Europe

France: 20 Cities in 2 Weeks

You can say I’m a bit late in publishing this blog since this trip took place more than a year ago (ok 2 yrs), but with all that has happened in this country in the last couple of years, we could all use a reminder of what a beautiful place it is.  In fact, one of the most beautiful countries I have visited.  From the villages, to the lavender and sunflower fields, the beaches, or the large cities, it is truly spectacular.

I am certain that many of you balked at the title of this blog and thought ‘oh another American trying to squeeze as much as possible in two weeks.”  Let me mention that we were two friends traveling together, and she is Dutch :).  We didnt set out to see 20 cities but it happens when you are driving.

We have both been to Paris a few times before and spending too much time there was not necessary.  But if you have never traveled to Paris, I recommend a good 3-5 days because the city and the surrounding area has so much to offer.

This trip began in Paris, headed south to Cannes, and back up to Paris.  We stayed overnight in seven cities but along the way managed to stop at many of the small cities/villages along the way and enjoy the beauty each had to offer.

Although we got a much needed relief in the last 2-3 days, for the most part walking around temperatures of 88-100 was brutal.  I’ve not drank so much water on a given day since my visit to Tunisia in July of 2013 (Talk about H.O.T!)

Day 1 – Paris

Paris is my favorite city in the world and it’s the only city I’ve visited more than twice. Many of the tourist attractions were not of interest to us, but at the end of my visit, I decided to go back to some of those that I hadn’t visited since my first visit nearly 15 years ago.   If it’s your first time here, there are plenty of tours, hop-on/hop-off, and day trips to the surrounding area.  If you are like me and don’t like tours, grab a map and hit the streets (or the subway), you can walk all the way from Notra Dame to Louvre, to the Eiffel Tower in a couple of hours. But visiting the Louvre will take you most of the day. There is so much to see in this city that I prefer walking around. I’m not covering Chateau Versailles here – but it’s a must see if you never have.


End of June to the first two weeks of July are the big annual sales in Europe.  A great time to visit with an empty suitcase and a budget to shop. So that’s what I did! I stayed in the 8th arronidssement and found great shopping from Luxury brands to small boutiques around the La Madeleine area (you don’t have to shop on Champs Elycees if too crowded.)

Day 2: Chateau de Fontainebleau to Amboise in Loire Valley

The only royal and imperial château to have been continuously inhabited for seven centuries. Next to Versailles, in my opinion, this is the 2nd best castle to visit in France.  Beautifully maintained with lots to see.  You’ll need about an hour to visit it and see the grounds as well (that is if you are a speedy visitor like me.. otherwise take your time.)  Try lunch in the nearby small downtown area.  As for us, we stocked up for the road trip at the grocery store and hit the road.


Day 3 -4: Loire Valley, Chateaux hopping

We stayed at the Chateau des Arpentis, a 12th century chateau that has been converted to a hotel near the city of Amboise.  We loved this place.  It still had that old castle feeling but with a great view of nature, and a pool.  But yes, with nature also come insects, so prepare yourself.  Leaving the window open was not ideal, but I still miss the early am breeze and breakfasts in the garden..


[The bee keeper! As we arrived and parked our car, an old man, who turned out to be a bee keeper I suspect, greeted us and insisted I follow him inside what seemed like a barn.  A little creepy but since it was right in front of the chateaux entrance, we took the chance.  He only wanted to show us that they were making and bottling honey.  Still a little creepy… but what the hay!]

The chateau location was also very central in the Loire Valley to visit other castles, and oh boy were there castles! I think France has one of the top two largest inventory of castles (England I assume is the other).  You could spend a week alone just driving around the Loire to see castles. We chose four, the most famous in the area: Cheverny, Chambord, Chaumont, & Amboise.

Chateau D’Amboise, registered as a World Heritage site by Unesco, is situated on the Loire River is also home to DaVinci’s first burial site (in the small chapel), where he lived for a brief period of time and was granted the privilege by Francoise 1st to be buried here. His bones were eventually transferred to the St. Hubert Chapel.


You can spend some time in the streets of Amboise and enjoy great food, wine bars, etc. We chose a wine bar at the bottom of the castle.

Chateau de Cheverny, a beautiful and slightly smaller chateau, should take about 30 minutes to see. Definitely check out the huge picture frame in the gardens that provides a good photo op.

