Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Split" ting Our Time in Croatia

We have been in Split for the past 2 1/2 days. We arrived here by bus from Mostar, passing many little villages, hotels and resorts and autoparks (campgrounds) on the way. As we got off the bus in Split we were approached by a woman who had a small apartment for rent. She showed us the location on the map and after some negotiating we agreed to go with her and have a look at it. She pointed out restaurants, super markets and bakeries nearby the apartment while she was giving us a ride there. The Police station is next door and a monastery is just across the street and so it is a quiet but safe neighborhood. The apartment is similar to a studio apartment with a kitchen, bed/sitting area and private bath. The cost was $56 (Canadian) a night so we agreed to rent it for three nights. She gave us a map and directions for walking to the Old Town (about 300 metres away) and left without payment or even our names.

On our first night we tried some traditional Croatian food. I had a beef dish called pasticada served with gnocchi and Doug had a beef goulash. Both dishes were delicious. We headed to Diocletian's Palace and strolled past many shops and cafes. It seems to be a very popular place with tourists and locals alike.

On Wednesday morning we headed to the bakery for some fresh pastries and also picked up a few groceries to make lunches since we have a kitchen. Everything seems to be very cheap here, for about $10 we bought pastries (still warm from the oven apple and cherry strudel, a croissant like pastry filled with cottage cheese and fresh buns), meat, cheese, juice and water. We ate breakfast and then waited for Dianne to arrive so we could pay her. I mentioned that I would like to do some hand laundry and she showed me where I could hang the clothes to dry.

We decided to go for a short stroll around the palace and see it in daylight. We checked out the fish market and enjoyed the sound of the vendors selling their fresh fish. We came across a walking tour and decided to join a small group for a tour of the palace. Our guide was a bit long winded and much of the tour was a too long history of Diocletian and not enough of a description of what we were seeing. There are some posters describing parts of the palace so we will need to go back and read them to see if we get some answers. The old town or palace area has a market for fresh produce, butcher shops, restaurants and cafes, shopping similar to what you would find in any shopping mall as well as apartments that are home to over 2000 people. We just got back to our apartment when the rain started so we had a rest and did some reading. We had a late dinner and strolled down to the palace. Many of the shops were closing up because of the rain and cooler temperatures.

On Thursday morning we took an intracity bus to Trogir. It is an island town and has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. We walked across a small bridge and checked out the cathedral and market square. Then we walked down to the military fortress and enjoyed the view of the surrounding yacht harbors, beaches and town. We stopped for a beer and lunch at the Farmers Market. Along with fresh fruits and vegetables they were also selling honey, olive oil, fresh flowers and, of course, pastries. We caught the bus back to Split and walked back to the Palace for one last look. Tonight there is a football (soccer) game between Split and Belgium and the streets are full of fans on their way to the stadium. I am sure we will hear lots of singing and cheering. We are going to try to find a bar that is televising the game and maybe watch it with the locals. Tomorrow we will head to Dubrovnik.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar was the site of some of the most vicious fighting in the Bosnian Civil War (Bosniacs vs Croats) in 1992-93. The Croatian seige of the city brought with it almost total destruction. Our hotel manager told us that she was eleven years old at the time, describing how she and her family hid out every night in their basement during the seige. They also took in others whose homes were too damaged to live in. She said that they had 25 people living in their basement at all times. Please search YouTube to witness the horrible destruction of the Mostar Bridge. (search stari most or mostar bridge). This is a view of the Bridge from our Hotel room!

Our hotel driver told us that every family in Mostar lost family members. He lost two brothers. He had joined the army because he would have starved had he not. He was in the Army for four years. His pregnant wife was so malnourished she almost died. They now have 3 children. He also repeatedly thanked us as Canadians because without our help many more would have died. It was a most intense day.
This picture shows the beautiful Nevreta River that flows through Mostar.

