Sunday, April 11, 2010

Checking Off Asia

Wow, so apparently, I'm the worse blogger on the face of the Earth. As much as I had planned on writing about everything on time, I just keep putting it off, and then I have more to write about, so I put it off longer... a bit of a mess. So I'll try to give you a "brief" overview.

First stop: The second half of spring break, which I started to write a long time ago, but never finished.

Despite the warning against Americans traveling in Turkey, I went with two of my friends on a ferry from Lesvos to cross the border. Kate gets us into the most random situations, and I ended up finding myself in the front of the boat steering the ship and had the best view when the dolphins came jumping alongside our boat!

We spent a day and night in Bergama (Pergamum), where we payed a flat rate to have a cab drive us around to the hot tourist spots all day: The Acropolis (which was MUCH bigger than the Athenian Acropolis, and beautiful with all the Greco-Roman structures), something that was Red-brick and looked very Roman, and the Escleapion (which was similar to Epidauros, dedicated to Escleapius the healing god, and was very extensive with a theatre, tunnels and other buildings). We also found a great restaurant right next to our hotel that was super cheap, and our first experience with the amazingness that is Turkish food. I had a dish called Beyit, which was seasoned, grilled chicken wrapped in something that was like a cross between a tortilla and phyllo dough with a tomato sauce on top. They also had a Turkish specialty, Sheep brain soup, on the menu which I unfortunately did not end up trying, though I now regret that. Turkish food is somewhat similar to Greek food, but it has much more flavor and spice to it.

The next day, we attempted to go to Cannakale, which is to the north, and right next to Troia (Troy), however the guys at the bus station thought we said something else, and were going to put us on a train to the south to switch buses and go back north...something that would have added a few hours onto the drive. Luckily, we realized it (after we bought our tickets) and got off the shuttle at the bus station and just got a new bus ticket. Meanwhile, the Turkish, who are much nicer than the Greeks, welcomed us with open arms, and brought us tea and chatted with us. They are very hospitable, and they're ALWAYS drinking and offering tea! However, most of the people do not know English at all, or if they do, they know pick-up lines or just hello and thank you.

We arrived at Cannakale in one piece, to a beautiful hotel from the Ottoman times. It was a very cool city, right on the water. We walked around and saw the horse that they used in the movie Troy! The next morning, we waited for a long time to catch the shuttle to Troy along with a group of helarious Brits around our age. I had heard that there wasn't anything to see at Troy, however, I was quite surprised. There are a fare amount of ruins around, and we had to do a 1 hour power tour so that we could get back to Channakale in time to catch our bus to Istanbul. Made it with time to spare, and took the six hour bus ride up to the former Constantinople (lucky me, for I got to watch movies in Turkish).

In Istanbul, we met up with two other girls from our program who were were rooming with at the hostel and did a little bit of night exploring around the city. The next day we packed in as much of the tourist hot spots as we could, and went to the Blue Mosque, Cistern, Hagia Sophia, and the Palace. All the buildings were beautiful, and I loved the Cistern since you walk around over a pool of water with goldfish, with the only light being little orange lights at the base of every evenly spaced column. The Blue Mosque and the hagia Sophia were outstanding. Huge domed ceilings and beautiful mosaics and frescoes everywhere. At the Blue Mosque, we had to take off our shoes and cover our heads at the door, which made it a fun and unique experience. In the afternoon, we ventured by the tram to Taxim square where it seemed to be much more modern, and a bit less touristy. Did some shopping, since everything is SO cheap (especially compared to Greece) as the Turkish lira is only worth half of the euro, and everything is cheap to start with. We ended up going back to the hostel for a beer and some cards, and went to a great little restaurant down the street from us which had amazing Turkish pizza.

The final day, I went to the spice bazaar! It was outstanding...I think I found heaven. There were big baskets of spices everywhere along with bulk teas, turkish delight, and occasionally some other things thrown in for fun. The men would shout pick-up lines to try and get us to stop, which made us walk along to the other shops. I bought a bunch of spices and can't wait to use them! (Saffron was much cheaper than anywhere I've ever seen it.) I then met up with my friends to go to the Grand Bazaar, which was similar to the spice bazaar, but had all sorts of merchandise, from wooden backgammon boards to scarves, lamps to jewelry. It was extremely packed and we found ourselves getting lost quite often through the covered hallways that ran through the bazaar. After we left, we grabbed a quick lunch and hopped on the Friendship Express--the overnight train that runs from Istanbul to Thessoloniki.

It was such a great trip! No time for pictures right now, but someday maybe they'll appear.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Limnos and Lesvos- Spring Break Oh-Ten!

On the wall of one of the fortress/castle on Limnos... happy Greek day!

Well, as soon as spring break snuck up on me, it was over.

I started off our week and a half vacation by flying to Limnos, a northeastern Greek island, along with 4 of my friends (Megan from Barnard, Emily and Eric from Notre Dame, and Kate from Toulane). After being picked up by our hotel owner who did not speak very much English, we wandered around the town. There were a lot of people out and about, because it was Greece's Independence day, but that meant that the only things that were open were tavernas. We enjoyed a chilly, and extremely long lunch about 5 feet away from the Mediterranean Sea. One of our favorite dishes was a baked feta and herbs in a tomato sauce covered with another cheese. Also, I tried retsina for the first time, which Limnos is famous for. I cannot say that I enjoy it very much. Retsina is white wine that is flavored with pine resin. It had the smell and what I imagine the taste to be of nail polish remover.