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The chateau has some lovely gardens and a lake where you can hop on a small boat for a bit.  This town is also small and not much to see. There was a really nice Tin Tin exhibition here and it really took me back to my childhood.  I even picked up one of the Tin Tin books in French.  I lost all but one of the ones from my childhood, when I left Iran.

A chapel inside Chateau de Chaumont

Chateau de Chaumont, a 10th century chateau, is also near Amboise and worth seeing if you have the time.  Not a huge chateau but well maintained and on top of the hill overlooking the Loire River.  I think another one of Catherine De Medici’s residences.  (That woman stayed at most of the chateaux in the Loire Valley and beyond..seriously.)  If it interests you, there is an arboretum to see at an extra fee. I can’t comment on it, since we didn’t have the time (nor the interest) to visit.

We did, however, walk through the small Sunday antique flea market by the river since we had to park there and climb up to the castle, and I even did a bit of shopping in the antique toy car booth.

Chateau de Chambord, the grandeur of this chateaux is its exterior.  It is a massive place where you can easily get lost.  Every massive room (originally built to be a hunting residence) has a large fireplace and they all start to look alike.  It is empty, so you can only appreciate its massiveness and the unusually designed staircase, which that has two entrances.  This is significant because it is designed in a way that two people can completely avoid each other by taking the same staircase at the same time from the opposite sides.


If you believed in fairy tales as a child, I think you would picture Cinderella’s castle to look like the Chateau de Chambord.


Day 5: Arles

I can’t really recommend this city as a must see place.  It is most known for where Van Gogh painted his famous The Café painting, that café is now called the Vincent Van Gogh Café.  The hotel where we stayed, the Julius Caesar hotel, I suspect the only 5 star hotel in the city,  was decorated by La Croix.  There is a Roman Theater in this city (as there are in multiple other locations in France) but if you’ve seen one Roman Theater, you’ve seen them all.  So keep driving and don’t stop here if you don’t’ have to.
The drive between Amboise to Arles was the longest drive during this trip, six hours long.  We picked Arles as the resting place before we head to Cote d’Azur.

Day 6-9: Cote D’Azur

We stopped at Cannes to meet up with several friends traveling here from various places.  This was my second time to visit Cannes.  The last time I was here was in the late 90s, was during the film festival.  I was a student in France at that time with very little knowledge of the Cannes Film Festival.  I couldn’t remember much but certainly staying at the J.W. Marriot on the strip beat the accommodations I had back then traveling on a student’s budget, and my companion, who loves to stay at fancy boutique hotels, finally realized why Americans love staying at luxury hotel chains like the J.W.  She has converted since..haha!


While here, we visited St. Tropez, Antibes, Eze, Monte Carlo, and Monte.  Antibes was very cute and charming with a long cafe/restaurant street that runs in the center of town.  St. Tropez was overrated and nothing like what I expected.  I suspect staying here on a yacht must have a different impact and perhaps the experience I was ‘expecting.’

Market in Antibes

Monte Carlo is a must see but for some reason each time I visit, I forget my passport, which is required to get into the casino.  Next time! Walk around Monte Carlo a bit.  One of, if not the smallest churches is located at the bottom of the hill near the casino.  I remembered this church from my first time here.  Visiting the palace and the changing of the guards is another tourist attraction- as I recollect from my first visit.

Monte is the last French city before Italy but again it felt short of the hype and the recommendations a friend had made.  Not as charming as I expected.  Eze, a charming hilltop town on the Cote d’Azur, on the other hand, did not disappoint.  It is a must see! Wear comfortable shoes. Take time to walk up the cobble stone pathways of its medieval village to the top of the hill (nope.. no cars). Go to the  Chateau de La Chevre (Golden Goat hotel) and have a drink in the restaurant overlooking the view.

Driving along the coast towards Eze, has a jaw dropping view!  Don’t miss it.

Day 10: Gorde

Probably our most luxurious stay of the entire trip, though I had to laugh at ourselves, since we were the only two non-honeymooners or adults under the age of 60 staying here.  A very nice resort and spa with a Michelin Star restaurant.  It is too nice for just a one day stay but we hadn’t planned on more time here.  The attraction of Gorde, is its medieval town with small narrow walkways from the bottom to the top of the hill.  Our resort was on the nearby hilltop with a view of ‘Gorde’ itself.  It was magical and charming.



You can also visit the Senanque Abbey only a couple of miles down the road if you are interested in the history, and also seeing some of the lavender fields this area is known for (with lots and lots of bees of course).  Somehow you never see the bees in all the glossy pictures of the beautiful girl walking or jumping in the lush lavender fields. I wonder how many bee stings had to be photo shopped.  Well, I took one too, but it just doesn’t look as glamorous, does it?!

