Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Holiest Place for Christians in Jerusalem

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Our first day in the Old City of Jerusalem was a somber day retracing the steps of Jesus carrying the cross down the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross), ending at the crucifixion and burial site inside The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church is regarded as the holiest site for Christians around the world. It's one of those places where we would love to return and bring Mike's very devout Christian mother to, who can truly appreciate the significance of this place. (Akiko's mom would also have enjoyed the visit, but she's already in heaven. No need to visit Jerusalem anymore!)

We found a great iPhone app called "Jerusalem Old City Audio Walking Tours" that helped give us perspective on these important landmarks while we walked. As a side note, the app has several wheelchair accessible guided tours!

We know it's not the same as being here, but perhaps you could get a feel for the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross) walk and see the sites inside The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

History of the Holy Land at Israel Museum

Cool artwork at the Israel Museum
Instead of scrambling to the Old City on our first day in Jerusalem, we decided to start our orientation of this Holy place at the Israel Museum.  We felt it was important to get a good understanding of the historical events that have shaped this part of the world since the beginning of time; how all three monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - consider Jerusalem one of the holiest places on earth; and the development of the Israelites and Jews to present.  

Having grown up Christian, the whole experience at the Israel Museum was surreal because we were able to see archeological evidence that corrobates much of the stories we read in the Bible.  Not that we ever doubted the stories, but it brought everything about the inhabitants in this region to life from a non-biblical perspective.  It was neat to see how the Canaanites and Phillistines lived; the emergence of Israelites; inscriptions pertaining to King David and King Solomon; the Romans and King Herod; and how the Jews have gained and lost Jerusalem many times over centuries.  

Safe Arrival in Jerusalem, Israel

With all the current extremist tensions going on in the Middle East, embassy attacks around the world, and Israel ramping up to protect themselves from Iran's nuclear "program", we knew security would be tight at Ben Gurion Tel Aviv Airport. So, we are happy to announce that we safely arrived in Jerusalem without any problems.  In fact it was one of the fastest and smoothest customs, security, and immigration processes.  Of course we landed at midnight and there weren't too many people arriving at that time so that probably helped.  We were pleasantly surprised that there were no lengthy security checkpoints and "interrogations" by the immigration officers.

We were quickly out of the international arrival lobby and on our way to Jerusalem.  We easily found the Nasher Taxi Shuttle service, right outside baggage claims.  These 10-seater vans drop passengers off in front of their home or hotel, 24/7 for 62 shekels/pp.  We got on the one going towards the Bak'a neighborhood of Jerusalem, gave them our address of the apartment rented through Airbnb, and we were on our way!  It's a much better option than taking a taxi for 200-300 shekels.  Although, we've been told that the shuttles sometimes deny taking passengers to the Muslim-based, East Jerusalem addresses.  Knowing this, we made sure to find an apartment in West Jerusalem.  

Jeff, our Airbnb host who is American living in Jerusalem, offered to let us in the apartment when we arrived in the middle of the night.  Isn't that the best service, ever?  Otherwise, we would've had to find a hotel at 2 am, then move to our apartment the next day.  

The studio apartment is very cute, cozy, comfortable, and quiet. It has air-conditioning, a huge plus in this Middle Eastern heat.  We've heard more American English being spoken by residents in this Bak'a neighborhood than we have anywhere else in our entire trip thus far.  It almost feels like home, except that everything is written in Hebrew without a single English translation, so thank goodness people can communicate in English, because we sure can't read anything around here!

Door to our studio apartment on Shimshon Street in Bak'a neighborhood in West Jerusalem.
Lovely private patio outside of our room.  Also a great place for hanging our laundry in this Middle Eastern heat! 
A really nice bike and walking path near the apartment. 
Digging into a falafel sandwich! 

We anticipate an enjoyable stay in Jerusalem! 

Cost: Istanbul for One Week

This is going to be the shortest write-up on our budget thus far.  The app where I keep track of our spending crashed and I lost everything.  I thought I had the data synced to DropBox, but it is unrecoverable, at least by way of just the iPhone or iPad.  

