...and we're off!

taking a year of pretirement to travel the world

on may 23, 2013, we quit our jobs and began our year of "pretirement." these are some of our adventures around the world.

prague, nuremberg and dublin

When we arrived in Prague on Friday evening we were reminded that winter was coming fast. We hadn’t been this far north since Belgium over five weeks ago and we regretted only bringing light jackets. Thankfully we weren’t in the cold long because our airbnb host, in what we discovered was typical Czech fashion, gave us extremely detailed directions to the apartment along with maps, train times, and costs in a 7-page word document.

We got to the apartment around dinnertime and were thoroughly impressed. We had a newly renovated studio apartment to call home for the next five nights, and the location was perfect. It was in a very cool up-and-coming neighborhood away from all the tourists that is probably something like the East Village in the early 1990s. There were tons of great little bars and restaurants in the area (some very nice and some sketchy) that made us feel like locals. On the other hand, I think there was a drug house a few doors down so we usually walked up from the west at night. The best part about the neighborhood was the architecture—the streets were lined with classic Czech pre-war apartment buildings that had fallen into disrepair and are presently being restored one by one. It was a treat to wake up in the morning and just walk around the area.

We asked our host to recommend a restaurant for us that we could walk to without freezing. He sent us to a place called Lavicka, and by the time we walked out of the restaurant we both wanted to move here. Lavicka was one of the nicer neighborhood restaurants, casual but high-quality, and it was amazingly cheap for how good it was. A delicious roasted duck dish with Czech dumplings and sides could be had for less than $10. It was the same story for the rest of our time in Prague—I don’t think we had a single disappointing meal.

The next morning we went down to Wenceslas Square to orient ourselves and see the more touristy old city. I tried to grab a quick bite at a sausage stand but the Czech sausage turned out to be a full meal for about $2.50. Fine with me. The long, thin plaza was lined with beautiful old buildings and a large museum on one end. It’s hard to imagine that nearly a half million people got together here to overthrow the communist regime in 1989. The nearby old city was a maze of centuries-old buildings that are interesting to see but are now filled with very touristy shops and restaurants. If you need a “Prague Drinking Team” T-shirt it’s never more than ten steps away. We still enjoyed walking around here, and especially liked walking along the river. The light rain and autumn colors made for a relaxing Saturday afternoon. That night we decided to pick up some absinthe (they sell the good stuff here) but it felt like liquid fire on the way down. I didn’t mind too much and Carla even managed a few drinks. We capped off the night by grabbing beers at an awesome little bar around the corner that only fit a couple dozen locals in their mid-20s, talking over dim wooden tables.

Speaking of beer, pivo is practically a way of life for Czechs. There are many types, from black to wheat to pilsner, but nothing too outlandish because the point is to drink it in quantity. They’re all good. All restaurants offer beer in small (11oz) or large (half liter) sizes, with the large going for a little over a buck. Men invariably order the large size and women often do as well. You’re likely to see plenty of guys drinking a large, strong beer any time of day, even at breakfast. After noon the beer flows freely and waiters will automatically bring you a new half liter whenever your glass is empty unless you go out of your way to tell them not to. You have to make it very clear that you’re done if you want to do much of anything after lunch.

We spent the rest of our time in Prague walking around the different neighborhoods and parks, admiring the baroque architecture and taking in the culture. The Vltava River is lined with tall, wooded hills on both sides, making Prague a particularly scenic city. Petrinske and Letenske parks were especially impressive, with forested areas and tree-lined walkways that reminded us of Central Park. When we got too cold there was always a cozy little café nearby where we could read or work on the blog.

Our timing was also very lucky because Carla’s friend Sally, who we visited in Portland in July, happened to be at a wedding in Germany that same week. She and her girlfriend Emili were in Frankfurt so we decided to meet halfway in Nuremberg on Monday. This would also give us a chance to see the autumn Czech countryside and experience the German Autobahn first hand. After some struggles extricating ourselves from Prague in morning rush hour we were zipping through the hills of western Bohemia. Unfortunately it was a little foggy but the country was still beautiful. We met Sally and Emili at an authentic beer hall called Hutt’n and enjoyed some delicious Bavarian beers and Nuremberg sausage goulash. The four of us spent the afternoon wandering around the old city and checking out its uniquely German streets and plazas. The impromptu meeting in Germany was a very pleasant surprise.

The most memorable part of the day might have been the drive home, but for all the wrong reasons. First we accidentally took a wrong turn on the Autobahn, which funneled us into some stoplight-ridden town well south of where we wanted to be. When we finally got on the right track, we would have to race against the clock to make it back to Prague before the rental car place closed. But it was the Autobahn after all, meaning the speed limit wasn’t as much of an issue as the little rental’s horsepower. We knew we needed gas but figured there would be plenty of gas stations through this rural but well-developed area. As we drove through eastern Bavaria and night fell the gas tank dipped lower and lower. We must have went 70 km without seeing a gas station and we started to get very nervous. With 15 km left in the tank we pulled off the highway thinking that the next little town must have a gas station somewhere. We wound our way through a very old hillside village at dusk with no luck. All thoughts of getting the car back on time were out the window—we just didn’t want to be stranded on the road overnight in Germany. To make matters worse, we were not supposed to have taken the car out of the Czech Republic (shhh). We found a lone man on the street who gave us somewhat complicated directions to a gas station that was still open in a different town. The gauge said we had 12 km left in the tank and the town was 8 km away—one (more) wrong turn would have meant game over. But we finally had luck on our side and the little Skoda made its final push into the gas station. The cherry on top was that the rental place stayed open an extra hour. We threw the keys to our smiling attendant and headed home, ready for a good night’s sleep.

