Friday, January 6, 2017

2016-2017 South America Cruise

Here is our tail of our dream cruise around part of South America. It’s our greatest vacation… since the last one. Truly, it’s one that we had very much been looking forward to for a very long time. As with all our travels, the anticipation has been every bit as enjoyable as the trip itself. And also as with all travel, the joy is in the journey.

In the case of the Oceania Marina 17-day cruise from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Valparaiso, Chile, the entire itinerary is, of course, the journey.

Our Itinerary
But getting to Buenos Aires was long and arduous. Nothing went completely wrong; we made all connections, and managed to successfully make it through customs and immigration, claim our luggage, obtain cash, book a taxi, arrive at the ship, etc. But every step also afforded problems and especially delays; it was death by a thousand delays. For just two examples, we had to wait an hour to get off the plane in Buenos Aires because there was a transportation workers strike, forcing us to wait for a bus to take us to the terminal. And after we prepaid for a taxi, we had to wait nearly another hour before one actually arrived. Trials and tribulations. Joy in the journey.


Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires is a huge and wonderful city, but the port area where we're parked is awful. It's all big-time stacks of shipping containers being loaded, unloaded and moved around. It's impossible to simply get off the boat and walk anywhere; one must take a bus about a mile through the maze of shipping stuff, over to the terminal. Once we did that, we walked five miles and saw lots of neat stuff.

Plaza San Martin was a very pretty and well-shaded park. The shade was appreciated in the summer-solstice heat (it was December 20). The Retiro area was extremely busy and bustling, with buses and people everywhere. Plaza de Mayo was the coolest, and most historical, square of all. There is always something political going on there, and we saw some people getting ready to protest something or other.

Calle Florida is the main shopping district; it’s about a mile and a half of shop after shop with no traffic except for a few cross streets. It was great for people watching, and a great cultural experience. Cultural experiences are only just starting.


Montevideo, Uruguay

If you want tourists to think well of your country or region, you can’t do much better than to take them to a winery. Yes, the Lady Adventurer and I were duly impressed with Uruguay. Actually, from what the local tour guide said and showed us of the capital city, Montevideo and it’s surrounding area, we were already experiencing positive vibes. But the wine helped as well.

Montevideo is a much toned-down version of Buenos Aires. It’s still a big city, with 1.3 million personas, but it’s not what you’d call huge. The word, ‘Manageable’, comes to mind.

After stopping at the main square and some monuments in Montevideo, we went to the Juanico Winery, where we spent most of the day. The Uruguayan food (barbecued meat, of course) and wine were excellent. Happy thoughts. And Happy Summer Solstice!!

Juanico Winery

Juanico Winery

Tango




Punto del Este, Uruguay

You say you would like to go to the southernmost point in Uruguay? Uruguay’s garden spot? The place where the rich and famous Uruguayans (not to mention Brazilians and Argentinians) go and spend their holidays? The Miami/Vegas (rolled into one) of Uruguay? You’re talking about Punto del Este. It is truly a pleasant resort beach town, with more than its share of casinos and beaches. They seem proud that President-elect Donald Trump is building a tower. The Lady Adventurer and I were able to experience some of the sights and attractions as we walked a couple miles back to the ship after “experiencing nature.”

The Experience Nature excursion was better than expected. After seeing some of the highlights of the city, we drove about an hour to Indegina, a private nature reserve. Our guides led us through the woodlands, pampas and wetlands to view the rheas, capybaras and other wildlife. Afterwards they treated us to empanadas, kuchen and local herbal tea.
A capybara up close



Puerto Madryn, Argentina

The main reason to travel to Puerto Madryn is to use it as a base for the wildlife viewing areas of Peninsula Valdes and Punta Tombo. We chose to spend the day at Peninsula Valdes.

It was a long two-plus hour bus ride, about half of which was on bumpy, dusty dirt roads. And the scenery was as unremarkable as it could be. I’ll try to make a remark anyway. It was flat, dry and very boring. The vegetation was entirely scrub. There were almost no homes or habitation of any kind. We were informed that the land was mostly used for sheep ranching.

But the goal was to view the wildlife, and view it we did. We spotted several guanacos, some with little ones, as we approached the sea. Then we got to see the sea lions and elephant seals on the beach. Only the male sea lions were around; we got to see a couple of them fighting over some turf. The elephant seals co-mingled with them, but those animals were of the younger variety.

Fighting male sea lions



A few hairy armadillos, hares and lizards later, we came to the penguin beach. These were Magellanic penguins, and there were tens of thousands of them on the beach and a little inland. We could walk right up to them, even touch them, if we wanted. The walking trail weaved in and out of their nests, and they often walked right in front of us to get across. They were every bit as cute and friendly as advertised especially the chicks.

Debbie and her penguin friends

Thousands of magellenic penguins

At Sea Onboard the Oceania Marina

Six days of our 17-day voyage are at sea. they’re nicely scattered between the various ports of call, and they included Christmas Day and New Year’s eve. Spending Christmas Day on a cruise ship, away from home and family was surreal. Everyone, crew and passengers alike, was super nice, wishing everybody they bumped into a Merry Christmas. We had the Grand Brunch Buffet in the Grand Dining Room, and later went to Jacques’, the specialty restaurant dedicated/devoted to Jacques Pepin, where we dined for three hours with some newly made friends, all from Canada. The enrichment lecture was about the 1982 Falkland Islands war. We saw Santa handing out gifts to the few boys and girls onboard. And were able to stay up, for the first time, for the show – the string quartet playing Christmas music.