So, this is just a guesstimate but in the 8 days spent in Istanbul, we spent big...waaaay over our allotted $150/day budget.  Even though we found a budget apartment for $68/night, we probably spent an extra $20-30/day on admission fees to attractions that weren't budgeted for.  Food and drink costs, although normal for someone just coming to Istanbul on vacation, felt outrageously high for those of us who have gotten used to cheap food and beers.  We spent double the amount we normally would have on food/drink.  The other major cost was the $350 private market and food tasting tour by a well-known food writer.  It was a worthwhile splurge for us foodies, but a definitely budget buster.  Aside from the overnight train from Sofia to Istanbul, we barely took public transportation in Istanbul so our transportation cost was minimal.

If we sat in our apartment and didn't do any sightseeing, we would've stayed on budget...which would've been ridiculous.  Overall, we think we spent a total of approximately $1760 or $220/day.  Not bad for one of the most touristed (therefore, non-budget) destinations along our round-the-world trip.  

Our next stop, Jerusalem, will be even more costly, but after that, we should make up financial ground when we get to Thailand = cheap.

Friday, September 28, 2012

6th Day in Istanbul: A Private Foodie Tour

What is Ottoman cuisine, you ask?  First, imagine a highly diverse empire that lasted for 500 years, extending all the way from Venice to the west, Hungary to the north, Egypt to the South, and the Middle East.  Imagined being able to incorporate the best culinary practices and bounties from each region into their own unique cuisine.  Also, imagine being situated right in the middle of the spice trade route.  The end result is a complex melting pot of flavors and cooking techniques influenced by India, Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean (think Greek), and Italy. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

5th Day in Istanbul: A GRAND Sight at Aya Sofya and Bazaar

We witnessed two more grandeurs of Istanbul today!  The Aya Sofya (in Turkish) or Hagia Sophia (Greek) -  GRAND display of Byzantine architecture; and the GRAND Bazaar - one of the world's oldest and largest covered markets.

Again, we woke up early to be the first wave of visitors to get into the Hagia Sophia.  The 25 Turkish Lira/pp admission was a bit much, but this is one of the main destinations in Istanbul. You can pay extra for guided tours or rent a headset for a self-guided tour, which probably would've provided a lot more information than just going in, walking around, and taking a few pictures - which is what we did.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cost: Is the Balkans a Budget Traveler's Dream?

We know that everyone spends differently, and a budget can be extremely variable; however, after leaving an area, we want to provide some perspective on the cost associated with staying there for anyone interested in doing a similar trip.  Our budget of $150/day (we started with a lower target range of $100 but we are obviously nowhere close to that!) is for 2 people and does not include the $10,000 round-the-world flights (plus trip insurance) already paid for.  The budget also does not account for the bills we are continuing to pay at home.  The bulk of our budget allows for low-to-mid-range lodging in hostels, budget hotels, or guesthouses for a target of $60/double; meals/drinks; use of public transportation; and cost to do some sightseeing and/or activities.  At $150/day, we have found we are not depriving ourselves from any experiences; except that, as foodies, we aren't as liberal with our budget on finding the best and trendiest restaurants (which we haven't missed at all).  An article titled, "Set Your Daily Number" by the veteran travel bloggers from Married With Luggage confirms that a daily average is a simple strategy for setting and meeting a budget.  We've got in the habit of taking a few minutes to record our daily expenditure so we can make small adjustments along the way.

The least researched part of our itinerary was the Balkans region.  We planned on just "winging it", once we got there.  Therefore, we had no idea what the cost would be to travel through this region.  With a strong Western European influence, we anticipated higher prices; but also hoped for lower costs since these are still emerging countries with less developed tourism. 

The reality?  Reasonable lodging costs, cheap food, bargain wines, and even cheaper beers.  So, we were shocked to discover that we were actually OVER-budget in the Balkans!!  How could that be?  We were so proud of having so many days where we spent less than $150, but apparently the few budget-busting days in Croatia put us over.  Regardless, at an average of $160/day, we fully experienced the Balkans without feeling like we skimped on anything, so it was worthwhile.  