As much as any other city we’ve visited, Prague captured our hearts. It’s a city with a rich and varied history that is still pulling itself out of the shadow of communism while keeping its socially progressive legacy. I now understand a little better where the adjective “bohemian” comes from. Prague is a place for intimate conversations over pivo, often times with pot smoke in the air (it’s practically legal here), and strong political views. Just ask the artist who floated a giant middle finger statue down the river on a barge shortly after we left, pointed at the president's office.

Wednesday morning we packed up and caught our flight to Dublin, where we would spend our last night in Europe. We were both pretty sad that the first overseas chapter of our pretirement was over with, so we consoled ourselves with some cold Guinness at a popular little pub near Trinity College. At the same time, were looking forward to getting our feet back on US soil and spending a week in our own home.

// total eurotrip:  14 flights, 5 buses, 6 trains, 4 ferries, 4 road trips, 14 countries 

italy

Tuesday morning found us awkwardly sprawled across the seats of the Split - Ancona overnight ferry. After attempting to watch the sunrise over the Adriatic Sea (it was more like a slow change from all black to all foggy grey) we got into the Italian spirit by crowding the exit along with the rest of the jostling and gesturing passengers. We had both spent time in Italy before-- Carla spent several months here studying-- so we only allowed ourselves three days there before our flight to Prague. We had originally meant to spend a night somewhere in small-town Italy before heading to Rome but given the rainy, cold forecast and tight timeline we decided to just take the direct train from Ancona to Rome. 

Once off the boat in Ancona we trekked a couple miles across town to the train station only to learn that the next train to Rome left in about five hours. It was hard to be frustrated when I realized that meant I'd "have" to spend an entire Tuesday morning hanging out in a coffee shop in Italy, reading and going through travel photos. We first decided to walk around the neighborhood and see what Ancona was all about but, unfortunately, there wasn't much aside from nondescript buildings and somewhat dirty streets. A few hours and several espressos later we were on the way to Rome.

We arrived in Rome early that evening after spending the afternoon riding through the beautiful, mountainous and rainy Italian countryside. Paolo, our airbnb host for the next three nights, met us at the station and gave us keys to his place. We would be spending our nights in his bedroom while he slept on the couch. The pre-war apartment was very cool, with high ceilings and a balcony overlooking the sleepy Roman neighborhood. After a whirlwind 36 hours of travel originating in Dubrovnik, Croatia the morning before we decided to kick back at the local wine bar on our residential street. The wine was delicious (and cheap) and the friendly waitress sent us home with a couple of underpriced recommendations.

The next two days were mostly spent walking around the city and taking in as many sights as possible in our limited time. Our first stop was the Capuchin Crypt, an overwhelming and chilling work of art-- the medium being thousands of exhumed human skeletons. There is an indescribable feeling standing under a ceiling decoration made of identical shoulder blades, several hundred years old, or a seemingly never-ending stack of skulls. If nothing else, it’s a different way to look at human life. Photos are not allowed but we have included one from National Geographic. Other notable sights included the spectacular Trevi Fountain, impossibly intact Pantheon and the ruins of the Roman Forum. Rome is one of the few cities in the world that is a bustling modern city and a museum in itself at the same time. You will find yourself wandering down a side street looking for good pizza and the next corner will open up into a plaza that has been a city gathering place since London was a provincial backwater. We also enjoyed just walking around our city neighborhood and taking in daily life, among beautiful boulevards and miniature cars that buzz around like flies.

Of course, no description of Rome would be complete without the food. New Yorkers tend to be strangely arrogant about their pizza, which is more ubiquitous than it is good. Rome, on the other hand, turns out excellent pizza for a few bucks a slice at just about any busy bakery. We stuffed ourselves twice on perfectly done truffle oil and mushroom pizza, cut from a giant slab fresh out of the oven just two doors down from our apartment. We were also lucky enough to stumble across a busy restaurant on Wednesday afternoon that we later found out is a well-known local favorite (Paolo congratulated us). The ricotta with truffled honey and arugula appetizer was as good as it gets.

On our last day we spent a long afternoon sitting at a sidewalk cafe and working on the blog. That is, Carla worked on the blog and I completed a bottle of wine and read Thomas Pynchon's V. That night, we sought out some good pasta and met a friendly couple from Boston at the table next to us. After talking to Chris and Frank over dinner, we all went out to a nearby bar (recommended to me by a friend) and drank for a few more hours. Afterwards, Carla and I stopped by the lit-up Trevi fountain for one last look. We would have loved to spend more time in Italy but we were both excited to see Prague for the first time the next day.