Lavender fields at the Abbey and its other residents, the bees!

The monks still live here and collect lavender, which is one of the top selling items of the region.  But to go inside the Abbey, it is restricted to certain hours, and you must be decently dressed, so cover up if you intend to go here.  Tourists and buses from nearby places flock here after 10 am.  If you want to bypass the madness, go early.

We had a really nice dinner at a small family owned restaurant in Gorde.  So fresh and delicious but I don’t recall the name.. sorry!

Aix en Provence

Loved this cute town and I actually found some really nice shopping here.  In retrospect, we probably should’ve booked one of our hotels here and stayed for a day.  But we stopped here for a few hours before heading to our next destination. Lots of eateries, shopping, and yes, lots of lavender for purchase.  There is a lot more history to explore here, so spend a day and do some research before getting here.  Cézanne is the artist most associated with this city.


Visit Hotel de Caumont – Art Center and discover the history of this place that used to be a resident.

Saint Remy

Antique capital of France.  If you want to do some antique shopping, this is the place.  Not only it had a very large Sunday market, but there were antique shops everywhere.  A cute canal runs through the town and shops, restaurants etc. are situated along this canal.


Day 11-12: Avignon

Unplanned and unaware, we arrived here during the theater festival.  The old town was nearly shut down to traffic during the two week long festivities.  You need a letter from the hotel or a permit to enter the city walls with a car (or park outside of the walls if you can).  The town and its street, some so narrow that I had to close my eyes as my friend navigated though them, EXCEPT, I had the map and had to navigate her.
It is a fun time to be here.  The city is lively but extremely crowded. You can attend most performances for very little $$.  Since my french speaking abilities are comme ci comme ca, we chose a low budget performance by three actors: History of Music, where these actors used a number of musical instruments to guide us through birth of music from the days of the caveman to modern times.  I was cute and entertaining.  We were not disappointed.

As you dine or relax throughout the old city,  actors & performers perform select scenes from their plays, in front of eateries or in town squares to gather interest and encourage attendance to their shows.


The other main attractions here are the Le Palais des Papes (Popes) and the bridge that stops midway across the river, yep.. I guess they just gave up and rowed the boat the rest of the way.

Selfie time – on the bridge that stops halfway in the middle of the river


We enjoyed a lovely stay at a bed & breakfast (No 15 or N15) ran by an Italian woman, who spoke multiple languages.  Ate some really great food in the neighborhood at her recommendation and that’s a stretch for me, since I’m not a big fan of the French cuisine.

One restaurant I recommend is 83. Vernet.  Big place, great food and good people watching.. but it seemed like they were in NO hurry at all.  Don’t go here thinking you’ll eat soon, you may just die of starvation.  Read my full review on TripAdvisor.

83. Vernet

Day 13-14: Lyon

I loved Lyon!  Although we were expecting some major shopping here, as everyone had recommended, we didn’t find much to get excited about.  Most of the shopping was limited to small brand chains and even some of the big brands or the ‘large’ department store, didn’t carry much inventory.  But it is a very lively city in the evenings.  During the day, especially when hot, it’s pretty dead.  Take your siesta here.  But when the cool breeze of the evening arrives, the cafes, restaurants, boat bars/restaurants on the river are full of young, college kids, since Lyon is a big university city, (and that usually translates to cheap drinks.)

Visiting the old town (Viuex Lyon) and the Saint-jean cathedral on top of the hill is a must. What a spectacular view of the city and the charming old city below.

[The blackout that didn’t phase anyone! On our last night, while having drinks by the river, most of the city had a blackout.  It was dark as far as the eye could see but no one left the bars or restaurants.  As we began to walk around making our way back to the hotel with the assistance of our iPhone flash light, seemed like no one was bothered. For us, it made for some really entertaining stroll along the streets.]


Final 2 days Paris again.. it’s never enough – but this time alone!

I tagged on 2 additional days to spend a little more time by myself in Paris, since it is my favorite city. I spent a day exploring the Jardin du Luxembourg (and it’s museum) in the 6th arrondissement, lunching in a hopping cafe in the St. Germain district , watching the beautiful people walk by, and finally took a break on the banks of the Seine River and even had a chance to see a commercial or magazine shoot in progress, which was taking forever? All they had to do was take a few steps together toward the camera.  45 minutes later, I left and they were still at it.