We spent 7 days in Croatia; 4 days in Bosnia and Hercegovina; 3 days in Serbia; 7 days in Macedonia; and 2 days in Bulgaria.  If we were on a stricter budget, we would've limited our time in Croatia to just a couple of days since it was the most expensive place in the Balkans.  Instead, Macedonia was a cheap place to hang out, where we stayed in nice accommodations, ate good meals, and indulged in bottles of wine for hardly anything.  Even the most touristed Lake Ohrid was a steal.  

Overall, the Balkans can be done on a budget even less than ours, and is a great budget destination for an authentic experience in a less traveled region.  

Saturday, September 22, 2012

4th Day in Istanbul: A Photo Journey Through Topkapi Palace Harem

Take a journey of the Topkapi Palace Harem and palace grounds with us through these photos!

Topkapi Palace was first built under the order of Sultan Mehmet II, the Ottoman conqueror of the Byzantines.  The palace, overlooking the Sea of Marmara, was the residence for many generations of Ottoman Sultans for 400 years since 1465.  In the late 19th century, the Sultan's home relocated across the bridge to the more European Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus Strait. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

2nd Day in Istanbul: Full of Really Old Things

We've been seeing a lot of history and ancient things on our travels, but we knew we were REALLY going to see some old and grand things when we got to Istanbul! 

As the center of many empires that have come and gone since the beginning of time, Istanbul offers an overwhelming amount of history and culture.  Ruins from ancient cities share prime real estate with modern buildings.  There are so many ancient artifacts, they are strewn all over the grounds of the archeological museum.  Every structure is a living history and testament to the power and grandeur that ruled this part of the world. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

1st Day in Istanbul: Mostly About the Food

We are so excited to finally be in Instanbul!  As soon as we arrived, we recognized the city immediately with the iconic images of massive domed mosques, sky-high minarets, palaces, bridges, and waterways. 

Despite our excitement, we didn't make it to hardly any famous sights today! No Hagia Sofia, no Blue Mosque, no Topkapi Palace, no museums, no Grand Bazaar.  We did manage to see the Galata Tower, Yeni Mosque, cross the Galata Bridge, and walk through the Egyptian Spice Market, get a view of the Golden Horn islet and the Bosphorus Strait; but the last 24 hours has mostly been about the food.  After 3 weeks of rather uninspiring Balkans cuisine, we are certain the remaining 7 days in Istanbul will continue to be mostly about gorging ourselves with Turkish cuisine! 

A Headache to Deal With Bank Card Fraud While Traveling

We reported back in June that there may have been unauthorized use of one of our bank debit cards we use to withdraw money only (we never use it as a credit card).  After discussing with the claims department, the charges were reversed and the incident never occurred again so we thought it might have been just an honest mistake of wrong account number or something.  (During the same time, we did have a confirmed fraudulent charge on one of our credit cards, which we immediately canceled.  Fortunately, it wasn't one of the cards we are traveling with).  

Fast forward to September.  We recently discovered 2 new unauthorized charges on the same bank debit card and this time, we immediately got it stopped.  Bad news (besides the fraud)? We're now down an ATM card.  Good news?  We carry debit cards for 2 separate accounts so we still have the ability to withdraw money.  Except, when one doesn't work, we don't have a backup debit card.  We've come across this several times on our journey already where one works but the other doesn', we were worried about getting the replacement card quickly.  

What a State Department's Security Warning Looks Like

We aren't traveling in a bubble.  We keep up on the news, and have been just as concerned as everyone else about the recent attacks on United States embassies and angry extremists capable of harming a lot of innocent people.

We are trying to be as safe as we can, being aware of our environment and such; but we have no intention of changing our itinerary unless there is something more compelling, such as news that the State Department is evacuating staff from a country, for example.   

Having said that, one thing we did do was to register our travels through the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  By enrolling, we receive latest security updates and makes it easier for the nearest US embassy or consulate to contact us in an emergency. We're also provided the embassy/consulate address and contact information, including an emergency contact.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sofia, Bulgaria: Our Last Balkans Experience

Sofia, Bulgaria - our last Balkans stay before we head to Istanbul, Turkey!  23 days ago, we blindly crossed the Adriatric, not knowing what to expect.  We found a region less traveled where the past differences continues to influence their hopeful future; where the most serene landscapes are peppered with memories of war and churches of all faiths.  We came out knowing a lot more about this area of the world, and are glad to have met all the kind people who safely helped us across their homeland.