 // eurotrip to date: 11 flights, 5 buses, 6 trains, 4 ferries, 3 road trips, 12 countries

A violinist, guitarist, and accordion player performing in Piazza Navona.

hvar and a balkan road trip

from split we took the ferry to the island of hvar. it was a friday afternoon, and the sun was shining brightly as we pulled into the harbor. our airbnb host alessandro picked us up and drove us up the hill to our apartment. usually it goes for around $200 a night during the summer, but we got it for a steal at $35 because it was low season. as soon as we walked through the door, we immediately decided to book a second night. the place was huuuge! the main balony spanned both the living room and bedroom and offered a fantastic view of the bay. the shower even had those awesome jets that massage your whole body! we were really looking forward to hanging out in hvar for the weekend. that evening we took one of the many narrow, winding staircases up the hill and made it to the castle just in time to watch the sunset. then we wandered around town, hoping to find a fun bar to check out. normally the town is packed with ridiculously attractive people dancing and drinking the night away at one of the myriad clubs and bars along the harbor, but hvar's split personality was showing its quiet side this friday night.

the next day it was too cold and drizzly to go boating, so we rented a scooter instead and decided to explore the island’s less-frequented parts. i'd never ridden one before, so trying it out on a rainy day over mountainous terrain was quite a memorable first experience. we took the old road from hvar to stari grad and enjoyed the incredible sea views as we climbed steadily to some of the highest points on the island. we passed through the old stone village of brusje and marveled at the many criss-crossing stone terraces that dotted the lavender fields on the way to stari grad. after heading up for awhile we eventually had to get down, and that ended up being an exhilarating and slightly terrifying ride. there were a few unprotected drops as we slowly made our way down the steep, sloping sides of the island, and the cold rain whipping our faces didn't help. when we finally reached stari grad, we warmed up with some tea and a nice, cozy lunch. our day of exploring ended with a delicious seafood dinner at a restaurant our friend recommended to us. ever the gracious host, alessandro saw us walking down the street and offered to drive us there. turns out he was friends with the chef, and soon we were taking silly photos and taking shots of a mystery liquor!

we took the ferry back to split the next morning and decided to spend the next 36 hours driving down the coast. our rental car turned out to be tiny stick-shift van. our first stop was the port town of omis, which was recommended to us by the front desk girl at our hostel in zagreb. situated at the point where the cetina river meets the adriatic sea, omis’ towering cliffs and gorgeous canyon make it perfect for adventure-seekers. had the weather been warmer, i would’ve tried to make alex go white-water rafting with me. after a quick coffee we continued our drive, admiring the changing coastline. we even passed through bosnia for five minutes, although the next day would be our chance to experience more of it. we arrived in dubrovnik at dusk and checked into our surprisingly spacious bed-and-breakfast run by a sweet old woman. alex had never been before, so we wandered around the old town and marveled at how well-preserved the fortress walls were. it was fun getting lost in the hidden passageways away from the crowded main streets. there are some amazing little apartments there that we’d love to rent someday!

monday morning was an early one, since we had a full day ahead of us. our plan was to take the coastal road to montenegro, cross into bosnia via the mountains, then take the highway back to split and return the car in time to catch the overnight ferry to ancona, italy. it was a bit ambitious, but since we were in the car by 8am, time was (seemingly) on our side. after a couple of hours we crossed the border into montenegro – a country i can honestly say i never thought i’d visit, but am very glad i did. it was a drizzly day, which didn’t make for the best road conditions but did give the gulf of kotor an eerily calm ambience. the old city of kotor is one of the best preserved medieval towns in the adriatic, and its beautiful venetian architecture is just one of the reasons why it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. ironically, we ended up in a cuban-inspired café full of young, hipster locals. from there we headed towards bosnia, leaving the pretty coastline for the rugged black mountains from which montenegro gets its name. very quickly we ascended the mountains and were treated to a spectacular view of the gulf. it was a thrill being in a place that suddenly felt very deserted and far from civilization. some of the leaves had started to turn shades of red and yellow, which stood out against the gray skies and otherwise dark forest.

we eventually reached the bosnian border, where we were held up for a good twenty minutes. the car in front of us was searched very thoroughly by the police as the two passengers stood around waiting. we tried to make out why, but the license plate didn’t tell us where the men were from. we decided they must either be serbian or have some sort of record, or both. the animosity between the various countries still seemed very palpable. in that moment, we felt lucky to be carrying US passports. once that ordeal was over with, we drove to trebinje and stopped for lunch. the town itself was very quiet and seemed a bit dismal, but the restaurant we ate at was busy, and our waiter was friendly and eager to practice his english on us. after our meal, it was back on the road and time to speed towards split. throughout our drive to the croatian border there were several bombed or burned-out buildings and shells of homes and offices that once stood there – a sad reminder of the brutal war in the early nineties.

by the time 6:30pm rolled around, we had just crossed back into croatia. it was dark, we were still in the mountains, and the major highway we were relying on was nowhere to be found yet. with our car due back at 8pm, we were getting a bit nervous. thankfully the roads weren't too bad and there weren't any cops, because as soon as we found the freeway, alex gunned it for a good chunk of the way back. our little minivan was doing 90mph on the newly opened highway, darting past what few lost souls were also on the road. miraculously, we made it back to split with just enough time to drop off the car and board our ferry. we were italy-bound!

