Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Budapest & Prague: Two birds of a feather...

I guess they are neighboring countries, so one shouldn't be surprised there are so many similarities, but Budapest and Prague are a couple of real Twin Cities. I will try to run down a list of the numerous similarities, as well as note a couple of the differences I noticed. (Budapest pics are on the left and those of Prague are on the right.)

*Both are cut into two by a river: The Danube in Budapest and the Vltava in Prague.

*Both have prominent castles: Aptly, and respectively, named the Buda and Prague Castles.

*Both towns have beautiful cathedrals.

*Both are known for curative waters. Budapest is well known for its many public baths. We visited the The Széchenyi Spa in Budapest, the largest and most magnificent of them. For about $15 we spent the day going from outdoor baths, to saunas, to indoor baths, all of varying temperatures. It was quite the relaxing experience. Alternatively, just outside of Prague are the Carlsbad Mineral Springs, also known for the curative properties of its waters. Sadly, we did not make the trip.

*Both have famous bridges: In Budapest you have the Chain Bridge and in Prague the Charles Bridge.

*Both have lots of grafitti. Although the Lennon Wall in Prague is a sanctioned place for taggers, it is grafitti nonetheless. This picture in Budapest is also an impressive part of street art, although illegal.

*Both have a place for couples to lock up their love.

*Prague and Budapest were both former Communist towns which have since fully embraced capitalism.

*Both of the old cities have Jewish Quarters and, as such, were occupied by Nazi forces during the Second World War.

*Public transport is very well organized, and tourist friendly, in both cities, complete with buses, trams and metros.

*Tasty and hearty cuisine is not in short supply in either of the towns.

*Both towns are VERY touristy!

Despite all of the similarities, there were a FEW differences...

In Budapest...
*You can enjoy a VERY inexpensive cultural performance, thanks to government subsidies. We checked out Don Pascuale at the National Opera House. Our box seats, right next to the Presidential Box, ran about $9/piece. And, the cheap seats are about $2!
*There is a stunning National Parliament Building.

In Prague...
*You can check out the quirky Zodiac Clock, complete with hourly appearances by the 12 apostles.
*There is a TV tower with barcode babies scaling the sides.
*One can enjoy a glass of beer brewed at the monastery.
*You can visit a church adorned with HUMAN bones (a little ways outside of the city).
*Someone tried, unsuccessfully, to break into our hotel room! (The cops later broke the door down so we could make sure nothing was stolen.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sarajevo in Pictures...

This bridge, known today as the Latin Bridge, was where a very important event occurred, which led to the beginning of World War I. It was here, on June 28, 1914, that Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated. This is Skender, our guide during a day trip retracing the siege of Sarajevo by Serbian troops. During the mid-90's conflict he was just a boy and his father became part of makeshift military forces while his mother kept Skender safe at home. He recounted those days with us in chilling detail, stating that heat, water and even food were often in short supply. Only on rare occasions, when the air-raid sirens fell silent for an extended period of time, did he get to play outside with his friends...for a short time.

Looking down at Sniper Alley from a hill above Sarajevo. This is an important crossroads that was constantly in the scope of snipers during the mid-90s siege. Hundreds of civilians were killed while merely walking to across this street, in search of food.
One of the few buildings not yet rebuilt since the devastation caused nearly 20 years ago. The large bricks on the right filled the hole of a mortar round, but hundreds of holes from small arms fire remain.

This tunnel once spanned more than 800 meters, below the Sarajevo Airport runway, and was the only connection to the outside world for thousands of residents of Sarajevo during the siege. Food, arms and other goods were carried, day and night, by hand and in carts in this dark and damp tunnel, saving untold lives. Prior to its construction people were forced to run across the runway and were often hit by sniper fire when doing so.

