the elevator that was added with the restoration scaffolding (I'm not sure if they will eventually take it down), as well as a staircase to a deck in the tower that yields a nice view of the city.


After Karlschirche, I took the U-Bahn back to the hotel.  There, I looked up nearby laundromats, as I was not eager to pay the outrageous prices that the hotel would charge to launder items (e.g., €6.60 for a t-shirt and €3.40 for a pair of underwear).  I found a place named Waschsalon Höln that wasn't too far (2 U-Bahn stops, including 1 transfer @ Westbahnof) and was open until midnight, so I took my clothes there.  The place provides pretty good instructions on how to use their machines in both German and English; though that didn't stop me from kinda screwing up the step that involved getting laundry detergent; and I didn't quite understand what kind of wash I was picking with the 30 degrees C (i.e., "cold") wash, which seemed shorter than I would guess a normal wash is.

While the wash was going, I walked to a nearby kebap place (Nesil Kebap & Pizza) and ordered out their Felafelbox and a bottle of Rauch Apple Sprizz (a fizzy apple soft drink), which I took back to the laundromat to eat.  Back at the laundromat, I did the spin dry intermediate step before throwing the clothes in the dryer.  The clothes weren't completely dry after the 20 minutes that each Euro coin brings (partially because I first selected the middle heat level before increasing it after a check halfway through), so I put most of them through for another cycle.  In the end, I spent €8.50 on the load (€5.50 wash, €1 spin dry, €1 each for 2 dryer cycles), which was less than what washing 1 shirt and 1 pair of underwear would have cost at the hotel (I had at least 8 of each, plus shorts and pants).
I took the finished laundry back to the hotel the same way I came.  After putting it away, I walked out in search of a convenience store to buy some water since it was still pretty warm in the room even after dark.  I ended up walking all the way to the Westbahnof U-Bahn stop and buying the drinks at the market on the middle level.  I then took the train back to Zieglergasse, and stopped for a small frozen yogurt (yes, I have willpower now) before returning to the hotel.  I was pretty tired at this point, after not getting any decent sleep the previous night in airports, so it wasn't too long before I passed out, even despite the heat.  I did, however, discover that Netflix works in Austria - it did not in Turkey nor Greece.

One more random note...  The U-Bahn works on an honor system similar to the Metrolink in St. Louis - there are no turnstiles preventing you from entering without a valid ticked, and you're supposed to validate your ticket at the timestamp machine before entering/boarding.

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An album of all my favorite photos from the trip can be found here:
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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 8 (7/4/2015) - Last Day in Santorini

Tina went out for a run/walk this morning, while the boys stayed in bed.  We all met up for breakfast around 9, and then were in no particular hurry to do anything.  We checked out ab it after 11, as the hotel checkout time was 11:30.  We then needed to occupy about 5 hours, as we were supposed to return the quads to the airport around 4 or 4:30.  Joe and Tina had a 6:45 flight to Athens, while mine was not until 12:30 AM the next day (explanation below) and I felt that it was easier to just return them together.  We decided to head to a new part of the island, so we stowed our bags with the hotel and then drove to the beach in Agios Gerogios.  This was about a 25 minuted drive, though we did briefly stop for a splash of gas so we could make it through a couple of more long drives.

We arrived at the beach a little before noon and set up camp at Kelly's Cocktail bar.  They had a section of cushioned recliners on the beach, each pair with a straw umbrella.  They also conveniently provided free Wifi.  We each ordered a smoothie (I had a pineapple one that wasn't all that great) and lay around (reading. listening to audiobooks, or whatever) for a while.  We eventually got hungry so we paid for the drinks and moved up to the main building (a 3-sided structure) to have lunch.  I ordered their vegetable pasta (which turned out to be spaghetti), which was unexpectedly quite tasty despite the glaring dearth of vegetables (there were a few olive slices perhaps double the amount of capers) in the finished product.

After lunch we drove back to the hotel to pick up our bags, and then turned around and drove to the airport (which was in the same direction as Ag. Georgios).  We dropped off the quads and left the keys in the cargo baskets with the helmets, as instructed.  It was pushing 4:30 by then, and I would spend the next 9 hours at that tiny airport.