The area around the bridge is beautiful. Although lots of war damage is still evident, many buildings have been restored. Every roof in the city and all of the windows, doors and floors have been replaced, bringing back some of the pre-war beauty to the city. We will never forget Mostar.

Destination #2 or The Not So Amazing Race Through Four Countries

We were up at 4:00 AM Monday morning to head to our next destination. Our driver picked aus up on time and traffic was light all the way to the Ataturk Airport. We entered the airport and went through security immediately, the line wasn't too bad and things seemed to be going smoothly. A stop for a quick coffee ($11 Can) later and we were off to find our gate. and then the thunder and lightning started!! After the time for boarding had passed they announced that there was a gate change for our flight. Back we went to where we had started and discovered we needed to go through more security to get to the gate. Our 7:30 AM flight to Vienna was over an hour late departing, and we only had 1 hour and 15 minutes to switch planes. Could it be done???

Our plane arrived and we were down to 35 minutes until the next plane took off. We hustled though customs and then ran to find the check-in for Croatia Airlines. Fortunately I asked one of the attendents and she was able to get us checked in with out having to wait for the lineup. The only problem was, our plane had already started boarding!! Off we ran to find our departure gate. And guess what....more security!!!! The lineup was very long and when I told the staff that our plane had started boarding they just shrugged their shoulders. Then we could hear them calling our names. Panic was setting in...what if we miss our flight??? We finally arrived at security and it was off with belts, watches, jackets and everything out of the bags. We were lucky they sent us through and we started running. Down the stairs and a then down a long hallway. We arrived at the gate and jumped on the bus that took us out on the tarmak to meet the plane. The rest of the passengers were all seated when we hurried on. I think the engine started before I had my seat belt fastened.

The flight to Dubrovnik was very uneventful, I even had time to nap a bit. We headed out of the Dubrovnik airport and found the shuttle bus that would take us to the bus depot. It was 12:15 and we had a 3:15 bus to Mostar to catch. After we got our bus tickets and bought some Kunas we walked over to a tiny market and bought some snacks and water for the bus trip. The bus depot was very clean, the staff was quick to mop up any spills and swept the floors at least 3 times while we were wating. There was a 3 kuna charge to use the washrooms, but they were spotless so it was worth it!!!

Finally we boarded the bus and headed up the coast. The scenery was spectacular as we drove along the sea. When we turned inland we saw huge orchards with oranges, lemons, pomogranites and olive trees, and greenhouses full of ripe tomatoes and peppers, fields full of cabbages and rows of grape vines. We stopped frequently so that our passports could be checked. And then, just when we thought we were on the home stretch the bus stopped again. An announcement was made and everyone stood up and started filing off the what???? The driver motioned for us to get off and get on the bus parked beside it. We never did figure out what the reason behind the switch was, but we finally made it to Mostar. A driver from the hotel was waiting for us and we were soon checked in to the Villa Anri.

The view from our balcony was enough to convince us that the hectic day of travel was well worth it. The famous Stari Most bridge was such a beautiful sight we could hardly wait to go for a walk to see it close up. We stopped for dinner at a Balkan Restaurant and then walked the almost deserted streets of war torn Mostar.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Our Last Day in Istanbul

Last day in an incredible city, and we saved one of the best for last. This morning we visited the Hagia Sofia Cathedral, built by the Byzantines around 500AD, but converted rather hastily by the Ottomans in 1453 to a Mosque. The old Christian symbols were plastered over and replaced with Moslem symbols. Several centuries later much of the plaster fell off revealing the Christian paintings underneath. This must have been distressing to the Moslem worshippers. In the 1930's it was converted into a Museum showing its dual purpose as a cathedral and a mosque.

This was followed by a quick trip to the Medusa's head in the Basilica Cistern. The cistern was built 1500 years ago and used to store water for the people of the Hagia Sophia area of the city. In the 1800s it was restored and provided water for Topkapi Palace.