// eurotrip to date: 11 flights, 5 buses, 5 trains, 3 ferries, 3 road trips, 11 countries

zagreb and split

Bright and early Tuesday morning we said goodbye to Istanbul and caught our flight to Zagreb, the first stop in Croatia. Like many visitors, we really only found ourselves in Zagreb because it’s easier than flying directly to the coastal region. Despite being the capital of the country, neither of us had heard anything about Zagreb before so we had no idea what it would be like. We decided to stay a night and check it out.

Our hostel was located in a standard city neighborhood that clearly does not see many tourists. After spending time in places like Goreme and Dalyan, which may have more foreigners than locals, this was a bit of a relief. We knew we were off the beaten path when we stepped into our first restaurant, frequented by older beer drinkers, and ate a solid three course meal for about $3.75 each. I glimpsed the cook in the kitchen picking meat off the bone and switching between putting pieces on the plate and into her mouth like “one for me, one for you.” We spent the rest of the day walking around the city and trying to get a feel for life in Zagreb. We ultimately came away impressed with how modern the city feels, with an excellent tram system, bustling streets and well-landscaped parks, despite some still-crumbling architecture even in the best parts of town. Unfortunately the country’s dysfunction is also evident as almost nobody pays for the trams that are supposed to cost about $2 per ride. We capped off the night with a heavy Eastern European feast at a nice restaurant including several drinks and dessert, running us what a budget restaurant in NYC might cost. We were very glad we decided to spend a day here and would have been happy to spend more time checking out bars, visiting museums and learning about the area’s unique recent history.

The next morning we caught an early bus to Split, which is the country’s second-largest city set beautifully on the Dalmatian coast. Since gaining independence in the early ‘90s Croatia has focused on its infrastructure, putting together a beautiful new freeway that connects all of its major cities and is still being extended today. With a speed limit of 130 km/h (81 miles per hour) the drive can now be done in less than four hours.

We stayed two nights in Split in a perfect little airbnb apartment just outside the tourist district. Our neighborhood was several centuries old with streets too narrow for cars but it was all houses—it still had all of its local charm. We spent most of our time wandering around the old walled city (dating back to the 4th century AD) and sitting on the riva, the open walkway along the harbor. Split is set on a peninsula that juts out from a tall ridge of limestone mountains, making a stunning backdrop for the unique architecture and Adriatic Sea. The city seems to be built for relaxing on a sunny day and watching the sun set over the sea, which it actually kind of is. The city began as the (ridiculously large) retirement home for a Roman emperor called Diocletian. The “palace” was so large that it was a walled city in itself for hundreds of years.

On our second day in Split we started off with cheese burek from a small bakery then climbed up to Marjan Park for panoramic views of the city. To our surprise, there was a little zoo in the middle of the park, complete with monkeys, ostriches, bears and more. That night we ate a delicious seafood meal at a small restaurant that only uses fresh-caught ingredients, so the menu changes daily. The owner / chef makes the meals right in front of you in an open kitchen so it feels like she’s having you over for dinner. That is, until a group of eight Chinese tourists show up to dine with you. I’d heard since arriving that Croatian wine was underrated and cheap, so we bought a good bottle of wine from a local shop and capped off the day relaxing in our little apartment. The next afternoon we were off to Hvar, an island off the coast, to begin the second half of our Balkan trip.

 // eurotrip to date: 11 flights, 5 buses, 5 trains, 1 ferry, 2 road trips, 9 countries 

cappadocia and dalyan

despite our best intentions, we wound up staying out late our last night in istanbul, which made our 5am wakeup call even more brutal. it was time to head west to the region of cappadocia. alex, sandy, and i groggily set off for taksim square to catch the bus to the airport. we flew to kayseri and decided to rent a car since the roads in the area are easy to navigate. the stop signs are pretty great, too. 

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from kayseri it was an hour-and-a-half to goreme, a small town at the heart of the region. as we got closer and the terrain started to change, we marveled at how uniquely alien-like the rock formations were. millions of years of erosion had whittled the soft rock into "fairy chimneys", and the result was unlike anything we'd ever seen.

after a few wrong turns and some crafty maneuvering up a steep, narrow road, we finally made it to our hotel. for about $90 between the three of us, we found ourselves in an awesome junior suite built into the rock. we were going to be staying in a cozy cave for the next two nights! excited but exhausted, we walked down to town and had a leisurely meal, then promptly went back to our little rock house to catch a few zzz's. we woke up just in time for a free hike around rose valley. our hotel-host-turned-fearless-guide ali set a very brisk pace as he gave us a tour of the old churches and pigeon houses carved into the rock so many centuries ago. we eventually made it to the top of a large rock just in time to watch the sun set over goreme's craggy skyline. we of course came prepared with two bottles of local wine stuffed in our backpack! the other hikers were very pleased with our resourcefulness. that night we ate at topdeck restaurant, which, contrary to its name, is actually carved into the rock. the owners were friendly, chatty, and eager to please. we also made fast friends with thomas, a former priest who was staying at our hotel and happened to be dining at the same time. we waved him over and enjoyed great conversation over a delicious meal and superb cappadocian wine.

