"Syria or Lebanon?" (10/31/2009)

That was the question our cab driver asked us as he stopped in the middle of the highway where the road split off towards Lebanon. We had just visited Crac de Chavalier fort and were planning on catching a bus from Homs to Damascus.  However, while admiring the view from the fort, we realized we were actually looking at Lebanon just a short distance away (proving the once again the signifigance of the fort’s location on the highest mountain in the region and why those that held the castle in the Crusades controlled all of upper Syria and Lebanon). We decided it made more sense to enthusiastically reply “Lebanon!”  A few short hours later (border crossings unfortunately are not quick) we found ourselves in Beirut.  While enjoying a beer during happy hour, we felt we could be in any European city (or New York City, for that matter.)  Except, of course, the hummus wouldn’t have been as good anywhere else!

The next morning in the rain, we rented a car and drove through the Bekaa valley, stopping for lunch in the town of Zahle where while Meg was enjoying her Dunkin Donuts coffee (she couldn’t pass up the very unexpected opportunity) and Jed was receiving change for lunch in US Dollars, we again remarked on the fact that Lebanon felt far less foreign than we imagined.  We have spent the past 48 hours trying to squeeze in all of Lebanon—a visit to the Ksara winery, a quick view of the ruins of Baalbek, a drive over the mountains to the lovely town of Bcharre, a hike in the Qadisha valley, sorting through fish fossils in the town of Byblos, and a driving/walking tour of Beirut today.  Compared with other countries we have visited, Lebanon has far less tourist infrastructure- eg virtually no signs to anywhere that aren’t in Arabic. While this is most likely due to far fewer tourists, given the variety of scenery and sites—from big city to the beach from the mountains to the vineyards—it seems that it is a country that should have many more tourists and is well worth visiting.

Welcome to Syria! (10/29/09)

After a day in transit, we entered an extremely friendly Syria. The first sign of the mass-friendliness was that the immigration officer at the border offered us coffee, while we were filling out forms in triplicate and getting copies of documents made (and we already had our visa!). Other examples of Syrians hospitable nature were dozens of hardy “welcome to Syria” greetings everywhere we went; a free bag of Syrian candy (unclear if the boy at the cash register didn’t know to work the scale or they just wanted to give away their candy to the foreigners, we’re taking it to the latter); and the young man at the bus station who wanted to practice his English and told us that “everywhere in America is nice”, we gently corrected him on that account…

Other Syrian highlights included the food (the mix of hummus, falafel, tasty salads, pita bread, and chickpeas is essentially Meg’s dream meal); the old souq and citadel in Aleppo, the centuries old water mills in Hama, and the excellent historic fort of Crac de Chavalier outside of Homs and only a few miles from the Lebanese border (hence the title of our Lebanon entry)…

Cappadocia, Turkey (10/27/09)

After nearly missing the bus to the airport due to some confusion about daily light savings time (missing by arriving an hour early that is), we were on our way to Cappadocia on an early morning flight. Turns out that the clocks had turned back an hour but we hadn’t realized (perhaps a good comment on spending a day in a city with no where to be at a particular time, though it does explain why breakfast at the hotel went later than what we thought was its allotted time). Thanks to TurkCell for updating the time on its cell phone network, otherwise it would have be a much longer morning (and that’s saying something since we took a 4am bus as it was).   We fortunately arrived at the airport at the proper time and took a very nice $32 flight on Pegasus Air (the only caveat to the remarkable fare being that you have to buy a seat as well; however, if you are smart, you convince your husband it is okay to sit apart for an hour and buy two middle seats at $2 a piece, saving $6 in the process!)

We arrived in Cappadocia expecting to see the beautiful landscape, fairy chimneys, and rock formations.  We saw all of that, of course, but thanks to our cousins Lynn and Taylor Keith, we saw much, much more!  They are currently in the midst of a one month tour of Europe and fortunately, their trip took them to Cappadocia at the same time as us. As a wedding present, they very generously treated us to a night at the Museum Hotel, a memorable cave hotel in Neveshir.  We met them in time for a lovely breakfast overlooking the landscape and then set off with a private guide to tour the area.  The highlights included:

-- an underground city that was 8 stories deep and complete with living rooms, a winery, kitchen, water well/ventilation shaft, and, of course, lots of spear holes to fend off the attacking army.  (Further evidence supporting our above “notes on ancient civilizations” entry.)