Christmas on the Marina


Yes, life onboard the Oceania Marina is pretty darn good. The food and service are outstanding, even for a premium ocean cruise. Of course we pick our cruises based on the itinerary first. But such world class luxury at a decent price is nice as well. We will keep coming back to Oceania.


Port Stanley, Falkland Islands

Do you remember the 1982 Falkland Islands war? Neither did I, at least until I was reminded about it from our enrichment speaker, Terry Bishop. It came back to me how Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher would not accept Argentina’s attempt to take over the Islands. The Argentinians felt that the Islands (they call them the Malvinas) belonged to them based on their location, but the British had claimed them first, and also had a small settlement there. The war was limited to the Islands’ vicinity, and the British prevailed.
Falkland Islands

Falkland Islands

The settlement is larger now, but it’s still quite small. The windswept Islands are beautiful in a stark sort of way. Most of the visitors are interested in the history or the Islands’ penguin colonies. The Lady Adventurer and I decided not to venture far, since we’d recently gotten cozy with several thousand of the short tuxedo waddlers. On a cold, blustery day, we saw the old cemetery, the Anglican church (southernmost in the world), and walked to a couple war memorials (the Islands played a part in World Wars I and II as well). Our greatest impression, however, is that the British want you to be completely sure to understand to whom the Islands belong. Period.

Sailing out and then west of the Falklands turned out to be interesting. The swells were as swell as swells can be, and we were rocked to sleep forthwith.


Ushuaia, Argentina

Ushuaia, Argentina at 4:00 AM. It's the southernmost city in the world.


I began the day at 5:00 AM with a run through the city – the southernmost in the world – to try to find Glacier Martial. The city isn’t that big, but I didn’t know where I was going, so it took a while to avoid the wild dogs and eventually get my bearings. But by the time I got close to the glacier, it was time to head back. It was okay; I’d seen glaciers before. Besides, we had a hike to do.

The Lady Adventurer got her fall out of the way very early on during the hike. Luckily, it was on a peat bog, so it was like falling down onto a sponge. In fact, a decent portion of the hike was through this bog. It was quite bouncy and fun. We later climbed several hundred feet, ascending the foothills of the nearby mountains. We returned through a forest that hadn’t yet been destroyed by the invasive beavers that we stupidly introduced several decades ago.

Our hike
We had been given boots, so bringing wet, dirty shoes back to the ship would not be a problem. Having the boots sucked off our feet in some of the thicker mud was a concern, but we managed.

Our guide was very good at pointing out the terrain and general geography of Tierra del Fuego. But he set the pace a bit too speedy for the majority of us hikers. Lady Adventurer and I (barely) managed to keep up, but many did not. I enjoyed the hike, but it would have been better for all, had we moved slower and occasionally stopped to smell the peat bog.

Sailing out of Ushuaia, back through the Beagle Channel, and then up into the Strait of Magellan was pretty amazing. We saw glaciers, snow-capped peaks and waterfalls.

We made it!

Punta Arenas, Chile

Although Punta Arenas appears to be just around the corner from Ushuaia, it took quite a while to get there. There were plenty of islands, channels and straits to go around and through.

Today’s adventure would be … wait for it … another hike! From Punta Arenas, they drove us up to a ski resort, where we got on a rickety chair lift to the top. Then we hiked back down the mountain. It was cold, windy and sleeting at first, but we warmed up as we got moving. The sun helped by coming out as well. We could often catch views of far-off scenery, like Punta Arenas and the Strait of Magellan in the distance.

Punta Arenas hike, looking down on the city


Even though it was downhill, it was still technical, muddy and difficult. But not as difficult as yesterday’s hike.


Chilean Fjords, Chile

For the next two days, we cruised in and out of the fjords of Chile. There were at least two very spectacular scenes: (spectacular scene one) – The Amalla Glacier was really cool. It looked like the Hubbard Glacier in Alaska. (spectacular scene two) – THE most intense rainbow anyone has ever seen. It was right after the glacier, and the weather was gloomy… except for a seemingly small area that was lit by some rare rays of sun. That’s where the double rainbow was. Every time we thought it was done, it changed its mind and became more intense again. It looked almost solid.
Amalla Glacier

Rainbow!



Puerto Chacabuco, Chile

These Chilean fjords are not to be trifled with. Puerto Chacabuco is in the middle of one, and it’s a spectacular setting. What? You’ve never heard of Puerto Chacabuco? It’s near Puerto Aysen. So now you know. We hadn’t heard of it either (it sounds like a Star Wars character), but we will remember it now.

Lady Adventurer and I went on a Patagonia Nature in Depth tour. It certainly was. We walked a couple miles in a couple hours on a wooded trail alongside a river, until we came to a good-sized waterfall.

Nature Hike and Falls

BBQ in Chacabuko

Flowers by the lake



After the hike, we had a ‘typical Patagonian barbeque’ (lamb, and a lot of it), along with some typical Pategonian dancing. The appetizer was empenadas. Empenadas are pastry dough pockets filled with meat, cheese, spinach, etc., and then deep-fried. These particular ones, however, appeared to be filled with air. Debbie said she detected a small amount of cheese, but that was hardly noticeable. Everyone at our table laughed when I called them ‘empty-nadas’.