the next morning sandy and i got up a little before 5am (for the second day in a row!) to check out the region via hot air balloon. it was the morning of alex's birthday, so part of my gift to him was making it back in one piece! there we were, looking out from a giant basket in the sky with 92 other balloons and floating over these fantastic rock formations during sunrise. at one point the sun was high enough where the balloons were casting shadows all over the rock faces. that was one of my favorite moments. over the course of an hour, we floated 13.5km and at one point climbed to a height of 690m. it was an unforgettable morning.

the rest of the day was spent exploring the open air museum, a world heritage site and cluster of churches and monasteries that date back to as early as the 10th century. these unlikely chapels and homes were dug into the rock by persecuted christians. the frescoes painted on the ceilings of the rock churches were especially stunning; since little sunlight got in, the art was well-preserved and in pristine condition. after lunch, we drove to uchisar castle and climbed to the top, the call to prayer echoing across the valley. when we got back, we surprised alex with a gourmet birthday cake courtesy of the hotel. it was perfect. we took him out to a really nice dinner at seten restaurant to celebrate, and had the best wine on the menu to boot! the meal ended with an invitation from our waiter to go out with him and his friends in town. it made for a memorable birthday night complete with drinks, backgammon (my new game obsession since we couldn't bring catan with us), and a midnight drive to a lookout point near love valley, where we blasted music from the car and danced around in the moonlight.

the next day we said goodbye to sandy and so long to the wonderful staff of divan cave house. we did a very brief tour of the underground city in kaymakli (it's 8 floors deep!) before getting creeped out and driving back to kayseri. that night we caught a 14-hour overnight bus to dalyan on the southern coast - which, for $35, was quite fancy and comfortable. once again, we were blown away by the natural beauty surrounding us when we arrived. dalyan is a small fishing town that sits on the dalyan river. a short boat ride away sits iztuzu beach, home to the many loggerhead sea turtles who lay their eggs there. it's a nice 50-min walk from one end to the other; the beach is a beautiful boomerang-shaped stretch of soft sand surrounded by mountains. we spent 3 1/2 days in dalyan relaxing by the pool, beach, and riverside. if you go, stay at the BC spa hotel. the wood and stone architecture is simple yet stunning, and the picture-perfect amenities make it a great place to relax. we also stumbled upon a hidden hookah garden which quickly became our favorite night spot. the owner was kind and attentive, always making sure we had fresh hot coals for our hookah. we went twice, and the first time we spent the whole night laughing, chatting, and making friends with an adorable older couple from belfast.

on our last day in dalyan, we took a little rowboat across the river and walked to the ancient ruins of kaunos. on the way there, we stopped to admire the tombs carved into the cliff, which date back to the 9th century BC and are remarkably preserved. that afternoon we flew back to istanbul where we'd be catching a flight to zagreb, croatia. our time in turkey was up! i'm pretty sure i said "wow" more times in the ten days we spent here than i have my entire life. i'd always wanted to visit turkey but could not have imagined how fascinating and beautiful it turned out to be.

 // eurotrip to date: 10 flights, 4 buses, 5 trains, 1 ferry, 2 road trips, 8 countries 

istanbul

We arrived at the Istanbul airport around sunset Friday night. The hour-long bus ride in showed us a dense, seemingly never ending metropolis that we didn’t quite expect. I’d recently learned that Istanbul is home to 13.9 million people, not much smaller than the NYC metro area. From the elevated highway we saw multiple clusters of skyscrapers, neon signs, and buildings pressed tight against the highway that were more reminiscent of Tokyo or New York than anywhere in Europe. We got off the bus in Taksim Square and, after reading about all the protesting, tear-gassing and tent-burning that recently took place there, we were very curious and a little nervous. We walked into the square a saw a lot of… nothing. Taksim Square on this night was a huge expanse of blank concrete and little else. After spending time in public spaces like Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green and Barcelona’s Plaza de Catalunya, Taksim Square was a little disappointing. That this is what people are fighting to save says a lot about the dire lack of public space in Istanbul.