We then walked up the town's mountain to a Venetian fortress which overlooked the two coves and the Sea. It had some pretty cool mini caves and a lot of easily-climbable rock faces. Kate and I thought it was a great idea to climb down a grassy/rocky slope to the sea down below. Turns out that it was much farther, and more difficult than we had originally imagined. We bonded over the fact that we may not make it out alive--always a fun topic. It was completely worth the hike though, because it was so serene and beautiful at the bottom of the slope, and we were able to stand out on rocks being pelted by the waves.

Back up and to our hotel/hostel to warm up and start our continued tradition of playing cards at any lull in the action. Since Emily, Eric, Kate, and I are all from the Midwest (Kate is also from Indiana, even though she goes to Tulane) we all knew how to play Euchre, a popular card game in the Great Lakes region. We went out to an Ouzerie for dinner which had some of the best tzatziki that I've had since coming to Greece. Ouzeries are similar to Tavernas, but only offer the appetizers to go with the ouzo. Since this is what we usually get anyway, it was fine, and much cheaper. Eric and I split a bottle of ouzo that was made on the island, and I realized that I actually like the taste of ouzo when it has been diluted by ice cubes and accompanies dinner. The black-liquorish flavor kind of cleanses the palate in between dishes.

Sunset at the marina in Limnos

The next day, we were planning on renting a car so that we could drive to the other things Limnos has to offer, such as waterfalls, hikes, hot springs, and flamingos. However, none of the car rentals were open until later in the day, so we lounged on the beach for awhile. We then found out from the car rental place that we were supposed to be 23 to rent and/or have an EU license. Since we had neither, we ended up hanging out around the town again, playing a lot of cards, and getting fun coffee drinks at a cafe/club overlooking the Sea. Went back to that club later in the night for their extremely fun fruity mixed drinks (I stuck to a gin fizz).

Said bye to Limnos the next day and boarded the 7 hour ferry to Lesvos (a little southeast, bordering Turkey) where we played endless amounts of cards and a fun character-guessing game that they play in "Inglorious Bastards"... long enough that Emily ended up getting a post-it-note sunburn on her forehead.

We arrived in Mytilene, the main town of Lesvos, in the afternoon, and spent the afternoon wandering the city (pretty big for an island). We found yet another Venetian fortress and climbed (illegally?) up the walls into the castle. It was not nearly as big as the one on Lesvos, but it was much better preserved. We went to a taverna on the way back to the hostel, and I finally got to try the coastal speciality of Greece: grilled octopus drenched in lemon. It was pretty good, but I would rather have squid.

Fortress/castle in Mytilene. I clmibed the trianglular wall support to the right (farther away) and went into the round area of the castle.

The next day was Emily's 21st birthday, so we woke her up with mimosas in the morning, and proceeded to go rent a car. (Don't worry, Eric didn't have any mimosa, and he was the one driving.) Apparently, the car place we went to did not have the 23 year old rule, so we got a car without a problem... except for the fact that Eric only knew a little bit about driving a stick shift. That was an adventure in itself, and provided a lot of entertainment and joking. Luckily, Kate knew a bit, and directed him through the process and we were able to drive across the mountainous terrain to the other side of the island, stopping at a huge monastery, anti-climactic petrified forest, seafood taverna, and the home of Sappho along the western coast. As you may have guessed, the name of the island, Lesvos (spelled Lesbos in Greek characters), is linked to the word lesbian. Sappho, the first woman poet from around 6th century BCE was renowned for her poetry, some of which was erotic and directed towards women. When, in the 17th century AD, people were starting to define sexuality and fragments of Sappho's works were discovered. Thus, Lesvos became a site of pilgrimage for the newly defined lesbians, and continues to be so today. The beach we visited had a bunch of interesting interpretive sculptures of Sappho but was too windy and chilly to sit by the water. So we ended up not staying for sunset and instead made the beautiful and windy drive back to our hotel (complete with sing-a-long in the car).

Skela Erossos, home of Sappho (the town, not that hut)

The following day was quite relaxing. We started off the morning by driving up north to the village of Molovos where we participated in a 115 degree Fahrenheit mineral hot spring. The white dome was situated directly on the sea, and as directed by the woman who ran the bath, we slowly, slowly, slowly (siga siga!) dipped our limbs into the scalding water. When our whole bodies were submerged, we would stay in for 2-5 minutes, slowly slowly get out, and then go jump into the Mediterranean (whose big waves were knocking us against the rocks). We then repeated this process another three times or so. The room itself was pretty interesting. I had to duck through a small archway (like I was entering a hobbit house) into a domed room pierced with holes allowing beams of sunlight to pierce through the steam and enter the clear pool that was about fifteen feet long by five feet wide. I felt so relaxed and rejuvenated by the end of the process! Continued our day by eating lunch at a taverna overlooking the hills and valleys of the town where we got to go into the kitchen and pick out which meat we wanted (amazingly spiced and grilled lamb and pork) to go with our Greek salad, cheese rolls, tzatziki, and white wine famous in the region. We then drove down to the south where there is the longest beach in Greece. Sadly, it was too cold to swim or even bask in less than a long sleeve and pants, but we had fun just relaxing. And after a few more games of cards, it was time to go to bed, and say good bye to Lesvos. Eric and Emily caught their flight out early the next morning, and Kate, Megan, and I continued on our way through customs, and onto the ferry to Turkey.

Hanging out at a random meadow in the mountains of Lesvos