[begin explanatory interlude]
When I had originally planned this trip with Claire, she had booked a return flight from Athens to Chicago (via Zürich) at 4 AM the next morning.  The plan was then to both fly from Santorin to Athens late that night, where she would catch her flight and then I would take my flight to Vienna later in the morning.  When her plans changed, I didn't bother trying to restructure my flights or hotels.
[end explanatory interlude]

Joe and Tina checked in for their flights while I grabbed a scarce seat to camp out for a while.  After they were done checking in, they came over to chat for a bit and then said goodbye before heading through the security checkpoint.  Let me just opine that the Santorini airport is much smaller and understaffed than it should be given the amount of flights and travelers that go through there.  There were maybe 7 seats within the departures area outside of the security checkpoint, so I hung out at the seat that I had claimed until I needed to go to the bathroom (which was in need of a good cleaning) and grab some food (a vegetable pita wrap from the sandwich shop).  By the time that I relinquished my seat, there was almost no reclaiming it, as the travelers began to swarm in with the increase in the number of flights during the evening and night.  I had been standing for perhaps an hour when Ryanair opened up their check-in around 10:30.  I went through the very short line just to make sure that the boarding pass PDF on my phone was good enough (it was; I had checked in online the night before in order to avoid the 40 Euro fee for checking in at the airport) before standing in the security line that had now snaked outside the airport entrance.

After getting through the long security line, which was at times manned by only one person, I quickly grabbed an open seat to wait again until my flight boarded.  This didn't happen until June 5...

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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 7 (7/3/2015) - Black Beach

We had intended to do an early hike this morning in order to avoid the later heat and harsher sun, but we kinda punted on that idea.  We had breakfast around 8:30, 30 minutes later than originally planned, then drove down to central Fira on the quads.  From there we walked southward along the main road for about 25 minutes until there we didn't have a view of the coast anymore.  We made a quick stop at AB Market (I think) and then walked back to our quads.

 
Next, we drove to the Black Beach, aka Kamari Beach - which is in (you guessed it) Kamari.  We set up shop near the southern entrance, paying 12 Euro to "rent" 2 sets of an umbrella and 2 beach chairs.  The setup on this beach was nicer than at the Red Beach - the beach chairs for rent were more organized and convenient.  This beach is also much longer than the other one.  After spending a couple of hours on the beach (I mostly lay under the umbrella, though I did go out for a wade when Joe and Tina took their first swim), we walked over to the nearby Irini Beach Cafe (probably not the official name, but it had Irini in it, and it was a beach cafe).  I ordered their mushroom "risotto", which was really a mushroom rice dish (my menu still said risotto while Tina's said rice).  I did not expect much, but the dish turned out to be pretty good.  Joe ordered the prosciutto pizza while Tina ordered some Pita and saganaki (she was not feeling terribly hungry).  The saganaki was also really good.


After we eventually got the lunch bill and paid (it always seemed to take a really long time to get the bill on this trip, especially in Santorini - this was by far Tina's least favorite part of dinners out), we took the quads up the nearby hill (Mesa Vouno) where Acient Thera apparently sat.  The road up was a crazy zig-zag which turns around about 20 times.  The top of the Sellada Pass was *extremely* windy, so we decided (out of an abundance of caution, or perhaps fear) not to continue up the walkway to the top of the hill..  None of us could hazard a guess at exactly how fast the air was moving there, but we suspect that the gusts reached hurricane speeds.


After being blown about for a while, we drove back down the hill and then back to the hotel.  There, I rested a bit and then took a shower, while Joe and Tina went to the pool again before cleaning up.  We met up around 6 PM to drive to Oia for our dinner reservation at Ochre Wine Bistro (a suggestion by the hotel clerk from the night before as a good place to watch the sunset while/after dining).  We arrived about 20-25 minutes early and took the time to walk around the surrounding area a bit.  We then headed back to the restaurant and were seated on the upper level of the tiered terrace - the place is set up such that pretty much all the tables have a good view of the sunset.  The menu was a bit limited, and none of the 6 or 7 main courses was a vegetarian option.  They did accommodate me by preparing one of the seafood pasta dishes without any actual seafood, but it didn't turn out to be very good (which is fine).  I also ordered the Greek salad, and that was as good as I expected it to be.  Joe ordered the chicken souvlaki while Tina had another of the seafood pasta dishes (but with the seafood in it).  We spent a couple of hours there (we left perhaps 20 minutes after sunset), and as expected most people were there for the sunset view.  The place was mostly full - I only saw one table that was empty at sunset.  The prices were more reasonable than I expected given the fanciness of their card, but it was still the most expensive meal of our trip (this did include a big bottle of water, a couple of Fantas, an iced tea, and a sangria, though) .  Given the great view and the somewhat reasonable prices, I could forgive the limited menu and recommend this place for a sunset in Oia, especially if you are a non-vegetarian.