It was all great, but I couldn’t help thinking that they make some of this ‘typical’ stuff up. This part of the world is extremely sparsely populated, and the indigenous people were wiped out entirely. I wonder whether the European settlers even have any ‘typical’ dancing, but for the occasional bunch of cruise ship passengers that come through.

Okay, I’ll turn the cynicism back off. At least for a while.

Port Chacabuco

Puerto Montt, Chile

It wasn’t one of the smartest things Lady Adventurer and I have done. In fact, and I don’t say this lightly, it was downright stupid.

Debbie and I were halfway up Vulcan Osorno, a quarter-mile or so along the lava path that curved up and around the side of the mountain, when we discovered that we wouldn’t be able to get back. We almost couldn’t even stand up.

It didn't seem so bad going up the mountain with the wind at our back
To say the wind was strong would be a severe understatement. Hurricane-force sounds more like it. The thing was, it was at our backs going up, so it pushed us along, and all we had to do was to try and stay on our feet. It was when we tried to stop and then turn that we got into trouble. Not that there weren’t any clues around. Clues like people falling, and/or trying to get back down by holding onto one another in groups of three or more.


Trying (very hard) to turn around and come back down


But Lady Adventurer held onto me, and we did eventually get back. Somehow. Otherwise, as you may surmise, this account would not have gotten written.

This was part of an all-day excursion from Puerto Montt. We also saw Petrohue Falls and walked around normally scenic Puerto Varas during a deluge. Vulcan Osorno itself looks a little like Mount Fuji. We’d caught a glimpse of it from the falls, but clouds were moving in. Those clouds should have been another clue that walking up there wouldn’t be totally smart.


Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile

Valparaiso
The Marina docked at Valparaiso, for the termination of our cruise. We did not have to disembark until the next day, however, so we booked a tour of Santiago, the capital of Chile, which is two hours away. It was a long day, but we saw some interesting squares and plenty of statues, while taking in the country’s history. The recent reign of dictator Pinochet was especially interesting. Unfortunately, the nearby Andes Mountains were not visible due to the heavy smog.

Our flight was the next day. But wait a minute. They were booting us off the boat at 8:00 AM, but our flight wasn’t until 11:30 PM. To fill the time we booked … wait for it … another tour! This one would take us to see more of Valparaiso, nearby Vina del Mar, and some of the same parts of Santiago as the previous day. More smog, and more cultural experiences.
Vina del Mar, near Valparaiso


...
And that’s it. For an account of my running during this vacation, please see my running blog post, Running and Cruise Ships Don’t Mix.

Also check out this link to even more of our photos.


Monday, September 5, 2016

2016 Finger Lakes

Debbie and I traveled along with her sister Kathy and her husband, Mike, over to the Finger Lakes region this past weekend. Everyone had a great time. We ate at historic Belhurst Castle, did some wineries (and sampled a good deal of wine - good thing Mike was DD), toured historic Rose Hill Mansion, and capped it all off with a visit to America's Number One State Park, Letchworth State Park, home of the "Grand Canyon of the East". It truly is a wonderful park; I wouldn't argue with that "best" claim at all. But (once again), do they ever refer to the canyon in Arizona as the "Letchworth of the West?" Before heading home, we ate at historic Glen Iris Inn, which is inside the park.


Debbie and I stayed at an Airbnb Bed and Breakfast in Geneva. It was close to the Holiday Inn that held Kathy and Mike. The B&B was an interesting, nearly new experience for us. We had great breakfasts and greater conversations with our hosts. Fun stuff.

I suppose my favorite winery was probably Wagner. But they were all good. Perhaps a little too good - we didn't even make it all the way around Seneca Lake before we'd had a little too much of a good thing.


All in all, this was a nice little trip.
Mike, Kathy, Debbie and Dan at Letchworth

Friday, May 27, 2016

2016 Croatia, Austria and Slovenia



Our Trafalgar Group Tour


The High Cost of Stupidity

Before we knew it, we were outside the Chicago Airport security area, and therefore unable to make use of our United Club passes that had been generously supplied by Debbie’s dear sister, Kathy Zimcosky. Now we would need to pay for a lunch once we got ourselves back through TSA security at the International Terminal. And we wouldn’t have the creature comforts of the lounge during our five-hour layover. All okay, I said, we’ve survived worse. Besides, how much could lunch cost?

It could cost $44, if you eat at Rick Bayless’ Frontera restaurant. Turned out there were limited choices in the International terminal, although the food really was quite good. But then there’s this: had we reentered through security at Domestic Terminal, used the United Club, then made our way to our gate, we probably would have missed out plane. That particular security line took about an hour on top of the train ride over.

The second High Cost of Stupidity story involves romance, intrigue, genealogical adventure and hundreds of euros. Except for the romance and intrigue. Or anything remotely genealogical. The part about the euros is correct however.

For several months now, Debbie and I have been tracing our family genealogies. According to our information, my mother’s ancestors all came from the adjacent villages of Pobedim and Podolie, Slovakia. The area appears to be less than two hours from Vienna by car, so I hatched an idea to rent a car and go there and investigate cemeteries and churches to search for long lost relatives. Since we’d arrive in the morning of the best day for this, we could rent a car at the airport, drive on over to rural Slovakia, look around some, then return to Vienna in time for the Trafalgar tour group meeting and dinner at five. If we didn’t find any relatives, I thought, at least we would have tried. And walked where they walked, in the villages where they lived. Sounds like a plan, yes?