Of course, I shopped some more in Paris. To a point that I feared my suitcase wouldn’t close and it didn’t until I threw out some pf my older clothes!  What’s a girl to do?!

Day two I decided to visit the places I hadn’t visited since a decade ago.  I walked from the Louvre to the Eiffel tower, Notre Dame; and also, for the first time, I took the boat tour on the Seine.  I didn’t want to take part in this touristic activity, but my feet were killing me, it was hot, and I couldn’t shop anymore – my suitcase had forbid me so!  At midnight, I ran out of my hotel to sit by the Seine River and watch the Eiffel Tower light up for a few minutes.  I figured go big or go home.  Be that tourist this time.

Paris, je t’aime!

[Side note: Another day trip, which I took many years ago from Paris, and still recommend is Chartres.  It’s a small town near Paris with a famous cathedral.]

Au revoir!

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Greece

The #1 advice I received before flying out to Greece was to spend the least amount of time in Athens and escape to the Greek Isles as soon as possible.  Well…. I ended my trip in Greece in Athens but I couldn’t disagree with my friends more.

Athens

We arrived to Athens from Mykonos via the ferry.  There is no speed ferry from Mykonos to Athens and it was a long and tiring travel.  The six-hour trip was closer to eight hours because of all the stops along the way. Read about traveling around Greece further down on this page.

Athens is like any other cosmopolitan city in Europe.  The history and sightseeing are a given but the cafes, restaurants, people watching, shopping…etc. should not be missed to take in this old city.  Most of the sightseeing can be covered on foot and are very close to each other but the hop on hop off buses are available for those that prefer it.  My friend took one of these buses on our last day to just ride around in it without hopping off (which by-the-way can be negotiated to a lower price) to make sure she saw all that there was to see.  I opted to walk around and maybe see less of the out of the way famous buildings but to enjoy a walk in Athens and take in some of the street culture.  Be prepared for the hot weather, a hat or umbrella will be useful and dress very very comfortable for the heat.  It was almost unbearable and this was at the end of the summer.

Acropolis

Acropolis

temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus (Acropolis on top of the hill in the back)

Casual lunch in Athens

Casual lunch in Athens

shopping district in Athens

Streets of Athens

I found Athens surprisingly clean and modern.  Greece in general was a bit pricey given their economic conditions and struggles but Athens was more reasonable than the Islands.

One advise is to perhaps pay for the attractions as you get there.  The option to buy a 12 ticket book to go to the Acropolis and nearby ruins and attractions and this may save you some time in some of the lines but if there is a strike, which happened to us, all these tourist attractions closed in the middle of the day and we had to basically throw away some of the tickets.  They are not that costly but mind as well pay for them as you go… now we were there in end of August when tourist season is winding down, visiting in high season may require you to buy these fast track tickets – unless everyone else is buying them too.  You can walk to all the attractions in one day and see it all, that is if there’s no sudden strike.

Our hotel, the Athens Gates, was centrally located and very close to all the attractions and the subway line.  The hotel is in the Plaka area, which is where you should stay.  That is the center of Athens and you can walk to most attractions from here.  It was situated between the Temple of Zeus and the Acropolis. Ancient of Agora is nearby as well.

Travel to the ferry by subway is very convenient and cheap (about 2 euros each way), subway to the airport takes about 1-1.5 hours but still convenient, although we didn’t take it to the airport.  Airport taxi cost is about 35-45 euros, negotiate.

Delphi

My friend suggested we take this day trip to Delphi.  Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, and became a major site for the worship of the god Apollo.  Tour companies offered between 80-100 euros/person to take us there for the day.  After research I discovered you can take the bus there for 15 euros/person round trip.  Delphi is a small cute place with one street offering shopping and restaurants, which leads to one of the oldest ancient ruins.  These ruins take about 1-2 hours to climb and see.  There is a museum as well if you would like to visit.  You could spend as little as 2 hours or longer in Delphi but the point is that it doesn’t need to be an all day trip.  However the trip is 3 hours each way.  I say that with a smile… as we boarded the wrong bus and managed to get lost somewhere in the middle of Greece before someone checked our ticket and told us we were on the wrong bus – 3 hours later.  Getting back was an adventure.  No one spoke English and there was no direct bus.  The local shop owners and bus drivers with broken English and much hand signals helped us find our way to Delphi 8 hours later.  We still managed to see the sights and get back to Athens by 10 pm.  Making it a very long journey but we saw so much of Greece that we wouldn’t have otherwise.  Granted we were exhausted and my friend did remind me that ‘this is why people take the private tours’, I still think it was an adventure.

rock - delphi

The rock considered to be center of the universe

The world is a stage and we are all its actors!