--a pottery studio where Taylor proved he should keep his day job

--a carpet making factory where we all discovered a love and appreciation of carpets we didn’t know we had. 

But of course, the absolute highlight was spending time with Lynn and Taylor, whose generosity was only exceeded by their excellent company and entertaining stories of their travels.  We can’t thank them enough.

Istanbul, Turkey (10/25/09)

Sitting in our hotel room on the last night of our stay in Istanbul, listening to the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque just outside our window, and eating our dinner of various Turkish sweets, we think about how magical our days in Istanbul have been. From visiting the places we had known about for a long time (like the Aya Sofya that Jed studied in high school and college art history class) or those that we didn’t know about until we walked we stumbled across it (a brunch outside on the shore of the Bosphorus), these days have been filled with many discoveries. From history lessons to art lessons, Istanbul is the keystone that holds up much of world civilization and many things now make much more sense. For example, we now better understand the history of Islam and its spread; a lesson that we continue to bear fruit as we move south into the heart of the Middle East. Also one gets the sense that Istanbul is a city that has seen it all and now takes everything in relative stride; wandering down the Broadway of the city, the crowds take even a political protest in stride moving to the side as they pass and then continuing with their shopping or eating. There is even this sense of calm among the vendors, who do very little hassling to try to sell their wares.

 Aside from the wonderful sense that one gets from this city, some specific highlights:

-       Wandering the Topkapi Place (home of sultans for centuries) and its collection of jewels and historical items (Mohammed’s sword for a start).

-       Seeing a thousand year old Christian murals side-by-side with Islamic art in the Aya Sofya (and eating corn in the square outside

-       A real Turkish bath with scrubbing, soaping, massaging and all

-       Being accused of not really being American when trying to bargain in the Spice Bazaar- since “Americans don’t bargain.” For all you non-hagglers out there you are giving us a bad reputation.

-       Visiting the well preserved 1400-year old underground cistern that supplied water for the ancient rulers

Notes on Ancient Civilizations

As a side note, over the past few days in Greece and Ephesus, we have learned a great deal about the accomplishments of ancient civilizations and have been astonished by their level of advancement. From running water, central heat and toilets to glassware, metal instruments, multistory buildings and very detailed art work, they seem to have figured developed many so-called modern conveniences nearly two thousand years ago. It leads one to wonder what humans actually accomplished between ancient Greece and the latter half of the 18th century- were we just dwindling our thumbs?   And, while we have  obviously made huge technologic advances over the past hundred year (including the Kindle, which Jed has now commandeered interestingly enough) we lament the loss of the statue as a  form—it would be pretty cool to have statues of people in your living room, rather than photographs. Let us know if you'd like to make a statue of us your first one.

Ephesus, Turkey (10/22/09)

After an overnight ferry to Samos (which, while a Greek island, is only a few short miles from the Turkish coast) and an early morning boat trip to Kusadasi, it was welcome to Turkey (which began with a 45 minute wait as the customs official came from his “other job” to the port to relieve us of $20- after the “port official” had already successfully identified the foreigners, us and some Kiwis, to extract the “port entry fee.”)

After successfully completing immigration into Kusadasi, we inquired about how much it would cost to take a taxi to Ephesus.  The taxi driver quoted a high price and then, very nicely, told us it would be better for us to take the bus.  He even then directed us to the bus station without our asking.  Later than night, we stopped at a restaurant to buy bottled water because the supermarket was out of water.  We realized the water was three times the price; when Jed told the man it was expensive, he agreed and directed us to another supermarket nearby (again, without our asking.)  We quickly realized how remarkably nice and helpful the Turkish people are (maybe even more so than any other country we have been to; throughout our stay, we would continue to witness examples of this.) 

We spent the afternoon touring Ephesus, the best persevered ancient city.  While the entire “city” was impressive, the highlights were definitely the library and the 25,000 seat stadium.  

After spending the evening in the wonderful town of Selcuk (where we were introduced to Turkish pizza (pide) and watched the entire town (well, unfortunately only the men) come out to gather around the TVs at the bars and restaurants to watch a local soccer game,) we took an overnight express bus (which meant it only made 3 stops!) to Istanbul.