Sofia is the capital city of Bulgaria with all the modern services and finds of a large, cosmopolitan city.  We could tell there's a significant Turkish and Russian influence in this city.  We also hadn't run into too many foreign business people and expatriates for the past 3 weeks until we arrived in Sofia.  We had a nice conversation and several Kamenitza beers with a retired Norwegian expatriate who made his residence in Sofia about 5 years ago.  

The best part about Sofia?  The currency exchange office took our Argentine pesos that nobody else would take!!  They also exchanged our Serbian dinar that the other Balkan countries would not touch.  It felt like a Christmas bonus. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Weirdest Bus Ride from Skopje to Sofia, Ever

On our next journey across the Balkans, we boarded a 5-hour bus ride to Sofia, Bulgaria.  The bus was nice enough, clean, and comfortable.  The scenery was cloudy and rainy across the beautiful landscapes of the Balkans countryside. 

However, by the looks of him, we think the bus driver was either very sick, very hungover, or still half-drunk.  This didn't seem too far fetched after we witnessed a group of bus personnel in uniform at the Ohrid bus station the other day, doing shots of brandy with their espressos at 7 in the morning!  We have no idea if they were off-duty (we hope) or not, but it didn't leave a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Back to our bus headed to Sofia...

Skopje, Macedonia: Small But Worth Passing Through

Memorial House for Mother Teresa, honoring her accomplishments.  She was born in Skopje to Albanian parents when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire.  
We are sorry that our initial impression of Skopje was negative, citing it as "sketchy and third-world". We couldn't help but feel this way when our first welcome was the scary and rundown train terminal and getting accosted by taxi drivers while we were still disoriented as we got out into an industrial looking part of town.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

5-Days of R&R at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

People around here call Lake Ohrid, the Macedonian Riviera, as it's the closest Macedonia will ever get to having a coastline.  The lake is one of the oldest and deepest in Europe, sharing it with Albania on the southwestern side.  It appears many Europeans have discovered this beautiful lake getaway so the small town is quite built-up with hotels and restaurants to accommodate the tourists.  Fortunately for us, we got here just in time to see the August holiday crowd pack-up and go home, leaving us to enjoy the serenity of the crystal clear waters surrounded by the Dinaric Alps mountain range undisturbed, except for a few lingering retirees. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Reflections: 4-Months Gone By!

September 2012 marks our half-way point in our 8-month journey around-the-world.  You'll see that it's been good to escape our sanitized, over-scheduled lives and inject some grit and soul into it.  

Our experience has been an interesting dichotomy.  The travels have been slow yet fast; exhilarating but exhausting; temporary as our permanent state of being; nature's silence to offset the city chaos; unreasonable expectations causing unnecessary disappointment; pure freedom in the midst of utter helplessness (or cluelessness!); feeling so small in this big world; and the complexity of accomplishing the most simple tasks in a foreign environment.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Quirks and Difficulties of Traveling Through the Balkans

From Sarajevo, we literally didn't have an exit plan because we couldn't make a decision on which direction to head.  We thought about going south towards Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH), then Montenegro, then Albania, but we found out that Albania does not allow public transportation to cross its borders from some of the other Balkan states.  It didn't sound like something we wanted to hassle with.

We considered taking a more off-the-beaten-path route, but again, cross-country transportation outside of major cities is sparse and lodging unreliable.  

We really wanted to raft down the super-deep Tara Canyon river in Montenegro, then go east through Kosovo, then Serbia, but getting to and out of Tara Canyon sounded like it would take many extra days.  Also, we're very glad we didn't do this route because Serbia would not have allowed entry had we gone through Kosovo first.  It has to do with territorial disputes about Serbia's claim over Kosovo, and it's complicated, but Serbia considers going through Kosovo first, an illegal border crossing.

Basically, we've considered several different itineraries each time, but most are eliminated due to transportation or border crossing issues.  The places we've been during the past 2 weeks represent the path of least resistance.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Serbia, The Bad Boy of the Balkans

To understand the ongoing conflicts in the Balkans, you have to get to know Serbia's roots, its complex history and people.