After an attempted ripoff by our first cab driver (standard), we came to the neighborhood where we would be renting an apartment. Our place was just down the street from Galata Tower—a beautiful 14th century watchtower that is illuminated at night—in a bustling, trendy area full of young people. The open square around Galata Tower was a Friday night destination for quite a few people to meet up with friends and have a few Efes beers. After settling in and grabbing some quick durum for dinner (ubiquitous and disappointing shawarma wraps), we decided to wander the windy streets and see what a weekend night in Istanbul looked like. Before we knew it we were on literally the busiest pedestrian street either of us had ever seen. Istiklal Avenue is wide enough to be a major thoroughfare for cars and trams but instead it is 100% full of people, about 21 hours a day, every day. Most of the street is lined with teenagers hanging out behind formidable clusters of empty beer cans, and tourists and locals alike come here to party, shop or just people-watch. Along Istiklal you can find everything from fancy restaurants with New York prices and thumping nightclubs to hookah lounges full of backgammon players and kids selling questionable oysters off tables in the street. We were stunned at the sheer energy packed into this one Istanbul street. When we finally turned in we were completely exhausted, having driven from Sibiu, Romania, along the gorgeous (and high-stress) Transfagarasan Highway to Bucharest, flying to Istanbul, and exploring our new neighborhood all in the same day. Instead of sleeping we might have actually died for nine hours.

The next morning we set off to explore Beyoglu, the district where we were staying. This is the less old, more cosmopolitan part of the city (Galata Tower is “just” 650 years old) and it was full of leafy streets, coffee shops, restaurants and galleries. It was the perfect location for us to experience an interesting inner city neighborhood while still an easy walk to the major sights in the historic district. That night, Carla’s friend Sandy arrived at the apartment to join us for our next several days in Turkey. This was a completely spontaneous reunion that started with Carla’s offhand Facebook invitation at Dracula’s castle and ended with an awesome five days of exploring Turkey as a group. Carla and Sandy used to work together and quit the very same week for the sake of not working. Sandy had moved back to Lebanon, where she is from, and was able to find a cheap ticket to join us in Istanbul on short notice. We celebrated her arrival by trying one of the hookah lounges on Istiklal Avenue. At about 3:30 AM, after sharing two big hookahs, we were surprised to see Istiklal was still just as busy as it was at midnight. People were a little drunker and the crowd was a little younger but the street still had plenty of life left in it. I’d be surprised if it started clearing out before 6 or 7 AM that Saturday night.

On our third day in Istanbul we finally decided to check out the old city in the Golden Horn. Our first stop was the Hagia Sophia, an absolutely breathtaking testament to the power and ingenuity of earlier civilizations. The building was originally a cathedral built in the 6th century and was subsequently converted into a mosque. Today it is more of a monument and museum, with both Christian and Muslim aspects. Stepping into the main chamber you immediately slow down and your eyes float upwards toward the high windows and the dizzying unsupported dome. The idea that this beautiful, seemingly impossible feat of engineering was created almost 1500 years ago seems to stun visitors into silence. The fact that 900 year-old gold leaf mosaics (amazingly preserved) were completed 600 years after the construction of the building emphasizes how ancient the building is. Next we went to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. This was equally stunning in a very different way. The exterior is a perfectly symmetrical stack of well-placed domes and towers creating an architectural masterpiece of the early 1600s. This competes with Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and Milan’s Duomo as the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. The inside was just as interesting as the outside. Sultan Ahmet Mosque is known as the Blue Mosque because the interior is covered in intricate blue tiles that create the feeling of standing inside a work of art. Combined with the stained glass windows and cavernous archways, this mosque seems to have the opposite effect of the Hagia Sophia. Instead of reverent silence, the crowded visitor area is full of people frantically taking pictures and exclaiming about details of the interior.

On our last day in Istanbul we decided to take the much-recommended (and cheap) Bosphorous boat tour. This was a 90-minute cruise along the strait that separates Europe from Asia and connects the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The boat ride really illustrates how large Istanbul is—after 45 minutes of heading northeast along the European side you realize you’re finally just about in the geographic center of the city, with countless high rises looming on all sides. Afterwards, Carla and Sandy spent the afternoon shopping at the crowded Grand Bazaar (I got my fill of this in Morocco’s medinas) while I wandered around Beyoglu and watched the locals at Galata Tower.

The three of us left the apartment at about 5:30 AM Tuesday morning in order to make an early flight to Cappadocia. We walked down Istiklal Avenue one last time on our way to the bus and, for the first time that we had seen, the street was finally clear. There were still a few Monday night drinkers and plenty of bakeries getting started for Tuesday, meaning Istiklal is never entirely quiet.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Istanbul but I was certainly surprised by this city. It is one of the world’s haphazard dense sprawls that, much like New York, Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo, seems to have about twice as many people as it knows what to do with. I love these kinds of places— magnets for an entire country that seem to draw many of the most interesting people. Certain areas felt very European (including western-style residential architecture and outdoor cafes) while other areas were uniquely Turkish (the fish markets and the Grand Bazaar). This modern city with history measured in millennia is a destination worth exploring.