Greek Islands (10/20/09)

Checking in is hard to do:

It all seemed too easy.  We bought our ferry ticket to Santorini in Athens, found a very cheap hotel on-line the night before, took the Metro to the port, and enjoyed a very lovely 8 hour ferry ride to Santorini.  After a picturesque arrival, we rented a car at a very cheap rate and drove to the town of Oia, Santorini with no issue.  Unfortunately, as we said, it all seemed too easy.  They don’t use street addresses on the island, so finding the hotel proved to be a difficult task.  After asking several people directions and getting pointed in every different possible direction, we found the hotel.  However, to make it even more difficult, it turns out that you check in at a different place than the actual hotel.  Meg took off to find that place, guided by a woman who spoke no English.  When she hadn’t returned 30 minutes later, Jed became convinced she had been abducted by the bike shop nearby (unclear why he thought that store.)  As he stood outside yelling Meg’s name loudly, Meg finally succeeded in checking in!

With that adventure out of the way, we quickly realized why people say the Greek Islands are so wonderful.  The sunset in Santorini more than lived up to its reputation; the town of Oia was incredibly quaint and, except for the woman sitting next to us at dinner who thought it was a good idea to feed stray cats sardines at her table, the night was like a picture on a postcard.  We spent the next day walking and driving around the island, with the highlight being a picnic lunch of gyros and greek pastries overlooking the Red Beach. 

We left that afternoon for Naxos, another beautiful island.  Upon arrival we dealt with our first logistical snafu—the ferry we wanted to take to get us to Turkey doesn’t run the night we wanted to take it.  Alas, we are “stuck here” for longer than expected, but easily will fill the days wandering around the old town, exploring the island’s villages, statues, and wineries, and all, in all, soaking in the amazing Greek Island beauty.  Checking out will also prove to be difficult.

Athens, Greece (10/18/09)

“All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel- to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, peoples, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time…” (Legendary Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis)

Two lessons about Athens:

1.     If you go to the Athens Hilton for cocktails be prepared to take off your shorts

2.     There is no roof on the Parthenon, or anywhere nearby, so take note if it is raining

We spent a lovely, though not weather-wise as it rained for a day and a half (see lesson two above), few days in Athens taking in the sites. The only plus side of the rains was that the tourist hordes at the sites were reduced. Between the Acropolis, the Agora, and various temples we got a good handle on the historic sites. The new Acropolis museum was fantastic both architecturally and in terms of its (very manageable in a couple of hours) content. While the exterior of concrete and small angular windows seems odd from the outside, once inside it all makes sense with wonderful views of the Acropolis as the background for the exhibits.

To lesson number one: We met a friend of a friend, Sophia, for a drink. She suggested the Hilton roof top bar, which had a lovely view of the sun setting behind Athens- the ring of mountains surrounding Athens along with the punctuations of hills within the downtown (of which the Acropolis is but one) make for a lovely dusk. While the view was nice, apparently it couldn’t be enjoyed in shorts so Jed was barred entrance to the terrace. After some negotiation (in Greek by Sophia) Jed was able to exchange his (inappropriate shorts) for a pair of Hilton provided pants (which were actually very comfortable in the end).

 Finally, our time on the Greek mainland was rounded out by a day trip to the mountains of Delphi, along with a lunch in Itia, which  is surrounded by the a large and majestic grove of olive trees (described by Greek writer George Seferis thusly: “It is nice to… enter among the olive trees under the silver leaves of the plain of Criseos, enumerating, as you pass by, the wrinkes on the dense gathering of trunks”). Special thanks to our very hospitable Athens hosts Nicole and Barnaby for putting us up at their flat (with a view of the Acropolis from the roof!) in the historic center of Athens, Plaka. 

Brussels, Belgium; 10/15/09

 An overnight flight on Jet Airways (highly recommended) brought us to Brussels for the day- a cold day, that is. Trying to find the bus from the airport to downtown, we learned that we have different definitions of what it means to “figure out” information on a particular city. That aside, we had a lovely day walking around the historic center of Brussels including a tasty lunch of mussels. Then back on the bus for the flight to Athens.

The Journey Begins (10/12/09)

After years of dreaming and months of planning, we're finally getting ready to leave NYC for our around-the-world honeymoon. While we don't actually leave for two days, figuratively our journey has already begun. Since our wedding, we've equated the beginning of our trip with Meg completing her Pediatric Boards and us running the Minneapolis marathon together. We've worked the past months planning for the trip, training for the marathon and studying for the boards (well, really just Meg on that one). With the marathon done last weekend (we handily beat our goal of 4 hours) and Meg taking her boards today, we're off and running. Greece here we come....