One of many "Sarajevo Roses" found throughout the city. These are scars in the concrete created by deadly mortar rounds during the mid-90s conflict. They were later filled with red resin, so that the victims may never be forgotten.
One of two memorials for the victims of two separate massacres at the Markale Market in Sarajevo. During the two shellings, more than 100 civilians, waiting in line for food, were killed while hundreds more were seriously injured and maimed. The second shelling led to NATO involvement in the conflict. In the reflection you can see that the market is back to business-as-usual today.
A couple of old-timers passing a cool Sunday afternoon with a little larger-than-life Chess.
The beautiful Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia, which was the site of intense destruction between 1992 and 1993. Shelling destroyed a Franciscan and Serbian Orthodox Monasteries, as well as a Catholic Cathedral and many other monuments.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Serbia Haiku

Belgrade cold and snow

The hostel warm but stinky

Smoky restaurants

Two days is plenty

Military Museum

Relief from the cold

Pedestrian street

Cobblestone and boutique stores

Snow and wind are fierce

Internet cafe

Man shamelessly watches porn

My headphones don't work

Cafes have good food

But they are filled with smokers

Waiters speak English

Someone stole our juice

From the community fridge

Karma is a bitch!


Six-hour walking tour. What better way to get acquainted with the Bulgarian capitol city than by foot. In temperatures hovering around freezing we strolled by the Presidential offices, the statue of Saint Sophia, old guys peddling communist-era antiques on the street and myriad other sites. It is a beautiful city, and very walkable, but when it is so cold it should probably be broken up into a two-day affair.

One leva tea at McDonald's. Given the fact that we have gone from a hot African summer to the cold Balkan winter in a matter of weeks, the temps are a bit jolting, even for a couple of weather-worn Minnesotans. As such, it is great to be able to duck into the familiar Golden Arches for some hot tea, a place to warm up and a clean bathroom...all for less than a buck.

Fairly priced, tasty, food. It isn't Buenos Aires, but the food in Sofia is pretty darn good, and definitely cheaper than most places with similar fare. Besides an amazing home-cooked vegetarian meal, we also enjoyed delightful pastas, soups, pizzas and pastries while on the town.

Impromptu cultural performance. After the aforementioned homemade meal our Couchsurfing hosts and their friend ducked out of the kitchen, threw on some traditional garb and entertained Heidi and I with instruments, singing and dance of their heritage.

Affable Hosts from Couchsurfing. I continue to be amazed by the hospitality of people on Couchsurfing and Niki and Eli were no exception. They invited us into their home, made us feel very welcome, and treated us to a number of meals. They went above and beyond with the cultural performance, drive to the mountain and paying for our final meal in Sofia before it was even served (in order to avoid our protests).

Bus-riding scofflaw. On Sofia public transport you are required to have a validated ticket, which is purchased before boarding and validated by an archaic hole-punch-like device on the bus. While removing my ticket from the punch it ripped. Minutes later two ladies boarded to make sure nobody was trying to cheat the system. Well, they either didn't buy, or didn't care for, my story (and I'm sure the language barrier didn't help). So, I had to shell out a 10 leva fine right then and there.

Unpleasant Pumpkin. While in Ukraine I had tasted some warm baked pumpkin, skin on with brown sugar. It was delightful. While on our walk I spied something similar, on the street, which roughly translated to "sweet pumpkin" from the cyrillic words I recognized. Heidi wanted a chunk so we bought it and gave it a try. Disgusting! Not only was it not sweet but ice cold. The picture says it all...

Lovely mountain hike. Our Couchsurfing hosts drove us up to the Vitosha Mountains, which are just on the outskirts of the bustling city. After a short drive we got out and had a nice hike in the alpine setting. The trail was a bit slick, from all of the other hikers compacting the snow, but the sun was shining and the scenery beautiful. By the time we turned around to head back down we were all warm and removing some of our layers.

Great street exchange rates. Twice during our walk through Sofia, some guy approached us with a fishy story about being from the Czech Republic and wanting to buy foreign currency at a great rate...much better than that being offered by the legitimate outlets. I know it was a scam and figured he was handling counterfeit notes. I refused his offer, first politely and later more sternly. When I relayed the experience to a hostel employee I learned that the scam was giving foreigners old leva, which are now worthless. Sadly, I was told, others weren't so keen and fell for the scam.