For example, the Serbs occupied the entire Balkans Peninsula in the early centuries until the Ottoman-Turks conquered and ruled for 500 years.  In the 20th century, despite being part of a larger socialist federation of Yugoslavia, Serbia continued to be the political center of the federation and called the shots.  Yugoslavia's collapse in 1992 opened up 'opportunities' for extreme Serbian nationalists to push their  'Greater Serbia' agenda forward under the leadership of the infamous Slobodan Milosević, resulting in bloodshed, wars, and atrocities such as ethnic cleansing.  As punishment and disapproval, the world isolated Serbia in response to their behavior. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Day 126: A Busy Sightseeing Day in Sarajevo

Akiko in kitchen of 17c.
Bosnian nobleman's house -
The Svrzo's House.
Blog covers 3 main sites visited this day: Sarajevo War Tunnel, Svrzo's House, and the National Museum, plus a few others!

Sarajevo is also dubbed the City of Hope, for enduring the 3.5 year Siege from 1992-1995 by the Serbs, who were literally neighbors and living amongst each other in Sarajevo.  It all started when Bosnia and Hercegovina declared independence from the socialist federation of Yugoslavia - made up of Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia.  The Serbs living in Bosnia had a different plan than those who declared independence, so they encircled the city of Sarajevo by stationing themselves in the surrounding hills and assaulted the city - civilians, women, children, and especially cultural and religious buildings of significance - with mortar, machine guns, grenades, etc. Snipers stationed themselves in high-rise buildings and picked-off anyone in the streets.  Over 11,000 civilians and 1,500 children were killed in Sarajevo.  This became the longest siege in modern warfare.  Air strikes against Serbian military strongholds by NATO, of which the United States played a large role in, finally pressured Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia (yup, THAT guy) to come to the negotiation table to end this war.  The Dayton agreement was signed in....Dayton, Ohio of all places, at the Wright-Patterson AFB.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sarajevo - A Religious and Cultural Melting Pot, Or Is It?

Tasli Han ("stone inn") ruins against
backdrop of minaret from Gazi
Husrev-Beg mosque and Clock Tower.
We are so excited to experience the diverse and complex city of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) where religions have coexisted for centuries; where the 1984 Winter Olympics was hosted; where major historical events occurred such as the assassination that ignited WWI; and survived a major civil war atrocity in the 1990s called the Siege of Sarajevo, for which the city shows permanent scars.  But, the people have proven resilient and all outward appearances seem optimistic about the future with their fledgling independence and ethno-religious peace agreement.  They have definitely made Sarajevo into a must-visit destination.  

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Train Ride From Zagreb to Sarajevo

We found out that taking the train is a pretty simple way of getting from Zagreb, Croatia to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH).  At the main train terminal in Zagreb, we checked the published departure schedule, looking for the train that goes to Sarajevo.  It was difficult to find within the fine print, but saw there are 2 departures daily.  The first one leaves daily at 8:53 am with a final destination to Ploce, stopping at Sarajevo along the way.  The other is an overnight train.  We read that the Croatian and BiH scenery is not to be missed, and the numerous interruptions by ticket verifiers, passport controls, customs personnel, etc. would prevent anyone from getting much sleep anyway; so we chose to travel during the daytime.  

Zagreb, Croatia: A Tourist-Friendly Destination

We just left Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, and are heading to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina on a 10 hour train ride through the country.  

Here are some reflections on Zagreb and Croatia as a whole.  First, gotta love a language that makes full use of the letter "Z"!  Never seen so many words with "Z" in it.  

Not having done much research on Croatia in advance, it has been a fun week discovering new things as it unfolds.  For example, who knew that the necktie originated in Croatia?  Yup.  The Croatian army sported red ties called cravats, as part of their uniform.  When the French saw this, they immediately loved it and took the tie as a fashion statement (go figure).  The rest is history.  Apparently, the ballpoint pen was also invented by a Croat.   Akiko, being sort of a pen connoisseur, appreciates this little fact.  Truffles are also abundant in Croatia.  We got to sample some in our dishes, but this would've been a moment where we wished we could actually buy souvenirs to take home.  They sold many truffle related food products such as truffle oil, truffle paste, truffle essence, truffle salt, etc.