No. After fifteen minutes of trying to figure out reverse on the standard shift rental car (I am not making this up: you have to hold the shaft in the middle with your fist, and then stroke it up and down), and then two hours of driving through pretty countryside scenery and quaint villages, we stopped and finally determined that we were about as lost as was humanly possible. And when we did finally figure out where we were, we realized that we had made absolutely no progress towards Pobedim and Podolie; we’d only gone generally to the north of Vienna, now even more than two hours away from our destination. Worst of all, we never even made it out of Austria at all.

What went wrong, you ask? We followed the GPS lady’s orders (she had a German accent, you know), and not our Google map directions. An old fashioned paper map would have been best, but ours was not nearly detailed enough to figure out these rural roads and small villages. Where GPS lady thought she was taking us is anyone’s guess. I think we may have gotten there eventually – perhaps in a few more hours. Fortunately, she was able to get us back to the Vienna airport without further mishap after we decided to give up and turn back.

Here’s what else went wrong: cost of rental and taxes (over 90 US dollars, and possibly much more), cost of additional insurance that I thought I’d better take this time (68 euros), cost of petrol, as they call it (66 euros), cost of tolls, permission to go to Slovakia, etc (over 8 euros), cost of a transfer from the airport to the hotel that would have been free if we’d have just followed the script (37 euros), cost of an expensive lunch that would have been cheaper had be been more rested and willing to walk around (30 euros). And so on.


The Rest of the Story: it Gets Better, at Least for Vienna and Bratislava

The Hilton Danube was a sight for sore eyes and comfortable for our tired bodies. We met our Tour Director Jasmina and the rest of the group. After a good night’s sleep we got the morning tour of Vienna.

Not much happening early in the morning. We’d seen a great deal of Vienna during our previous Central Europe travels, so the walking tour wasn’t any big shakes. It didn’t help that it was cool, cloudy and damp. It started to rain just as we went out on our own a bit, so we wound up in a Viennese coffee house with some fellow travelers.

Debbie and Dan in Bratislava
The afternoon in Bratislava was different however. For one thing, we finally did make it to Slovakia(!) For another, Bratislava is a wonderful city. It helped that the sun came out, warming things up for us, just as we arrived. Our local guide was wonderful, and we were able to see the castle (where there were great views of the river and city) and the extensive old town area.

Even though we never made it to the towns of my ancestors, at 45 minutes away, Bratislava is pretty darn close. I kept thinking that these people were my people. In fact, that local guide looked as if she may have come from my mom's side of the family, which she very well may have. I might add that the Slovakian food and the wine were also very good. I would go there again in a heartbeat.

From Vienna we went south for a long ride through the scenic Austrian countryside. How many hilltop castles can there be? After a stop in Graz for lunch and a walk up to the town’s hilltop castle, the mountains got higher and the scenery became even more spectacular. By late in the afternoon, we reached Lake Bled, Slovenia.


Slovenia – Lake Bled and Environs

From our vantage point in the world, it appears that Slovenia is as beautiful a country as any. Alpine mountains (these are, in fact, the Alps), hilltop castles, picture postcard churches, serene lakes and scenic villages are everywhere.
Lake Bled

It wasn’t enough that we were staying at a beautiful lake – Lake Bled - that’s surrounded by mountains. No, not at all. We had to take a side trip to a different lake – Lake Bohinj – that was also scenic, and also surrounded by mountains. It looked pretty much the same – that is, very pretty – but there were a couple differences: Lake Bohinj was higher and colder, and a little larger. More importantly, it was also the starting point for our gondola ride to the top of Mount Vogel.

I am sure it’s wonderful at the top when the mountain isn’t completely engulfed in clouds and snow. As it was, all we could do was stand and shiver until the next gondola came to bring us back down.

Back in Bled, Debbie and I walked around the lake. That was a very nice hike, but I knew the way; I’d run the 6K circuit a couple times in the morning. Oh, and I also climbed – not quite hand over hand, but almost – to the top of the cliff where the lake’s castle is in command.

Speaking of demands, Debbie made one as we got back: that we get some of the famous Park Hotel’s cream cakes. They truly are something to write home about, so that’s why I mention them here. Unfortunately, our Park Hotel had other problems, such as needing renovation so that it no longer looks like something hatched from the Communist era (which it was), as well as awful crowding at the evening buffet – seemed like everyone on the entire planet had their feedbags on and was elbowing their way in. The second night in Bled was extremely much better, with polkas and traditional Slovenian food, and of course wine.
Polkaing in Bled

Overall, Slovenia is a wonderful place. From Lake Bled, we drove through the capital city, Ljubljiana for an enjoyable stop, before traveling on to the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia.


Croatia at Last: Plitvice

Croatia is the main destination for our travels this time around; it’s where most of our time will be spent. Our first stop was the Garden of Eden of Croatia: Plitvice Lakes National Park. Our 4K hike through park revealed dozens of the park’s thousands of waterfalls.
Plitvice



Time to Split

Just a guess here: I may not be the first person to make a joke such as this.

Split is Croatia’s second largest city, and home to Diocletian’s Palace, an ancient palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian at in the fourth century AD, that today forms about half the old town and city center of Split. It’s still being used as a place to live, shop and dine. We didn’t shop, but we did dine, and also managed to nearly get lost in the palace maze. The best part is that it finally warmed up for us, now that we’re on the Adriatic Coast.