We took some time to sit in the park between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia and reflect on all that we have seen and done in Istanbul. People watching is always a favorite pass time and this was a perfect place for it!! We stopped for lunch and beer at a small cafe on one of the side streets nearby.

It will be tough to leave Istanbul tomorrow morning, but Bosnia (Mostar) and Croatia awaits.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saturday in Istanbul

Today is our second last day in Istanbul. We visited the Blue Mosque, built in seven years following the Ottoman Conquest of 1453. Magnificent architecture, no shorts or short skirts, ladies had to cover their heads and arms, men and ladies had to remove their shoes. Thankfully I had brought along my own scarf and did not have to borrow from the mosque.

Then we boarded a ship for a cruise of the Bosphorus Straits that separate Europe and Asia. Historically very important, the Bosphorus also joins the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Fishing boats, tankers, freighters, yachts and pleasure craft of all kinds can be seen. On the shore huge numbers of multimillion dollar homes, lavish hotels, and, of course. mosques can be seen.

The cruise goes under the Bosphorus bridge, built in the early '70s that connected Europe and Asia. 10 TL and 90 minutes later and we were back at the Galata Bridge. Then an afternoon stroll through the Spice Market and some local markets areas near there. It is estimated that 400,000 people visit these markets every day! I think we bumped into half of them.

We ended the day with a magnificent meal of turkish cuisine on the rooftop terrace of a nearby hotel. The view was spectacular, too bad we left the camera back at the hotel. The Bosphorus Bridge was lit with changing colored lights and with the full moon in the distance it rivaled the Eiffel Tower for its light show.

Friday, September 24, 2010

These Feet Were Made For Walking

Today we started out with a visit to Topkapi Palace, the imperial residence of the ottoman household. There are many priceless collections stored at the palace, and the views of Europe and Asia on the Bosphorus Strait are fabulous.

We also toured the harem which is where the sultans used to live with their families and saw the three sections: the area allocated to the sultan, the area for the mother of the sultan and the area where the area reserved for the sultan’s favorite concubine. An interesting place to visit!!!

The sun was fighting to break through the cloud cover we have had for the past 2 days so we took our time strolling around the Hippodrome, the Arasta Bazaar and the grounds around the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. There seemed to be many more people walking around the tourist areas today, as well as school children in their uniforms. With the weekend also come more visitors so we expect it to be much busier the next couple of days.

In the afternoon we took the tram to Karakoy and walked up to the Galata Tower. This was not an easy walk and I questioned the whereabouts of the funicular that is supposed to run to the top of the hill. Thankfully, there is an elevator that takes you most of the way to the top. We arrived at the top to find the observation deck that goes around the outside of the tower crowded and then we were reminded about how much neither of us is fond of edges.

The walk down was much easier and we walked across the Galata Bridge and watched the fishermen. It must have been a good day for fishing because they were shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the bridge!!

By the time we made it back to the hotel we had walked 17 km and it was time for a beer and a rest. Our favorite watering hole is the Red River Pub. The staff was very excited when we gave them photos F&C had sent from their visit in July. After a rest it was off to find a place for dinner. We have tried a different restaurant each night and sampled a variety of dishes. There are so many choices and we are running out of time.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Visiting the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market

This morning we decided to visit the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. We entered the bazaar through the main gate and were amazed at the huge number of jewelry stores lining the street, selling watches, diamonds and gems of all kinds. Then we entered the leather district, full of jackets and hand bags. A salesman who was eager to make his first sale of the day stopped us. He soon realized we weren’t interested in buying anything but he was interested in what our impressions of “his city” were and also made some suggestions of places we should be sure to visit while in Istanbul. Many of the shopkeepers call out as you pass, offering bargains and trying to entice you into their shops. Everything you could possibly want was for sale, one street was lined with shops selling wedding and formal gowns, traditional clothing for the Turkish women, shoes, and lingerie. Another street had a zipper shop, one selling only buttons, fabric shops of all kinds, stores with sequins, lace and thread, definitely a dressmakers dream!!!! We walked around for a couple hours, but didn’t come close to seeing it all. When we stopped to purchase a few souvenirs, we enjoyed conversations with the shopkeepers about Canada, sports and the history of Turkey.