 
The drive back to the hotel encountered significantly more traffic than we saw on the way up, but it wasn't horrible.  By this time we were all quite comfortable on the quads, so navigating the windy cliff-edge turns at night wasn't too bad either.  We arrived back at the hotel a bit after 10 PM.  After trying (unsuccessfully) to get good pictures by the pool of the "blood moon" that was in appearance, we decided to turn in for the night.

--

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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 6 (7/2/2015) - Red Beach

I was dressed and ready to go a little after the planned 8:30 meeting time, and Joe, Tina, and I went to the hotel's dining room to have breakfast.  This spread was probably more impressive than the one at Tashkonak - it certainly had more warm options - but, to Tina's dismay, it was comparatively lacking in the fruit department.  I stuck with toast and a slice of breakfast cake, as I wasn't quite sure how my stomach would react.

After eating and collecting our things from the rooms, we headed out on the ATVs (or quads, as the locals call them) to the Red Beach (Kokkini) at the southern edge of the island.  This was a fairly substantial drive (perhaps 35 minutes?), and I was fairly familiar with the quad by the time we arrived and parked.  I will say that they are a lot more quads on the island that I expected.  I didn't even know that renting them on this island was a thing until Joe suggested it based on a recommendation.  You don't need to pick one up at the airport, either - there are loads of places around offering them to rent.  Getting around on the roads while driving the quads is pretty good, especially once you get the hang of things.  Some cars, buses, and motorcycles do get a bit impatient with the generally slower moving quads (though there are some more experienced people who drive their quads as fast as, if not faster than, the cars), and will pass when they get a chance.  I can see the local drivers being sick of the tourists slowing traffic down on their quads, though.


Anyway, we made it to the beach area, parked, and then made the 10 minute walk up and down around a rocky hill to get to the beach.  We then set up shop close to the middle, after a false start where we moved some beach chairs that we should not have.  We lay out for a while, spent a bit of time in the water (I only went in barely knee high, since I can't swim, but Joe and especially Tina went all-in), and then lay out some more.  Joe and I also took a walk to the bar at the far end of the beach to dispose of banana peels and a nectarine pit (we had bought the fruits in the parking lot on the way in).  After sufficient time in the sun, we walked back to our quads and headed out in search of lunch.

We stopped in the nearby town of Akrotiri and had lunch at a place called Theofanis Family Tavern (I was "pulled in" by the young waiter who asked about my Sigur Rós t-shirt - apparently something like "siguros" means something in Greek about one who is sure of himself).  I had the Pasta Arabiata (I think?...anyway some penne dish with a fairly simple tomato sauce), and it was OK.  I might have finished it if I wasn't still being careful with my stomach.  Joe had the same thing, in addition to a Santorini Salad, and he didn't finish either.  We boxed them both to go, but ended up throwing them out by the end of the afternoon because the containers were being squashed with my bag in the small cargo box on the back of the quad.


We drove back to Fira/Thira/Thera with Joe/Tina leading the way (which was standard protocol the whole time we were on the quads), though we made a stop to check out a panoramic viewpoint on the edge of the caldera.  We parked the quads close to the town center, and then walked around for a bit before meeting back up around 5 PM (Tina wanted to walk on her own for a bit and do a bit of shopping).  We then drove back to the hotel, where I rested for a bit while the other two spent some time at the pool.  We then all showered and put on some longer clothing in preparation for the evening - the steady breeze at night makes it feel like the temperature is in the 60s, though it is in the low 70s.  In contrast, the high in the low 80s during the day can seem hotter at times (especially in an area with no/little breeze) due to the lack of clouds.