The world is a stage and we are all its actors!

delphi

Delphi

Don’t forget to haggle in Greece, harder in some of the places like in the islands, but you should always try.

Santorini

Like most people, I’m here to tell you that Santorini is amazing!  Magnificent scenery. I’m not naming the hotel we stayed at because I don’t recommend it.  Not much to do in Santorini, Fira (center of the island) than shop, mostly for high priced jewelry.  But if you take the bus down to the beach, Kamari, you can enjoy the refreshing Mediterranean sea and all its beauty.  Take a bus (buses are very cheap and convenient) to Oai and watch one of the most beautiful and unforgettable sunsets.

I didn’t take a donkey ride, but if you arrive on one of the tour ships, there are donkeys available as transportation up to the hill to Fira from the docking station (picture on the bottom).  I think there are also lift stations but didn’t see many people opting for those.

Fira

Fira – Santorini

Try the cactus drink but expect to pay about 10 euros for it.  See picture below.

cactus drink

Cactus drink

view from our hotel in Fira

View from our hotel in Fira

kamari beach

Kamari beach – me on the rock

Moussaka

Moussaka

Oia is the more upscale area of the island and probably the more romantic, where Fira had more of a mix of travelers and tourists.  It is packed in the evenings around sunset to see one of the most famous sunsets in the world.  Lovers want to kiss in front of it, photographers try to capture its beauty, and others just want to say they saw it.  It is amazing!  But get there early.  Masses will be arriving and trying to get as close to the wall as possible.

sunset

The famous Oia sunset

Mykonos

Our resort was a bit out of the way in Mykonos.  So traveling to the center of the island was a bit tough but we were only there for a day.  We stayed at the Santa Marina Resort and Villas.  Loved the resort, the beach but it was not near the city center and not convenient to get around.  The hotel offered a shuttle to the city center; however, the last shuttle coming back to the hotel is at 11 pm, not ideal if you want to enjoy the night life in Mykonos.  Finding a cab at night is extremely difficult and very expensive.  We had to go to a hotel and ask them to call a cab for us. We were told none available and to just sit and wait.  45 mins later, we were able to share a cab with another couple but there wasn’t much room for bargaining or a fair price that time of the night and without other options.  Many tourists in Mykonos rent cars, mopeds, etc if they are renting houses or staying in the outskirts of the island.  Choose wisely as driving those mopeds at night is dangerous.

mykonos resort

5 star resort in Mykonos

View from our resort in Mykonos

View from our resort in Mykonos

Mykonos

Mykonos at night

I didn’t find much to brag about in Mykonos, but it was a pretty island with nice beaches.  Nothing like the beauty of Santorini.  I also didn’t participate in the night life but could see the island filled with lots of younger tourists and yes, a heavy concentration of a homosexual visitors that Mykonos is famous and known to have as where in Santorini, I saw more honeymooners and families.

Traveling between islands and to/from Athens

If going/coming from Athens to Santorini, fly.  It’s a 45 min flight as opposed to six-hour ferry.  Island hop with the ferry from Santorini.  It takes about three hours to Mykonos with other islands along the way.  Be sure to buy a ticket with an assigned seat on the ferries, this is not always obvious.  It’s only about $7 more to get an assigned seat, especially if taking the ferry from Mykonos to Athens, which is about a 6-8 hour ferry ride and people rush in and occupy any general seating in the cafeteria, etc. and after the first two island stops, there will be no where to sit except on the floor.  We found this the hard way but were able to upgrade our tickets on the ferry after a couple of stops before it became fully booked.  You can buy tickets online or at the station.  I actually don’t recall the specific site I used but here are a few suggestions.  We took the ferry from Mykonos to Athens because the flight times were not that convenient for our tight schedule, but if you can avoid the long ferry ride to/from Athens do so.  There is no speed ferry back to Athens because they make so many stops.

http://www.openseas.gr/openseas/index.html

http://www.greekferries.gr
http://www.ferriesingreece.com

One of the countries I would and will go back to.  Not much shopping in Greece but the food is great and omg the tomatoes are amazing.  LOL.  I had forgotten what tomatoes really taste like or rather should taste like.  The good thing is that tomatoes are included in almost every meal there, even at the hotel breakfast buffets. 🙂 I would certainly go back to Greece, especially to the islands but perhaps spend more time enjoying the beaches of Santorini and other islands that I didn’t get a chance to visit.  If Greece is in your future plans, you will not be disappointed.