A Hvar Away Island

The ‘H’ is nearly silent, so this joke isn’t as funny as it seems, not that it was funny anyway.

After sitting in the sun on the top deck for 45 minutes, the slow boat (aka ferry) from Split to Hvar Island took another hour and 45 minutes. By this time we were well cooked, and I wasn’t feeling well at all. Hvar looks like the perfect slice of Mediterranean pie, but we’re not ready to enjoy it just yet.

***Rant Interlude – Read at your own Risk***

Don’t get me wrong. I love Europe, and I truly love Europeans, especially my people: those of the central and eastern parts of the continent. Furthermore, I think they are way ahead of us Americans in their tolerance of others and care for the environment. Not to mention food. That said…

1) These people have a lot to learn about plumbing. They can’t seem to make a toilet that you don’t have to scrape the sides off with a brush after use. Or a shower that you can use without getting the entire bathroom soaked with water. Or even a sink that prevents water from splashing all over the place just by turning the faucet on. And don’t even get me started about this here “Ikea Designed” Hotel Amfora in Hvar with the outhouse type toilet seats. Not to mention getting into and out of the seven-foot high bathtub / shower combination…. I could go on and on about plumbing, but that would detract from my next few complaints.
2) We are two people staying in one hotel room. This means we have two suitcases. We need a place to put more than the one they have provided room for. This is not rocket science folks.
3) We absolutely love our tour guide / mom, Jasmina Bajde. She is completely wonderful. But the tour itself seems a little too rushed, and we feel a little too hearded. Yes, of course we understand that this is, indeed, a group bus tour. Maybe if we were both feeling better, or if we didn’t sign up for nearly all of the optional tours…
4) NO COFFEE FOR YOU! We are human beings, and human beings require coffee. Yes, the hotels have it at breakfast, but that’s much too late for some of us. It just isn’t available if you, say for example, want some at four or five in the morning before going out for a run. Nothing: not in the room, the lobby, just outside the hotel. Nada, nothing.



Okay, I feel better now. Did I mention that Hvar is lovely? It is. Both the island and the village with thee same name.

It is the Mediterranean at it’s best: at least as nice as Nice (sorry, had to say that) or any of the Greek islands we’ve seen. Some say the Dalmation coast is the Mediterranean the way it used to be. But not any more; now it’s the Mediterranean as it is today, with crowds and hoopla. Still this Coast of Croatia is truly beautiful. And Hvar is a serene, long, endlessly scenic island smack dab in the middle of it all.

Trafalgar includes a “Be My Guest” experience with each of their tours. Ours was to a partially restored stone village in the hills of Hvar, far from any civilization. I say village, but there’s really only one couple that lives there with no electricity or neighbors of any kind. Jasmina and Trafalgar arranged for them to treat all forty-plus of us to a gourmet meal of veal, lamb or octopus (our choice), cooked under an iron bell. We dined outside with plenty of wine to go along with the good food. And we topped it all off with homemade grappa. Jasmina surprised us with a small birthday surprise for Debbie, and everyone sang.
Be My Guest in Hvar

Overheard conversation:
Trafalgar Guest after one grappa: “Wanna see my hidden treasure?” (‘Hidden Treasures’ are a Trafalgar thing)
Trafalgar Guest after two grappas: “Be my guest!”

Be My Guest in Hvar

The singing continued to the tune of Abba for the hour long bus ride home. We’re all now much better friends than we were just the morning before we arrived.

The next day’s optional wine-tasting (Sights and tastes of Hvar) was not quite so wild and wonderful, but still very nice. Afterward, Debbie and I climbed up to the Hvar Hilltop Fortress, came back down, and ate a late lunch at a great place in the hills of Hvar town.

The three lovely days on Hvar went by much too quickly, but now it was on to Dubrovnik. And what a journey that was. A couple hours drive along the spine and length of Hvar Island, a short(er) ferry trip to the mainland, and then several more hours south along the indescribably spectacular Dalmation Coast. Along the way from Croatia to Croatia, of course we had to go through a couple miles of Bosnia. So naturally we stopped for some cheese and chips. By the time we rolled into the outskirts of Dubrovnik, it was nearly time for our sunset dinner cruise.
Sugaraj - enroute from Hvar to the Mainland



Dubrovnik!

Notice the exclamation mark. It’s just like when we add one to the tail end of Oklahoma! Dubrovnik is a medieval walled city that is with good reason, the number one tourist destination along the Adriatic Sea.


Dubrovnik Sunset

Dubrovnik Moonrise


Our sunset dinner cruise and nighttime walk through the walled city lived up to it’s billing. It was every bit as spectacular, beautiful and fun as we thought it would be.
Dubrovnik by Night

The next day we were able to see the city in the daytime. We finally got a relatively hot day, and that made things a little challenging – especially the walk around the top of the city walls. We made a complete circuit – it took us over an hour – but what sights we saw! We also had some time to relax with friends at a couple cafes.
Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik Lunch


There were plenty more opportunities to experience the sights, sounds and tastes of Dubrovnik. But it’s time to discuss our side trip to Montenegro.
Dubrovnik from Above


Montenegro!

Notice the exclamation point inflation. Well, if you put one on Dubrovnik, you surely have to do it for Montenegro!

Montenegro became an independent (from Serbia) country only ten years and a couple days ago. It was less than an hour to the border, but then the crossing itself took some time (Montenegro is not yet part of the European Union), as did driving all around the fiords, crags and crannies of this beautiful little country.