We intended to drive to Oia to watch the sunset, but the clerk at the hotel reception advised us that it would be too late (it was a bit after 7 PM) to make it there and get a good spot due to the traffic created by the mass amounts of people who have that same idea.  He instead made a reservation for us for the next day at a restaurant there with a good sunset view.  On his advice, we checked out a lookout point directly in front of the hotel and found that it provided a spectacular view of the sunset anyway - we ended up waiting there about an hour until the sun set at 8:39.  We then drove down to the center of town, parked, and walked out in search of dinner.  After walking around for a while and looking at some fancier places, we instead settled on a fairly inexpensive run-of-the mill place called Stamna Garden Tavern.  There I had the falafel plate, which was merely OK - but I didn't have high expectations.  We then headed back to the hotel, arriving around 10:45.  It was time to call it a night, as we planned to meet the next day for breakfast at 8 before going on a short hike.

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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 5 (7/1/2015) - To Santorini

I developed a fever overnight, but it thankfully broke early in the morning and I began to feel better.  My stomach also mostly stopped hurting around that time, though I still had no appetite by the time Joe and Tina left for breakfast.  They did kindly bring back some bread and water for me and asked the hotel to extend our check-out time to 1 PM (from 11 AM) so that I could rest in the room (which the hotel very gracefully obliged).  They went out to do some shopping while I lay around, ate as much as I could tolerate, and eventually took a shower.  I was feeling pretty good by the time they returned, and had no real troubles the rest of the day.

After checking out, we took a van that we had ordered for 1:15 to the airport.  Traffic was not bad, and we arrived about 20 minutes later, well in time for our 4 PM flight to Athens.  The airport had a pre-security screening, similar to what I had seen in Kuwait except right at the entrance.  After going through that and regular security we took our flight to Athens, went through passport control, exited and went through security again (our connection was in another concourse), and then took the 7:30 to Santorini.  As an aside, Aegean Airlines served a small meal (maybe more of a snack) on the flight from Istanbul to Athens even though the flight was barely 1.5 hours.

We had arranged to rent ATVs from Motor Inn in Santorini, but when we arrived the representative was not there to meet us as promised.  A helpful transportation organizer (who was waiting for another party) kindly called Motor Inn for us, and their guy headed our way.  When he arrived, he took down our info, gave us a crash course on how to operate the ATVs, and took payment.  He also scribbled directions to our Santorini Palace Hotel on a map and advised us to get gas soon (the ATV tanks were almost empty).  The advice on gas was probably the best thing he told us, as we would spend the next hour or so trying to find the hotel - we probably had enough gas to make it to the hotel if we had found it immediately, but not much farther.  His directions which involved turning left at a blue church were far less helpful.  Joe and Tina led in their ATV while I drove behind.  We stopped to ask for directions a couple of times, but that didn't help too much.  Eventually, my Google Maps app was able to locate us on the map (we found out because we were using my phone and the downloaded map of Santorini to ask for directions) and we used that to try to guide us.  We still had trouble finding the place, and at one point drove by the turn that we were supposed to make.  Joe and Tina switched positions, so Tina was now driving and Joe was navigating, and this somehow turned out to be the magic that helped us turn into the right side street and find the hotel.  We arrived around 11, checked in, briefly explored the place, and then headed to our rooms for the night.

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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 4 (6/30/2015) - Palace, Boat, Bus, and Dervishes

This day started early, as we had a full day tour booked through Istanbul Bosphorus Organizations (IBO) - the Dolmabahçe Palace with Bus and Boat tour.  I woke up feeling a bit bloated, but didn't think too much of it at the time - I simply limited my breakfast to some fruit.  After breakfast we waited in the hotel lobby for the tour people to pick us up, which they did shortly after 8:30.  They drove us to pick up some other tour guests, and then to the Kabataş ferry docks, where the early boat tour (not ours) was to begin.  We waited there for the others on our tour to arrive, and then walked to the nearby Dolmabahçe Palace.  The tour started a little after the scheduled 9:30 time.