From the Grand Bazaar it is a short walk to the Spice Market. It was easy to know when we were getting close because of the wonderful aromas of spices. As well as spices, there were cheeses, olives, coffee, fruits and nuts and other items for sale. We sampled a few of the spices before buying some paprika and we also enjoyed tasting the chocolate covered lokum (Turkish delight candy) which offered at many of the stalls.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

HO HO in Istanbul

We took the Hop On Hop Off city tour of Istanbul today.

We saw the line fishermen on the Galata Bridge.

The more modern part of Istanbul centers around Taksim Square. this is also where all the buses stop and people use this as a meeting place.

There is a long pedestrian walkway with upscale shopping. The crowds were unbelievable. Some of the side streets had fresh veggies and fruits, fish and meat for sale.

The bus took us past the ruins of the old walls of Istanbul.

We stopped by the Fish Market at the end of the day, there was still a few left for someone's dinner.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

First Stop: Istanbul

Senor Ping and I began the first leg of our amazing vacation early Monday morning. It was still raining and gloomy when we boarding the flight from Calgary airport bound for Toronto. We had a bit of walk from our arrival gate to our next departure gate but it was good to stretch our legs before boarding the flight to Dusseldorf. We marveled at how smoothly everything was going, we had no delays, flights were on time and we weren’t even tired (yet!!) When we arrived in Dusseldorf (at 6:05 AM local time) we walked to a different terminal, got our boarding passes and found the gate with about 15 minutes to spare. On to destination #1.

Our flight arrived in Istanbul on time and we quickly found the visa office and paid $60 US dollars each to visit this amazing city. We arrived at the exit and waited a few minutes for the shuttle to arrive from the Ilkay Hotel where we will be staying for the next six days. F&C told us that the ride to the hotel would be a ride to remember, how right they were!!!!

The Ataturk airport is about 15 km from our hotel. Our driver negotiated the busy roadways with ease, talking on his cell phone as he drove. We could see the oil tankers in the harbor and he slowed down as we went past a fish market. There were old and new apartment buildings, some looking very luxurious and others looked as though they were abandoned, but then we saw today’s laundry was hanging on the balconies. As we neared the hotel he turned off the main road and began winding his way up and down narrow streets past restaurants, Turkish baths, grocery stores, carpet shops and trinket shops selling everything imaginable.

Check in at the hotel was quick and efficient. Our room overlooks the street that the trolley runs down. We asked for a room closer to the pub with hopes that we can get WIFI in our room. They will move us tomorrow. The weather is perfect, 21C with a slight breeze. Much better than the cold and rain we left at home.

We stopped at our room for a few minutes to relax and study the maps. After grabbing the compass (a must in this city) we headed out for a walk. The streets are bustling, cars and trolleys and people everywhere. We finally decided it would be best if we followed the street that the trolley runs on, for sure we won’t get lost. We admired the items in the shop windows, until we discovered that the least little bit of “showing interest” led to a 15 minute stop while the street “hustlers” tried to convince us to check out the carpets in their stores. We drooled over the baklava and checked out the menus at a few of the restaurants and cafes. We eventually found ourselves across the street from the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Today was not a visit the “must sees” of Istanbul, our intention was to have a look around, find out where the main sites are and come back another day. We listened to the “call for prayer” and it hit home that after months of planning we have arrived in Istanbul!!!!

We stopped for a beverage on our way back to the hotel and are going to have an early night tonight. Dinner will be at the Red River Pub in our hotel. Efes beer and a kebab to top off our first day!! Tomorrow we will tie on our walking shoes, grab the camera and maps (and compass) and start to explore the city.