A long wait for the police. On our way down Vitosha Mountain the tires on our hosts' little Mitsubishi lost traction on a curve and we had a low impact crash into a vehicle heading in the opposite direction. Luckily, nobody was hurt but we did have to wait for police to come and fill out a report. By the time we left, more than two hours later, we were all thoroughly chilled to the bone.

Rila Monastery. Originally built in the 10th century, this beautiful monastic residence is tucked away in the Rila Mountains, more than two hours from Sofia. It was built by the students of St. Ivan of Rila who lived in a nearby cave, with no possessions, for many years. The church has numerous vivid depictions of the book of Revelations. The setting is serene and breathtaking.

In search of a skating rink. Heidi and I had hoped to complete our day-tour of Sofia with a nice time on the outdoor skating rink in a park on the outskirts of the city center. We found the park easily enough, but we had no idea that the park was so huge. By the time we found the sheet of ice, more than an hour later, we were cold, miserable and in no mood to skate.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Planned exactly 100 years (to the day) before my birth, this is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world, with the capacity to hold 10,000 people inside. It is adorned with beautiful murals and an impressive iconostasis (which we weren't allowed to photograph).

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Istanbul: Where Asia Meets Europe (Literally)

Tourist Sites

Istanbul is, if nothing else, a Mecca of tourist sites. And, it really is no wonder. Divided between Asia and Europe the city is truly a cultural crossroads, and has played home to many different ethnic group and religions.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka The Blue Mosque).
Built at the beginning of the 17th century, this enormous edifice is still a functioning mosque, although it is overrun with shoeless tourists much of the day. It is popularly known as The Blue Mosque due to the beautiful tiles on which line the interior walls. It is only a stone's throw from Hagia Sofia.

Hagia Sophia. Dedicated in AD 360 this impressive structure as served as served as both an
Orthodox and Roman Catholic Cathedral, as well as a mosque. Today it is open to the public as a museum and for 20 New Turkish Lira you, too, can marvel at its wonder. When the place was converted to a mosque the old Orthodox mosaics were only plastered over, and not destroyed. As such, a number of them have been uncovered and are visible again today. Some of the enormous interior pillars are now crooked, but large exterior buttresses support the weight enough that the entire joint doesn't collapse.

Topkapı Palace.
Completed in the mid-15th century, this enormous palace served as the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly four decades...and it comes with all of the distractions necessary to keep him occupied: a royal harem, relics of many Muslim prophets, and the keys (and rain spouts) from the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam.
The treasury shows off the richest of the royal booty, including the Spoonmaker's Diamond (which was recovered from a trash heap), the Topkapi Dagger, illuminated pages of the Koran and some intricately designed, and extremely ornate, flintlock weapons. And the aspiring Ottoman prince can head on over to the circumcision room for the ancient rite of passage. (You have no idea how grateful I am that this is performed shortly after birth.)

Istiklal & Galip Dede.
It is said that these two famous Istanbul streets see more than 3 million visitors on a given weekend day, and it's no wonder. The former is a huge pedestrian mall lined with familiar retail shops, as well as cute local boutiques. Dede is a narrow extension thereof and is full of little shops filled with stringed instruments, including violins, mandolins and the obligatory guitars. Also, one can find some souvenir items, including beautiful lights or hand-decorated plates, all without the hassle of the Grand Bazaar.

Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest, and oldest, covered bazaars in the world. Spanning 58 streets and more than 4,000 shops, it is quite an impressive place. Sadly, it is also home to a number of rather persistent, if not downright pushy, salespeople. As such, Heidi and I cruised through this tourist trap, taking little time to admire the lamps, rugs, tea sets, jewelry and Turkish Delight for sale.