Here area a few more pix.  Write me if you have any questions and I welcome your comments.  Thanks for reading and happy travels!

olympic

Olympic Stadium in Athens

The Acropolis gate in Athens

The Acropolis gate in Athens

Public beach in Santorini

Public beach in Santorini – Kamari

donkeys

Donkey rides from the tour ships up to Fira

santorini

View – Santorini

santorini

Categories: Europe, Greece | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Turkey

Oh the wonders of Turkey!  The many sides of this country would take weeks to visit.  Cramming it into one week didn’t do it justice.  As I understand it, the European side of Turkey and the Asian side provide two very different experiences and adventures.  We focused on the European side, given our short stay there, with an exception of visiting Cappadocia, which is in central Turkey. The Anatolia region has a lot of the ancient history of Turkey but if you are looking for the a more tropical vacation, Antalya, though I’ve not been, is supposed to be the most beautiful area in Turkey with some of the best beaches.

I must  stop and call out Turkish Airlines.  Although I wasn’t impressed with the boarding process and timeliness of them – from / to JFK (my friend who was flying from Houston had a much more satisfactory experience with them), BUT the in-flight service and food was the best I’ve ever experienced with any airline.

In Turkey, we opted to fly between the cities using Pegasus airline, a no-frill airline kind of similar to our Southwest airlines.  Problem was that they always had a delay and Istanbul is the hub, so no matter which city we were visiting, we had to stop in Istanbul and change airplanes.  Because of this, we were forced to take super early flights to not miss too many daytime hours, it made for a very tiring trip with very little sleep.

Izmir (Ephesus),

ephesus, oldest library, biblioteque

The first library1 Architect: Mr. biblioteque hence the French word for library.

ephesus, ancient ruins, turkey

the second largest ancient coliseum and the road leading up to it and the largest ancient merchant market, where the likes of Caesar and Cleopatra once walked

One of the oldest and most interesting ancient ruins, I’ve visited.  To walk down the walkway where Caesar, Cleopatra and the likes once walked is a pretty damn good feeling.   Flying into Izmir and having to take a nearly 2 hour drive to Kusadasi was painful at 1 am and expensive.  It’s the one place, I wasn’t able to find a cheaper form of transportation and haggling doesn’t work.  They know you don’t have many options and it’s a take or leave it attitude.  Taking a taxi or a previously scheduled shuttle (which we hadn’t) seemed to be our only options.  The shuttle service was slightly cheaper.  Daytime arrivals may be able to take advantage of a subway system that takes you close to the area and then buses are available.

The city of Kusadasi was like most beach towns.  Pretty, scenic, a center with shops, bars, restaurants, beach and everything you would expect of a city by the Mediterranean.  I did however nearly lose my life in the water.  Since we had only one full day here and we had spent most of the day sightseeing, I was determined to get into the Mediterranean sea that I love so much.  I decided to walk down from our hotel and find an access to the water.  My friend opted for the poolside.  As I was walking toward the center of the town with the public beach access, I came across a beach bar which reduced its entry fee of 10 euros to 5 euros for me to enter.  To get into the water, I had to climb down some steps, which was fine, but at this point it was nearly 6 pm and tide was high.  I swam a bit in very deep waters but when trying to climb back out, getting a solid hold of the steps and putting my foot on the very slippery steps proved nearly impossible as the waves were crushing into me and knocking me off.  The other problem was that right behind the stairs were big rocks where the bar was built on.  I had to forgo trying to hold on to my bikini in order to keep at least one hand tight around the railing so that the waves would crash me into the rocks.  This exercise took nearly 10 minutes before I could get my foot on the steps and climb out.  I did bruise my fingers in the process but I made it out.  One gentleman finally noticed I was struggling.  He was coming to the rescue but by then I had made it.  I didn’t go back in .. as much as I wanted to.

I’m not sure if there is anything to see in the city of Izmir but doubt it. It’s just an airport to get you to where you really want to go, which is probably Ephesus. Ephesus is one of the best preserved ancient ruins and they are still excavating. Many of the discoveries have been under rocks and dirt due to the frequent earthquakes in the region. Ephesus holds the very first ever built library, the biblioteque (duh), and the second largest ancient coliseum, after the one in Rome of course. You can see the largest merchant trading square, where these merchants and royalties walked to get to this very modern city during its time. This is one of the few areas I recommend getting a guided tour. I wish I could remember the name of the tour company that we chose. He was extremely knowledgeable. Be sure to book a tour before arriving if you have limited time here. We were very lucky to find one as most were sold out or had already left by the time we woke up for breakfast.