Kotor in Montenegro
We stopped in Kotor, a walled city at the base of the Bay of Kotor. It’s a spectacular location, and we once again walked the city walls, and all round inside. The surrounding mountains form walls as well. We went on to explore Budvar, another (you guessed it) walled city on the sea.

There was magnificent scenery the entire way through Montenegro, and of course back into Croatia. It’s easy to take it all for granted, as in, “Ho hum, another knock-em dead gorgeous view. What’s for dinner?”

Food for this entire trip, by the way, has been just slightly underwhelming. In both Croatia and Montenegro, I had expected nothing but the freshest fish and other seafood. I did get some, including the previously mentioned octopus under the bell, but some of the other food just wasn’t all that great. The wines have been interesting, however, and I do mean that a good way.

I don’t know why this took so long, but it only now became clear that the name for the country of Croatia, in Croation, is Hrvatska. I didn’t know that! But the connection between the name Horvath, meaning, ‘Croatian’, or ‘From Croatia’, now makes a lot more sense.


Zagreb

There was another long day of travel from the southern Dalmation coastal area up to Zagreb. Zagreb is the capital, cultural center, and largest city of Croatia. It was originally made up of two medieval walled towns: an upper and lower one.

Zagreb

We took several walks around town, and although tired from all the accumulated travel, enjoyed it all immensely. Zagreb is a great city.

Zagreb
Earlier, I accused the food of being underwhelming, That was before the last two dinners. The final group Farewell Dinner in Zagreb was especially memorable. Also memorable, now that we were saying our goodbyes, was our outstanding guide Jasmina, and all our fellow travelers. As always with these group tours, traveling companions make for the best of (new) friends.

Our Wonderful Group Early on - We're all Best Friends now


Finally, it was time to return to the States. Been a wonderful trip, but as always, we’re ready to go home. But don't go away just yet.

For a link to all my photos, click here.

For a link to my running blog post for the trip, click here.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

2015 Turkey

Kusadasi Evening

Istanbul


Our first and last homes away from home for this Cosmos tour of Turkey would be the big, busy, burgeoning, boisterous city of Istanbul. The Grand Halic Hotel is part of the Halic Hotels chain, and like so many other places we've stayed during Cosmos tours, it seems clean, but old and dated and definitely short of what we're 
Istanbul!
used to otherwise. One wonders how much less grand the other Halic hotels are.


No Longer in Kansas

We're staying on the European side. Istanbul actually spans two continents, and many of the historical sites, such as Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, are far away, but also on the European side. But for this time through, we would only have time to take a long walk here from the hotel. We'll see 
those other sites later on.
Istiklal Avenue

The very busy pedestrian shopping street of Istiklal Caddesi was not too hard to find, although Lady Adventurer was in a near panic of becoming lost or not making it back in time for the meet and greet cocktail party back at the hotel. Great for people watching, this long shopping street ended at the historical Taksim Square. Becoming more adventurous in our old age, we actually sampled some street food. It was not bad.

Istiklal Avenue
Taksim Square

















We are the only North Americans at the meet and greet. But not everyone was present. Will this trend continue?


Gallipoli

In 1915, exactly 100 years ago, one of the largest campaigns of World War I, and one of the most momentous in human history, took place in the Gallipoli peninsula of Turkey. British, French, Indian, Australian and New Zealand troops landed to try to obtain control of Istanbul and the area waterways, but they were met by Turkish forces led by Mustafa Kemal, afterwards known as Ataturk. The Turks unexpectedly won the 9-month battle, repelling the Allies, but over 500,000 men on both sides lost their lives in the bloody fighting. After the Great War, Ataturk led the war to win independence from Greece, He later became president and introduced major reforms to remove the last of the Ottomans, introduce a secular democracy, and form modern Turkey.
On the beach at Gallipoli



It gives me goosebumps to experience, almost relive a place where great historical events have transpired. Izzet, our guide placed Gallipoli in the context of the more extended history in the region, linking it to other battles from the Peloponnesian War, conquests of Alexander the Great, and of course the Trojan War. This, of course, adds to the goosebumps. The Australians who were with us were clearly moved by the experience. So many of their countrymen are buried here that Gallipoli is a kind of pilgrimage for them.

From Istanbul, we traveled along the Sea of Marmara on the European side, to get to Gallipoli. After stopping at several points - the scale of the battle was huge - we cross the Dardenelles (straits) by ferry and arrive at Cannakale.


In the hills above the Gallipoli Peninsula
The entire area has great scenic serene beauty, and would be worth the trip even without the history.


Crossing the Dardenelles
It turns out that we're not the only Americans; there are two from Denver as well as a couple of Canadians. Overall, it's a great mix of people: there are the usual fun-loving Aussies, some Malaysians, Filipinos, Brits, one Irishwoman and one Kiwi (New Zealander). We're getting to know, and like, most everyone. It's a great thing to be get to know fellow travelers. We all recognize that we're in this adventure, this learning, together, and we all make sure to accommodate one another.
Sunset at Cannakale



Troy


The Horse and us
3,300 years ago, a prince brought a woman from modern day Greece to modern day Turkey. She happened to be married to someone else, and she also happened to be the most beautiful woman in the world (until now that we have the Lady Adventurer around), so a thousand ships were launched to attack the city of Troy and begin a war that lasted ten years. The greatest warrior of all time wasn't able to conquer the city (he wound up with an arrow in the heel), but the wiliest one...