If you come to Turkey expecting to get cheap eats, think again. Sure, it can be done, but this a place where the people take great pride in their food.
As our hotel was situated in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia, most of the nearby restaurants catered to foreigners, with waiters speaking a respectable amount of English, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and, no doubt, even some Japanese and German too. One night we got our grub in a place where there were five tables occupied by people from five different countries, none of which was Turkey.

The food itself is colorful and tasty. From spinach
dishes to kebabs, Turkish pides to traditional döner sandwiches, not to mention lentil soup and pomegranate juice, the Turks take their cuisine seriously and know how to whip up a good meal. Add some apple tea in a traditional glass, or even some salep and you've got the perfect excuse to sit around the table with great company for a little longer than necessary. Top it off with some baklava or freshly made Turkish Delight and you're in Heaven!

Cultural Experiences.

For my birthday, I made Heidi try out two things she might not otherwise be terribly enthusiastic about: hit up a Turkish Bath and have some nargile. Like I always say, when in Rome...

Turkish Bath. I picked a hamam on the Asian side of Istanbul for a few reasons. First, I thought it would be cheaper, less touristy (and, thus, more authentic) and it gave us an excuse to cross the Bosphorus and go into Asia, as the continent wasn't really a part of our itinerary otherwise. Heidi and I entered the Azizye Hamam through the gender-specific entrances, agreeing to meet back in about 90 minutes.

I walked in to a common room with a bunch of men sitting around, all wrapped in
peştemals, a traditional wrap with a plaid pattern. I was immediately identified as a foreigner and directed, via hand signals (as English was not spoken there), to a small room with a bed where I disrobed and put on my peştemal. When I emerged my tellak (masseur) directed me to a room with marble floors, walls lined with wash basins and a raised and tiled platform in the center of the room, known as the belly stone. I was instructed to lie down on said stone, but it was too hot to the touch and had to wait for my tellak to return with another piece of cloth to serve as a barrier between the scorching stone and delicate dermis, as another guy chuckled at my reaction. After some time my guy returned and motioned for me to follow him.

We entered another room, where a large naked man with soap suds covering his entire frame was being scrubbed down by another tellak. I sat down and my manservant lathered me up, thankfully avoiding the area covered by my cloth (showing respect and awareness of my foreign modesty). After I was all full of suds, I got a quick massage and was rinsed off. Next he put on a rough mitt and forcefully scrubbed my skin, dead chunks balling up everywhere. Another rinse, more soap (this time getting dangerously close to the "inner sanctum") and a final rinse. I followed that up with some alone time in a steamy sauna, showered off and returned to my one-bed room, where another guy (the yanaşma) toweled me off and wrapped a second around my head. I got dressed, had some tea, paid up, and was on my way, leaving with some very soft skin.

Nargile. This is, basically, a big water pipe with flavored tobacco in a bowl, which is topped with very hot coals. As the user draws from the pipe the smoke is cooled by the water and inhaled. As it was my 32nd birthday, I convinced Heidi to give it a go too. When in Rome and all...

I chose apple flavor fro a wide assortment of choices. It was smooth and tasty. Heidi tried it, didn't gag, and pondered the point of the entire exercise. We played Checkers and, after a few more puffs, both became slightly light-headed. As the coals grew cold a man came around and changed them out with hot red ones. The thing seemed to burn endlessly. Then, our heads began to ache, no doubt from the smoke, mine slightly and hers pounding. She took the rubber match in Checkers and we left for fresh air and ibuprofen.

USA Day. Being on the road so long, it is nice to take the occasional day to enjoy the creature comforts of home. So, we took a day off from the standard sightseeing and strolled through a Western mall, grubbed at the fanciest Pizza Hut I have ever seen and took in The Fighter (a pretty good flick) at the theater. We topped the day off by picking up the final installment of the Harry Potter series, of which Heidi has read the other six, while I have only sampled the penultimate novel. It was a nice escape from, what can be, a grueling travel schedule.