This tour also included a visit to the Virgin Mary’s house, which I had no idea existed. This is the house where she resided after Jesus was killed and it is where she died. The house was buried under dirt and rocks for thousands of years until, as the story goes, a German in 1920s had a vision about the location of the house. It wasn’t until some 70 years later that the house was discovered. Today is a shrine and a big tourist site.

Also included, is the site of the old Apollo temple. You don’t need to go here. There is absolutely nothing left here of the structure except a few locals trying to sell you a book with pictures of what it could’ve looked like. Some tours include this but just be sure to not seek it or pay for it thinking that there’s anything to see.

We stopped at a authentic Turkish restaurant in a village near the ruins that had some of the best Turkish food Ive ever tasted. Ask for the place in Seven Sleepers.

The hotel where we stayed was nice but sadly there was a nightclub down the hill that kept the entire neighborhood up until 4 am. There was no escaping and no sleeping. Researching the hotels and staying at one of the more expensive resorts may be worth it. Oh and the random fireworks one night around 1 am for no real reason… as if we could sleep anyway. Earplugs didn’t do the trick for me!

This region has the biggest crop of fruits and vegetation in Turkey. You can see acres and acres of fruit trees and farms while driving about. I can’t recall for certain but I think dates and fig trees are mostly grown in this area. Given its rich soil, weather, location by the sea, and obvious derived benefits, no wonder the old world’s biggest merchant market was located here and was desired by many empires.

Cappadocia

A painful early morning flight via Istanbul brought us to this magical city. I knew nothing about this place and wasn’t on my list of places to visit but it was on my friend’s list. This city will not disappoint and it is worth seeing at least once in your lifetime. It is a city right out of the movie sets, in fact the background for the movie Star Wars, was filmed in the outskirts of this town. The actual movie couldn’t be filmed here given the political turbulence of the time.

The city was built with homes in caves and some underground cities going as far back as 10,000 BC – that is as far as they can trace because there is nothing left of times prior to that. The underground cities can go as far as 12 levels. We made it to seven levels below. This is where in ancient times, the locals would hide, sometimes for months from invasions. The one interesting fact, is that we could see where they kept the live stock – yes underground – baked bread, water wells, slept..etc., but no sign of a bathroom. It is still unknown how they managed this.

Many of the hotels are built in the caves, so you can stay in a true cave hotel or a resort that resembles a cave hotel but it’s not, because it still need the use of air conditioning. We stayed at the latter. A very nice resort but not a true cave hotel. We saw our very first salt room. You can sit in this room and then go into one of the steam rooms or spa rooms. Salt is known to remedy allergies, etc. A very interesting experience.   Cappadocia Cave Resort and Spa. Most people don’t want to stay in this part of the city, you have to catch a bus or taxi to get to the main town.  A lot of the higher-end resorts are in Uchisar, which is an area set on top of a hill away from the downtown area.  Uchisar Castle is on top of the hill in this area but it’s not much to it.  Not a real castle… but if you climb to the top you will get a view of the city below.  I didn’t find this much interesting.

A MUST DO- take a hot air balloon here. It is one of the most magnificent views you”ll ever see from a hot air balloon. The view is like something from a magical movie. You don’t need the 1.5 hour ride, one hour should do it and do your research online for deals before going there. But prices range from $180-300.

There are three types of tours you can take here and all tour companies sell the same but with a little difference in prices. The tours are red, blue, green. You can do the red tour on your own but just walking about the town. We chose the green tour, which took us to a hike near the river, site of the Star Wars filming and the cave attractions near by, and the largest underground city. I recommend this one.  Goreme open air museum is a popular spot here, you can do this with the red tour or do it on your own.  This is the section of the city with the ancient cave homes and cave churches.

fairey chimneys, cappadocia

fairy chimneys, cappadocia. Taken from the hot air balloon ride.

hot air balloon. cappadocia, turkey

Me in the hot air balloon. Fantastic!

ephesus, turkey, local ladies making bread

Ladies making bread. During our tour (green tour) walking by the river.