Dolmabahçe Palace is a lot nicer than Topkapı Palace, but it's also a lot newer and of a different style (Baroque).  Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the palace, but that's understandable - it would probably cause massive delays as masses of people walk through.  After touring the palace we hopped on a bus that drove us down to Eminönü, where we boarded our boat.  We then sailed under the Galata Bridge and out to the Bosphoros Strait.  We sailed up the Bosphorus (staying on the left side), past Dolmabahçe Palace, under the Bosphorus Bridge, past Rumeli Fortress, and then turned around right before the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.  We stopped at Küçüksu Palace for a brief tour, and by this time it was apparent that my insides were starting to disagree with me.  I helped myself to a water closet (aka bathroom) while the others began the palace tour and did a dirty deed for which I am both sorry and grateful.  Afterward, I quickly caught up to the group as they finished the tour and then boarded the boat by the 1:15 deadline.


The boat continued back down the Bosphorus and then cut across right before the Maidens Tower back into the Golden Horn.  We crossed back under Galata Bridge and docked where we had departed.  The next leg of the tour was the bus portion, and and this proved to be a disappointment in comparison to the palace and the boat.  We drove up to Pierre Loti Hill, where we stopped at a cafe for lunch.  Unfortunately for the cafe, my gastrointestinal issues were continuing and I had to defile their bathroom as well.  I ordered a Caesar salad for lunch (which the description did not indicate was topped with a sliced chicken breast, but I gave that away to Tina), and was able to get through most of it.  The cafe did provide a nice view of the Golden Horn down the hill, though I wish we had taken better advantage of the view at a different spot.



After lunch the tour group took a cable car down to the bottom of the hill.  This was alright, but the cable car was pretty small and cramped, and the scratched glass was less than ideal for taking pictures while on board.  We then boarded a bus that took us down and around the southern edge of the peninsula - though no expected great views of the city walls materialized.  The bus then cut into Sultanahmet and the tour ended with them dropping us off close to the Blue Mosque a little after 4:30.  Overall, I thought the tour was worthwhile, even though the bus part was not as good as the palace and the boat.

After being dropped off, we walked back to the hotel, where I quickly ran to my bathroom and repeated the deeds from earlier in the day.  By this time, the discharge was becoming watery and I was not feeling too well.  A half hour of laying on the bed and slightly dozing off allowed me to recharge my batteries, and I decided to proceed with the plan of seeing the Istanbul Dervishes at the Hodjapasha Dance Theater.  Due to a credit card processing error while ordering Stateside, we had been told by the theater people to pay for and pick up our tickets (which were on hold) by 6 PM.  We walked to the venue and arrived there shortly before the designated time.  Joe still got the same credit card error when he tried to pay (he and Tina had received the same error at the restaurant the evening before, and had called the bank about it later that night), so I used my card to pay for the tickets.  After that we walked to a nearby cafe so Joe and Tina could share a small dinner - I was not up for eating, so I just had some juice to drink.

We walked back to the theater around 6:40 and got in line for the pre-show refreshments.  The show began a bit after the scheduled 7 PM start and consisted of two parts: first a 4-man traditional "orchestra" for about 15 minutes; then a 7-part Mevlevi Sema ceremony featuring the whirling dervishes for about 45 minutes.  By the time the whirling started I was not feeling too good.  Watching them whirl around certainly didn't help, so I kept my eyes closed most of the time.  On another day, I may have enjoyed the show more, but my upset stomach put quite a damper on things.  I wouldn't say that it was necessarily my type of entertainment, but it was at least an interesting experience, and the dervishes are (or would be) impressive to watch twirl for they amount of time that they did.

After the show we walked back to the hotel, with me leaving Tina and Joe behind toward the end.  By this time I had gone into diarrhea mode, and the stomach pain was becoming constant.  Needless to say, I went to bed as soon as I could get off the toilet.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Eurotrip 2015 - Day 3 (6/29/2015) - Outer Istanbul

I was at least up by 8:30 this morning, but not quite ready for the day yet.  After I got dressed the 3 of us had a leisurely breakfast at the main hotel building again.  We headed out on foot around 10, with our first destination being the Basilica Cistern - a large underground reservoir next to the Ayasofya.  After spending about an hour there, we walked over to the Grand Bazaar, a large covered market that supposedly is the most visited tourist attraction in the world.  We mostly wandered through here aimlessly, though Tina did buy a nice scarf and a spinning top toy (the latter of which we later found out that she grossly overpaid for, but the kid that sold it was pretty irresistible).