// eurotrip to date: 8 flights, 3 buses, 5 trains, 1 ferry, 1 road trip, 8 countries 

 

Sandy's first successful hookah - after several attempts! 

romania

the great thing about not planning too far in advance is that it leaves room for surprises. in our quest to find the best route to turkey, romania ended up being the perfect segue. we found a cheap redeye from barcelona to bucharest, and from there it was less than a hundred dollars to fly to istanbul. we were sold!

we arrived in bucharest a little after 4am on tuesday and decided to rent a car and explore transylvania. it was hard to believe we were going to a region that had always seemed so mysterious and far away. alex and i tried to get what little rest we could in the airport before the rental place opened. a few sleepless hours later, we were driving along in our tiny white renault twingo towards brasov. neither of us knew what to expect, and we were both blown away by how beautiful the romanian countryside was. it was a difficult three-hour drive though – not because of the traffic or the roads (which were surprisingly nice) but because of how dead tired we were. alex ended up having to pull over so we could take a quick nap before we finished the drive.

most of the hostels and hotels were located in and around the old part of town, but we thought it’d be interesting to stay a little further out and rent through airbnb. the directions to the apartment were easy to follow, but actually finding the place proved to be a bit challenging. the apartment was in a confusing complex of boxy, somewhat drab-looking concrete buildings. most were gray, a few were shades of pink and green, and each was marked by block number and building number. as we were wandering around trying to find the right one, it was clear that the people around us were surprised to see a couple of foreigners in their neighborhood. although it’s been over twenty years since the collapse of the communist regime and romania’s national treasures are definitely worth seeing, not too many people think to visit or stray far from the touristy bits. we eventually found the apartment—a cute, very spacious one-bedroom that ironically had the fastest internet of all the places we’d been to. at $35 a night, it was also the cheapest! the place belonged to a girl named laura, and from the way she wrote her airbnb description and the books on her shelves, she seemed just as american as she was romanian. then there was her father, who didn’t speak a word of english when he let us into the apartment. like the other older locals we’d encountered, his wrinkled forehead and worn expression seemed to wonder, why are you here?  the contrast between “old” and “new” romania was already quite striking.

after settling in, we spent the rest of the day exploring the old town. to go from the sunny shores of southern spain to the landlocked interior of romania was an interesting change of pace. our first taste of local cuisine was absolutely delicious. we ate at ceasu’ rau, a restaurant i’d read about that was just outside the old center and popular among locals. if you ever make it here, make sure you sit out on the terrace so you can watch the grill master cook everything to perfection. our eyes grew wide when our waiter brought out a generous platter of ribs, chicken schnitzel, and polenta with cottage cheese and fresh cream. with our bellies full and happy we rolled into town, which was built against a backdrop of gorgeous green mountains. the colorful buildings and architecture made for a very picturesque view. brasov even has its own hollywood-esque sign! we paid a visit to the black church – the largest gothic church between vienna and istanbul – and were lucky enough to catch an organ concert there, which was hauntingly beautiful.

the next day we began our tour of the transylvanian region. we drove to bran to check out dracula’s castle, which actually has nothing to do with dracula. legend has it that this was the spot where vlad the impaler (bram stoker’s muse for dracula) was betrayed, but there are differing accounts on whether or not this is accurate. that aside, the castle itself is impressive in all its 14th century glory. after getting stuck in a sheep traffic jam (!!), we drove to sighisoara, another beautiful town which is where vlad the impaler was born. on our way back – and throughout our road trip – we encountered many ridiculously aggressive drivers. this was especially unnerving since it was dark out, which didn’t seem to stop these daring romanians from risking their lives passing 2-3 cars at a time before barely avoiding a slew of oncoming traffic.

sheep traffic jams are way more fun than regular ones. 

thankfully we lived to see another day, which we spent exploring sibiu. at first the city seemed to be completely dead, but as we continued to walk further into the town center, we heard singing and stumbled upon large throngs of people waiting to get into some sort of outdoor show. it turned out that sibiu was hosting the media music awards, which meant we got to hear a bunch of romanian pop, rap, and rock stars perform live! the city also happened to be hosting drivers competing in the rally touristique des alpes – a race which basically involves super wealthy car enthusiasts driving their super amazing classic jaguars and mercedes across the mountains. alex was drooling over a silver 1950s gullwing mercedes easily worth at least $500,000. our night in sibiu ended with alex enjoying the best goulash he’d ever had, and me scoring a pair of sparkly high-top sneakers. the best part was that our meals and purchases all cost what you’d expect to pay back home, except in romanian lei so you get to divide the price by three. definitely my kind of math.

the next day was our last in romania, and it turned out to be the most memorable. after seeing pictures of the ridiculously squiggly transfagarasan highway, we decided we couldn’t leave the country without driving it. the road was built in the early 1970s so the military could have quick access across the carpathian mountains if the soviets ever tried to invade the country. the road is 90km of hairpin twists and turns through the two tallest peaks in romania, so it isn’t hard to believe that forty people died building it. this only built up my excitement and alex’s trepidation for the drive. 

we encountered another traffic jam - this time cows - as we drove towards the mountains. 

within minutes of turning onto the road, we saw the word “hell” painted on the pavement with an arrow pointing in the direction we were headed. awesome. four unforgettable hours later, we were so grateful we kept going. the transfagarasan highway was the most awe-inspiring, breathtaking, and dangerous drive we’d ever done. we climbed to an altitude of 2,034 meters, creeped along the edge of sheer drops with no guardrails overlooking stunning views of the valley, drove through thick fog with hardly any visibility, and came out the other end of a long, snowy tunnel realizing we’d just gone through the tip of a gigantic mountain. 

never a good thing when you can't see what's in front of you on a snow-capped peak...

once we got further down the other side, we ended up getting stuck behind a logging truck and an audi r8. there were also two classic jaguars and a minivan behind us, which made for a very funny rag-tag parade of cars on this tiny, two-lane road. we had become part of the rally touristique des alpes by happy accident! after our heart-stopping drive through the mountains, we made it to the main highway and drove back to bucharest to catch our flight to istanbul. it was a whirlwind tour of an incredibly beautiful region, and we will never forget our adventures in romania.