Istanbul

Stay in the old city, a.k.a Sultanahamet area. You can walk to all the nearby attractions without a need for a tour, unless you are one of those people that prefer tours. I’m not. I like being on my own time. The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the museums, Basilica Cistern, Sultan’s palace… all are around in one central location. One hint about Sultan’s palace, you can skip the long lines, if you didn’t pay the extra $25+ to get the fast track pass, by going around 3 or 4 pm. There is no line but what you should keep in mind is that although you can see the palace until 7 pm, the harem houses, which is the biggest attraction, close at 6. You can see them until 7 but you cannot buy the ticket after 6. This ticket is not sold outside with the entry to the palace ticket. you have to purchase it inside the palace, something tours don’t tell you.

blue masque, istanbul

Blue Masque

blue masque, istanbul

Blue Masque

Be sure to wear a long skirt or pants and take something to cover your shoulders when going to the masque.  Ladies will be give a scarf for the head and shoulders but my friend who was wearing capri pants was given a hard time for the length of the pants.

Hagia Sophia is a combination of Islam meets Christianity and you can see the works of each inside this magnificent architecture.  Right inside the entrance there is a video being played of the history of this monument.  If you are not part of a tour, watch this.  It gives almost all the information you would receive in the tour.

hagia sophia, istanbul

Hagia Sophia

Basilica Cistern is an interesting place that most people don’t have on their list.  Inside this ancient cistern that lies under the city, there are a few columns with the head of Medusa sculpted on the bottom.  One of these is set sideways.  There are a few explanations why, but I’ll leave it for you to discover.

Walk down the main road down to Zia Sark Sofrasi (restaurant) and order the dish Ali Nazik.  I heard someone in Kusadasi try to order this dish the restaurant didn’t know what it was.  Not sure if it’s a regional dish but when I got to Istanbul, I made sure I try this.  Oh it will not disappoint.  A Turkish pizza seems to be popular as well.

Bospherus tour – you will at some point lose your patience with someone trying to sell you the boat tour. At every corner, there are at least six people trying to sell you this tour. It is definitely worth take a boat ride but you can go to the ferry station and buy a ticket to get on the ferry for about $3. The tours will sell you a ride on their tour ferries for anywhere from $50 to up to $200ish, depending on what they offer on the boat. You decide if you want a quick ride around or need the frills. You may want to take the ride in daytime and night time to see the lights.

The spice market and Grand Bazaar are also within walking distance of the Blue Mosque. You will not need public transportation to get to any of these places, unless you decide to cross the river and go to the attractions on the other side, which is actually the Asian side but yet has all the Christian sightseeing, where as the old city, the European side has the non-Christian history. You can find a lot of shopping at the Grand Bazaar but don’t expect bargains. I found the prices same as, if not more, expensive as any other shopping area in Turkey. Bargain all you can.

spice market, turkey, istanbul

Spice Market

If you find a nice place to take in a Turkish bath, I would recommend it. Hagia Sophia bath house is the most famous but also the most expensive. We found a really nice one and a great bath/massage package at the Pierre Loti hotel.  It’s private and not an open Turkish bath.  So if you are looking for the authentic Turkish bath experience, you’ll have to go to one of the ones in town and not in the hotels.

One night walking about the neighborhood, we noticed a graveyard right on the side of the crazy busy street. It didn’t even phase us anyone else that this was a graveyard, there was a sign for a tea house and hooka bar. We sat among what seems liked locals, mostly young guys watching a soccer game on tv, and drank our Turkish tea. It became bustling with the young local crowd as the night wore on but not once did we think we were sitting in the middle of a grave yard.

Three days should be enough seeing Istanbul. In the summer time take day trips to the Black Sea or the Princess Island, a remote island where only horse carriages and bikes provide transportation. We didn’t do either but maybe next time.

four seasons

I recommend eating a much as possible here. Try the fabulous Turkish cuisine as much as you can. It was one of the highlights of this trip for me.

One lat memory from this country, every shop owner will try to get you to go into their story in this manner “please come into my shop. Where are you from?” It didn’t matter where I said I was from there was always a story about that country to try to get you into the store. Never did I understand why! If I wanted to shop, I’d go in, regardless of what country I’m from. My nationality remained a puzzle to the Turks as they thought I was one of them, if not, I was either Brazilian or Italian or ,,,,, That part was entertaining.

Ali nazik dish

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Basilica Cistern – upside down Medusa column.

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Background used for Star Wars movies. Green tour will cover this.

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Turkish ice cream!

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Our Turkish style room.

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Ancient cave houses and churches.

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