After leaving the Grand Bazaar we stopped for a quick lunch at a kebab stand.  The only veg friendly thing they had on the menu was "cheese toast" (grilled cheese), so that's what I had.  Next, we walked over to the Spice Bazaar.  Tina ended up not getting anything there (she had been most interested in going), but I picked up a couple of pieces of baklavah (including chocolate baklavah, which I had never seen before) for us to share.

After the Spice Bazaar we swung by Yeni Camii (New Mosque) but it was closed from tourists for prayer at the time.  Instead, we walked to the nearby Eminönü port and attempted to take the tram across Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn.  We failed, instead accidentally buying tokens for the ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul (I blame Joe for that one).  So we decided to just walk across the bridge on the street level (but not before Tina bought some bread for a homeless kid who appeared to be mistreated by a vendor, but who then disappeared before we could give it to him - she later gave it to a homeless dad and his 2 kids).  After we reached the other side of the bridge, we proceeded up the hill (the climb is no joke, though not terrible either) to Galata Tower.  The fee to go to the top was 25 TL, and it thankfully included a 7-level elevator in addition to the 2 levels of stairs.  The interior of the tower was more modern than I anticipated, and included a restaurant and a cafe on the top 2 floors.  The narrow 360-degree balcony at the top provided some excellent views of the old city across the Horn as well as of the rest of the area in general.


Next we headed back down to the Galata Bridge and this time crossed on the lower level, which houses a multitude of restaurants.  Once across the bridge we headed back to Yeni Cami and this time were able to enter (after eventually finding the proper tourist entrance).  I was a little surprised that Joe and I were able to enter in shorts - the attendant waved us in when we tried to signal for the wrapper that we had seen men in shorts wear at the Blue Mosque the day before.  I liked the experience inside this mosque a bit better, mostly because it was far less crowded with tourists, and I don't know that I can make an objective architectural comparison of the two.  I also now wonder how the larger Sülemaniye Mosque would compare from the inside.  Overall, I am a fan of the architecture of these big mosques, and I like how they are set up with a nice courtyard prior to the interior.


After the mosque we made the long trek all the way back to the hotel (albeit with a couple of small side excursions), arriving there around 5:45.  We decompressed for a bit in our respective rooms (including a short accidental nap on my part) before heading out to dinner at 6:30.  We ate at Bella Mira Cafe & Restaurant just up the hill from our hotel and around the corner from the Blue Mosque.  I had the Vegetable Mousaka, which was more of a free-form (as opposed to layered) casserole than I expected, but still quite good (perhaps the lack of a second 's' in the name makes a difference...).  After dinner we walked back toward the hotel, but decided to go in search of ice cream instead.  But instead of that, we found a store where Tina bought a couple of "Hammer-style" pants that she had been craving (in addition to the much cheaper spinning top toy) - one for herself, and one as a gift.  We then walked back to the hotel, with a stop at a convenience store for Joe to pick up an ice cream bar.  We called it a relatively early night, as we had to be ready to be picked up for the tour the next day around 8:15.

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Eurotrip 2015 - Day 2 (6/28/2015) - Sultanahmet & the Old City

We originally planned to meet up around 8:30 today, but Joe and Tina were still in bed when I finally got up myself and knocked on their door around 9:00.  We agreed it was time to get going, so I went back to my room, showered, and got ready.  We first dropped by the hotel's garden terrace in the main building for the complimentary breakfast, making it there 30 minutes before it was set to close at 10:30.  The spread was pretty impressive, with a mix of fruits, breads, cheeses, jams, deli meats, eggs, juice, and more.  After eating we quickly stopped by the rooms before heading out to explore the sights of the old city.