 // eurotrip to date: 7 flights, 3 buses, 5 trains, 1 ferry, 1 road trip, 7 countries

spain

after an hour-long ferry ride from tangier, we arrived in tarifa, spain on sunday afternoon. only 20 miles of sea separate the two beach cities, yet culturally they are practically polar opposites of each other. after a long wait at passport control, we set down our bags and took in the scene. here, bleached hair and skimpy surfwear replaced head scarves and long pants. when it was time to find our bus, we headed to the tourist information booth, only to find it closed. apparently, it was only open from 10:30am to 1pm every day. yep...we were definitely in spain!

we eventually found the bus station and took a beautiful, winding route through the mountainous coastline to la linea de la concepcion. by the time we checked into our hotel and were ready for a bite to eat, the sun was already setting. the weather was perfect. with the marina and the rock of gibraltar as the backdrop, we were treated to a stunning view! we decided to cross into british territory for the evening and have dinner in gibraltar, where we stumbled upon an action-packed rehearsal for gibraltar national day festivities. the singing and dancing numbers, all in celebration of the territory’s right to self-determination, made for an interesting show of cultural pride on what would have otherwise been a relatively quiet night.

the next morning we took a bus up the eastern coast to the small beach town of torremolinos. we were both looking forward to the laidback culture of spain after being immersed in the lively yet chaotic hustle and bustle of the moroccan medinas. we checked into a lovely resort – a birthday gift from alex – and found ourselves not just next to the sea, but in a sea of older vacationing europeans. for the first time, our pretired selves came face to face with our retired counterparts! it was refreshing to read, nap, and while away the hours listening to the waves. the beach also offered some pretty entertaining people-watching, since most europeans didn't seem to care what they were wearing…or not wearing.

two days later we flew to barcelona a few shades darker. for the next five days, we lived in the most perfect place we could’ve asked for – an amazing penthouse we found through airbnb. it was unlike any apartment you’d find back in the states, mainly because it probably wouldn’t pass the stringent building regulations there. this penthouse was unusual in that it wasn’t on the top floor. it was literally a small house perched on the rooftop of a nine-story apartment complex that overlooked the entire city – from the sea to the mountains, and everything in between. we could watch the sagrada familia being built, right from our window! alex and i were geeking out over how lucky we were. after having spent the last week in a state of constant travel and culture shock, we were excited to spend a good chunk of time in a place that was more familiar. we also didn’t have to worry much about there being a language barrier since alex’s español is pretty good. 

barcelona is one of those cities that’s fun to get lost in. it’s always nice to do your exploring on foot because you get to see the neighborhoods change. our apartment was situated near the neighborhood of vile de gracia, which quickly became one of our favorites. it felt kind of like the east village of barcelona, with its good selection of restaurants, little shops, and fun bars. we found the best patatas bravas there, which is basically a heart attack in a bowl (fried potatoes covered with thick, homemade, spicy mayonnaise). we also loved the architecture of the city. unlike the medinas of marrakech and fes – where the colorful tiles and detailed patterns are only visible from the inside – many of barcelona’s balconies, bay windows, and doors are beautifully ornate and so romantic. and of course, there is gaudi’s distinct style. i loved how whimsical his designs were, and how he incorporated a lot of nature’s patterns and textures into his work. we were blown away by la sagrada familia, la pedrera, and casa batllo. parc guell was also really pretty. barcelona has beautiful, well-manicured parks – including parc de la ciutadella, which is close to the beach. we camped out there after feasting on sandwiches and cava at can paixano, a ridiculously crowded spot that’s popular with both locals and foreigners. those were the best sandwiches of our lives! i had a great time alternating between sips of cava and bites of melted camembert, jamon, and perfectly toasted bread. we went there twice, it was so good. my friend scott gives top-notch recommendations. he also said we had to try quimet y quimet - a tiny, standing-room-only place that's popular among locals. our tastebuds were treated to another memorable meal, this time in the form of seafood tapas. the foodie in me was very, very pleased with what barcelona had to offer.

when it came time to pack our bags and leave, it was hard to say goodbye. not only did we get the chance to relax and take in everything we’d experienced up until that point, we did so in one of our most beloved cities. but we were also excited to move on to places in europe that we weren’t so familiar with. our next adventure was awaiting us in romania!

// eurotrip to date: 6 flights, 3 buses, 5 trains, 1 ferry, 6 countries