The war only ended when the Greeks pulled the old Trojan Horse trick to prove forever that one should never trust Greeks bearing gifts. It was a war that was committed to writing five-hundred years later by Homer, and it became one of mankind's earliest and most epic stories of any kind.

Beware of Ohioans bearing gifts








Today, Troy is a very confusing archaeological site. The confusion is due to the fact that there were actually nine cities of Troy, each built upon and around the others. The Troy of Iliad fame was number seven; the previous six were all much older. The later ones saw the conquest of Alexander the Great and lasted until Roman times. Lady Adventurer and I had no idea how one can determine one stack of rocks from another, so it's good that some people have. Some walls still stand, and there is one road leading through a gate that was once thought to be the path of the Trojan Horse, until it was later determined that that road is from Troy VI and not Troy VII.
Walking between Troy VI and Troy VIII

Road that once led through the Gate of Troy. Legend (but not reality)
has it that the Horse was pulled through said Gate

Nice vistas from the ruins of Troy

It's all pretty amazing and overwhelming. More so because the area is still undergoing further excavation. Who knows where it will all end?
On top of Troy IX, looking down at the others

Along the way after Troy, we make a brief stop in the city of Izmur, formerly Smyrna, birthplace of Homer and a now a large, modern city. Then we head over to nearby Kusadasi for a two-night stay.
Izmur


Our tour guide, Izzet Conk, is also acting as the local expert at all of our sightseeing stops. He's soft spoken, but very interesting and knowledgeable. 
Sunset from our hotel in Kusadasi, near Ephesus



Ephesus

The largest and best preserved Roman city isn't in Rome, or even Italy; it's in Turkey, and it's called Ephesus. The size and scale of this once 500,000 resident city is fascinating. Not yet fully excavated, what is there makes up a complete city. There are excellent roads, public toilets, a brothel, an odeon (indoor theater), a large outdoor theater, a huge agora (shopping area) and of course the famous library.
Ephesus, with the Library in the background

After our tour of this great city that lasted 1,000 years, we go to the chapel that was believed to be the place the Virgin Mary spent her last years, and then visit ruins of the Temple of Artemis. This is one of the wonders of the ancient world, and although there isn't a whole lot left standing, it was once pretty awesome. But so is everything else, even now.

Whilst staying in nearby Kusadasi, I go for a couple easy seaside runs. One of them is with Ian, a Kiwi who runs races all around the world.


Aphrodisias

Dedicated to the god, Aphrodite (and not necessarily aphrodisiacs), this archaeological site actually rivals Ephasus in size, scope, historical importance and level of preservation. It's just far enough away from the beaten path to keep most tourists clear of it. We are able to observe many of the same kinds of antiquity that we did in Ephasus. That is, more piles of rocks. Not that I'm complaining. I love this stuff. There's a museum here with gobs of statues and friezes that's really neat as well. The only thing is that I'm a bit disappointed in the statue of Aphrodite herself. It's not quite like the famous Venus one; here, she's got clothes on.
Temple of Aphrodite

Aphrodite with Clothes



Hieropolis

More rocks, but this time with a twist: besides the important archaeological site (yes, another one), this one is also an interesting geological location as well. There are hot springs in the area, forming calcified layers and even cliffs that are pure white. It looks like snow. 
Babushkas soaking their feet in the water at Hieropolis

It seems the Romans came here for the same reason people do today: for the hot mineral spring water.And now the Roman baths have become Turkish baths. 

Lady Adventurer and I make the long walk along the top of the calcified cliff to the opposite end of the site, which is the location of the necropolis. Along the way we see the hot springs on one side, and the Roman ruins on the other. We have to hurry to get back to the bus on time.

The views from the top of these calcified limestone cliffs are outstanding, in spite of the air pollution. There's a fairly thick haze just about everywhere, and the air smells of smoke, especially coal smoke. It's all unfortunate, especially since there does seem to be an effort to use renewable fuel: there are wind turbines everywhere, and nearly every home has a solar hot water apparatus on the roof.

Later on, I am able to swim in a thermal swimming pool located in the basement of our Thermal Center Spa hotel. It's as big as any indoor pool, but the spring is fed into it from one end (the very hot side), and the water is a dark reddish brown.
Hieropolis the following morning

We're seeing more uniformity amongst the hotels than we're used to from Cosmos trips. All the plumbing seems about the same (barely adequate), the rooms are clean but small, and the food is basic (and not as good as one would hope, especially the lack of fresh fruit in the morning). Moreover, they all have wifi that just barely works, and the beds are hard, but okay. To sum up: we're doing okay, but things could also be a little more luxurious. And although we can get coffee with breakfast, would it kill them to allow us to have it in our rooms or earlier in some way?


Konya

No, it's not Konya West; we traveled east to get here. Konya is a religious city, and it's home to the Whirling Dervishes. And to put a point on that, we visit the Whirling Dervish Museum. During the early evening walk home, and even back inside the hotel, the air pollution becomes unbearable. It's as if we're right next to a smoker, or else a coal-burning power plant.


We are getting to know some of our traveling companions even better. Some Aussies wound up with a honeymoon suite here, and invited us to have drinks with them as well as to see the round bed, jaccuzzi, etc... We have a bunch of laughs.