Our first stop was Sultanahmet Camii, also known as the Blue Mosque.  We were prepared for this visit, as Joe and I were sure to wear pants and Tina brought a scarf to cover her head.  The same can't be said for many of the visitors - some men wore shorts, some ladies wore bottoms that stopped above the knees and/or tank tops.  I'm not sure if they were unaware or just didn't care - Joe hypothesized a mixture of both.  Thankfully, the mosque provides coverings for both men and women...even though it's free to enter (which I think is excessively nice of them).  You also have to take off your shoes before entering the mosque (in our case, via the tourist side entrance), and they provide plastic bags to use to hold your shoes during your visit.  The interior of the mosque is not very fancy (it's for praying after all), but it is still an impressive structure.  I guess its exterior architecture is probably my favorite part.


After the mosque we crossed through Sultanahmet Parki (predictably, Sultahnamet Park) and over to the Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya, as it is known in Turkish).  We paid the 30 TL per person for tickets (it actually costs *more* - starting at 40 TL - for Turkish citizens) and also got a 20 TL audio guide that Tina and I shared (it had 2 headphone jacks, and I had my earbuds with me).  We wandered through the church/mosque/museum, took many pictures, and listened to the audio for some of the locations; this included taking the ramp up to the elevated gallery.  Like the Blue Mosque, this structure is probably more impressive from the outside.  But there are remnants that indicate that this church was fancier in its heyday, before some things went into disrepair.  Its sheer grandness puts it among the most impressive churches that I have visited, though the lack of upkeep over the years probably keeps it outside the top 3.


After Ayasofya we walked through Gülhane Parki (which is impressively groomed) and down to the shore where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus Strait.  After spending a bit of time admiring the coastal view from the rocky shore, we walked around the coastal road (Kennedy Caddesi, which is named after JFK - this took a solid half hour) to a southeast side street that allowed us to head back north toward Topkapi Palace (the entrance of which is actually next to Ayasofya).  It was another 30 TL per person to enter the palace complex.  We wandered around the palace grounds, but I was not terribly impressed by much of it.  I think this was partly due to the fact that we were getting tired and hungry by this time.  We had only partaken some light street snacks (Tina bought some grilled corn, and Joe bought a pretzel) and some gummy fruit snacks since breakfast.


We left the palace a bit after 5 PM and headed to a nearby street that looked like it had plenty of food options.  We chose one of the restaurants that seemed to have a decent menu and terrace seating, though it seemed the same as all the other options around there with men touting tourists to enter.  Tina and Joe shared a grilled kebab plate of some sort while I ordered the cheese rolled pastry (sigara börek) and a fried mushroom dish named mantar sole.  We also got the big puffy bread (which was actually pretty hard when it cooled) and some hummus.  My food was actually pretty good, especially after I asked for some rice to go with the mushroom dish.  During dinner the temperature began to dip a bit, and it became slightly chilly.  It had been a mostly gorgeous day, with temperatures in the upper 70s (F) and partly cloudy skies.  After we finished eating and paid, we walked back to an ice cream stand near Sultanahmet Park and each got a cone (caramel for me).  I felt a little guilty eating it in front of all the (mostly muslims around) since the would not be able to eat for at least another hour after the sun had set.  But in general there did not seem to be any issues with foreigners buying and eating food, even on the street - vendors were still selling it, after all.  Speaking of the muslims, a lot of them had gathered in the park, seemingly waiting to celebrate sunset with a mass picnic.  I tried to find out from one of the people standing around what all the celebration entailed, but I did not get a clear answer.


We headed back on foot to the hotel sometime around 9 PM, with a stop at a convenience store for some items.  After returning, Joe and I planned a bit for the next day before calling it a night and resolving to tag up at 8:30 the next morning.

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Eurotrip 2015 - Days 0 & 1 (6/26-27/2015) - Getting to Istanbul

Perhaps a little background is in order...  This trip was originally supposed to partially be a joint vacation of two couples - Joe & Tina, and me & Claire.  Well, Claire broke up with me within the last few weeks, so things didn't end up going as originally planned.  Basically, I ended up being the third wheel to Joe & Tina while we followed the original itinerary.  Claire ended up doing her own thing after flying to Istanbul.

The trip began for me early on Friday morning (June 26) with a taxi to the St. Louis Amtrak station.  I had originally planned to take the bus there, but it had been raining all night and into the morning.  The talkative taxi driver got me to the station (in his Prius) in plenty of time to catch the 7:55 Texas Eagle to Chicago.  This train ride itself had been hastily arranged only a couple of days prior when I eventually realized that the original plan to get to Chicago had become overcome by events.

The train was late getting into St. Louis, and so was also 15 minutes or so late to depart.  I sat on the upper deck of one of the coach cars, and used the extra-reclining seat to try to catch up on the many hours of sleep that I had missed the night before due to packing and some last-minute planning.  The 6-hour ride up to Chicago was mostly uneventful save for a couple of delays (waiting for freight trains to pass) that made us even later (30 minutes) to arrive in a cold and drizzly Chicago.

Tina picked me up from Union Station and drove me back to the apartment, where Joe had been working from home most of the day.  After some last minute packing on their part, the three of us headed out around 3:00 to catch the CTA train to O'Hare.  Anticipating long security lines at the airport, we rushed to catch the next train (even running down the ramp when we saw it approach as we had only just made it through the turnstile).  When we arrived at the airport, though, we didn't have much trouble getting to the international terminal (5) and the security line was minimal.  We then had a couple of hours to kill before even having to board our 7:20 flight to Zurich.  During that time, we grabbed some food (in my case, a sub-par veggie burger from R.J. Grunt's) and charged up our phones.  Boarding for the Swiss Air A330 started a little late due to a delayed crew, and where were even more delays before we took off.  We eventually got in the air and made up some of the time on the 8.5 hour flight.  We were fed both dinner (vegetable pasta for me) and breakfast (croissant), and I was able to watch a movie and get a few hours of low-quality sleep.

Upon arriving in Zürich the next morning, we had a 2-hour layover during which we switched terminals and breezed through security before boarding a Swiss Air A320 to Istanbul.  One odd thing about this plane (I'm not sure if it's a general A320 or Swiss Air thing) was that the seat row numbers skipped from 17 to 25.  This flight was "only" 2 hours and 45 minutes and had us in Istanbul by 5 PM.  After going through passport control, we quickly picked up Tina's checked suitcase (the agent in Chicago had made here check it) and went out to the arrivals hall.  We were met there by the airport transfer that Joe had organized through the hotel.  After a couple of hand-offs, we eventually got in a van that took the 3 of us speedily (so speedily that I feared for my life) to Tashkonak Studio Suites in Sultanahmet, Istanbul.  This was the old part of town, and the streets were so narrow that the driver had a lot of trouble turning the last corner before the hotel - he eventually made it with the van barely unscathed.  There had been a very light sprinkle when we made it out of the airport, but the weather had cleared up early in the drive.  The temperature was in the low 70s (F), and dropped a bit as the night progressed.

We checked into the hotel and then took a few minutes to settle into our rooms.  The hotel was a little strange in that our rooms were in a separate, seemingly totally unrelated building from the lobby.  My room was adjacent to Joe and Tina's on the ground floor.  The furnishings in the room were pretty good, but it's location was suboptimal.  I picked up a lot of nearby noise from the street outside, and the opaque curtains didn't quite fully cover the street-level windows (though the translucent curtains were at least thankfully a bit more expansive).  After a brief respite, the three of us walked out to find some dinner.  We passed a restaurant that had been recommended by the hotel clerk, but ended up eating at another one that was likely very similar - the name on the menu was something like Marmara Fish and Meat Restaurant.  I had a house special vegetable casserole dish that was cooked in a single-use clay pot (I later saw this referred to as a cistern special at another restaurant), while Joe and Tina shared a similar looking seafood dish (but without a clay pot involved).  My dish was pretty good, but probably not worth the 70 Turkish Lira (about $26) that was quoted.  Overall, it was a solid dinner, though.  And the view of the Sea of Marmara from the table in the back wasn't terrible.  The restaurant was mostly empty, but I'm not sure how much that had to do with it being Ramadan (or Ramazan, in Turkish) - the sun was still up when we arrived.  The sun set toward the end of our meal, and the owner and the employees were able to have their dinner.


After eating, we walked the short 2 blocks back to the rooms and plotted some plans for the next couple of days.  We said our goodnights by 10:30, and Tina in particular looked like she was ready for a good night of sleep in a bed, as opposed to an airplane chair.  I didn't mind having a bed at all either...

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