Cappadocia
Cappadicia


Now this place is truly different. Fairy chimneys, mushroom caps, phallic rocks, alien landscapes, and that's just for starters. All in all, 'otherworldly' is the best way to describe this large area in central Turkey. We spend two days here, and need at least that much time to see a decent amount of it. We experience the various different geographical parts of this strange place, and see early Christian villages and churches, some of them entirely inside the man made caves built into the rock cliffs. We also get to see some Turkish folklore dancing, including a voluptuous (aren't they all?) belly dancer.
Fairy Chimneys


Incidentally, some of the cave villages involve tight squeezes through the passageways. Lady Adventurer, a little apprehensive going in, does just fine. She says that she is surprising herself.
Cave Dweller

And then there is the balloon ride. This is an experience to remember! Twenty of us (now all close friends) squeezed into the small basket, as the operator/pilot asks if it is our first balloon trip. As most of us say 'yes', he says, 'me too'. It is serene, quiet (when the flame wasn't blowing), scary (but only when the balloon is up between 500 and 1,000 meters), but mostly it is unbelievably and indescribably beautiful. The sunrise is beautiful, as are the dozens of other balloons in the air. The scenery is actually much more spectacular when we're lower, and it's good that we spend most of the time well under 500m. When we come down directly into the trailer, we're all disappointed that the hour went by so quickly.


Balloon Ride at Sunrise
Just after sunrise we could really enjoy the balloon colors as well as the landscape


Ankara

This is Turkey's busy capital of about 4.5 million people, all of whom seem to be driving in the couple blocks surrounding our (quite nice) Radisson Hotel. We visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilization. It has won some awards for its great displays of Turkey's antiquities. Lady Adventurer and I are extremely impressed. Also impressive is Antikabar (Ataturk Mausoleum), but in a totally different way. It's big and in your face. But good ole' atta-boy Turk is worth celebrating - he's the George Washington (and also Jefferson and Lincoln) of this country.


Bursa

En route from Ankara to Bursa, we stop at King Midas' tomb in Gorion. King Midas was a historical figure who ruled here around 800 BC. Whether he was truly successful in turning everything he touched to gold isn't quite so well established.

Bursa was a capital of Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. We stop by the green mosque, the covered bazaar and the silk market.


Istanbul

We're back, but the tour is not over... 

Istanbul is wildly exotic and frantically alive. It's 15 million people, crowded as they are, make the place buzz with activity; there's always something going on. And I'm loving every minute of it.

Blue Mosque
We tour the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern - a huge body of water supported by pillars and a ceiling underneath the city. Medusa heads hold up a couple of the pillars. We then walk around the Hippodrome, used by Romans for their chariot races, now right in the middle of everything.
Cruising the Bosphorus

And we take in a cruise of the Bosphorus. This body of water connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, and it passes through the thick of Istanbul. Boats of all shapes and sizes go any which way, and palaces new and ancient line the shores. It's as stunning as it gets, and this proves to be another major highlight of the trip.

The east meets west aspects of Istanbul come alive at our folklore sing and belly dancing dinner and entertainment show. Besides the countries represented by our small group (U.K, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Canada and the U.S.), there were folks from Argentina, Japan, Azerbaijan and Iran in the small nightclub. The entertainer tried to sing a song for each country! And of course Debbie and I are on stage at different times, singing along as well.

We see the famous Hagia Sophia, the ancient and huge Christian Church, turned Mosque, turned museum. And we see the more famous Topkapi Palace where, with the Harem and the lavish palace, it's good to be the Sultan.
Tile in Topkapi Palace

Hagia Sophia


Lady Adventurer and I venture to the top of Galata tower to see the sunset, and then have some fun with the rest of the gang, saying goodbye to all our new friends.

Sunset over Istanbul from Galata Tower
















Galata tower at night



There is certainly much more to Turkey than we ever could have expected, even after reading tour books, doing web searches and reviewing the Cosmos tour information. Our trip to Greece has always been the standard by which we measure all of our coach tours, and this Turkey tour stacks up quite well indeed.






For our entire trip, the weather was wonderful. The food, not quite so much. I completely cracked Lady Adventurer up one night as we were heading to the typical buffet dinner and I asked, 'I wonder what type of slop it will be this time?' Nothing was all that awful, but also not always outstanding,

Turkey held their national election the day we arrived, and the results were not encouraging for those who want to keep the country secular and to maintain the separation of mosque and state. In fact, it's possible that this may be one of the final Cosmos tours, at least for a while. We're all concerned, although we had no inkling of any unrest or any personal threats for our entire trip. We can only hope for the best for this great country.

As always with these types of trips, the true highlights are meeting and interacting with the local people and especially moving through time and space with a great bunch of fellow travelers of varied backgrounds.

The Turkish people could be frustratingly inefficient at times. Traffic laws, especially right-of-way ones, are a mere suggestion. And Debbie and I were extremely frustrated when our return flights were delayed, causing a missed connection - almost no one at the airport was able to help, or even comprehend the problem. In spite of all this I must say that everyone we met was outgoing and friendly, helpful and gracious. We never felt threatened in any way. Izzet was the best of the best. What a great tour director he was.

I've already noted how our travelling companions were from all over the world; about as diverse as a group can get. And we all got along swimmingly well. I think that to a person, we all thoroughly enjoyed one another's company, and will now consider ourselves all lifelong friends.

Our Gang


On the whole, this trip is better than we imagined, maybe better than we could have imagined.



Here is a link to our photos, all 400+ of them. And here's a link to my running blog post about my running in Turkey.