4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Europe”

Eat Where We Ate (by Carmen)

While I was traveling I started to wonder if I would ever be able to find all the eateries I’ve visited if I eventually returned to a particular city or region. I mean, it seemed easy enough now since it was all relatively fresh in my memory. But in a few years? There are some places I know I will return to and others less so. Just to be on the safe side, I figured I would note down as many of the places we mentioned in the blog as I could whether or not I plan to revisit. Turns out, that was A LOT.  The culmination of this effort: The 4feet2mouths Food Map

I adore maps, old and new - in this case of Istanbul (Sources: Duke University, Rifle Paper Co)

I adore maps, old and new – in this case of Istanbul (Sources: Duke University, Rifle Paper Co)

Memory is an amazing thing (and has fascinated me even more since I read Moonwalking with Einstein). Our brains are incredibly adept at spatial memory. I was astounded how much location-specific information I could recall when I really tried. I even started testing myself with restaurants from earlier travels and found that by studying a google map I could find places without the help of google search. It is probably obvious by now that I am a complete map nerd. Seriously, cartography is absolutely beautiful!

Screenshot of 4feet2Mouths Food Map, zoomed in on Istanbul

Screenshot of 4feet2Mouths Food Map, zoomed in on Istanbul

There’s an added bonus to my map memory game – now you can eat where we ate! I am using this as a tool to make recommendations to others about our favorite restaurants and food stalls (and a few sights as well). So if anyone says, “Do you know any good places in Istanbul?” I can send the link and they can zoom in from there. I have to admit, this idea stemmed from a map my friend Andrew shared about his favorite places in New York. It was useful for me so I hope mine will be useful to you.

Datli Maya in Istanbul is one of 150 listings on the 4feet2mouths Food Map!

Datli Maya in Istanbul is one of 150 listings on the 4feet2mouths Food Map!

Food Map Link

The permanent link will be at the top of the page

So from now on the 4feet2mouths Food Map will be housed on the Eat Where We Ate page of this blog (see the link at the top). It was quite the effort and I’m proud of the result. I will update it periodically as our travels progress. In the meantime, I hope you can enjoy some of our recommendations.

The 4feet2mouths Food Map

Picture 5

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Costs of Travel #3: Highs and Lows in Europe & India (by Carmen)

In August of 2012 Nathan and I were excitedly preparing for the Big Trip – our around the world adventure that would take us eastward towards Europe, Asia and all the way back to California. Based on our travels earlier in 2012 we felt ready – we knew what to pack and how to plan and, importantly, how to budget. South America had taught us valuable lessons on blowing a budget and we managed to find a better balance in our US travels.

London Expenses 2012

The lovely Borough Market offers delicious (but pricey) eats in London

The lovely Borough Market offers delicious (but pricey) eats in London

But we were about to be tested. Everyone loves Europe’s history, culture, and food but invariably people always need to mention the expense. This is especially true of our very first destination – London. And they’re right. London is expensive for the visitor. I will note that living there is a different story since cooking your meals offers huge costs savings (more than in the States) and my former employer covered all transit costs for me and Nathan (a dream deal). But this time we were tourists and we needed to cut costs somewhere. Enter couchsurfing, round 2. Our first experience couchsurfing, which took place in Nebraska, was unique and resulted in us borrowing a tent and setting up in a local campground. This time around, it was much more of a cultural exchange. Our host, a Malaysian native studying law, cooked us some fried rice. We later cooked him a feast with supplies from the nearest polski sklep (Polish grocery shop). Couchsurfing saved us at least $50 a night – and that’s the price for 2 beds in a 12 bed dorm room! For a private room, forget it. Instead, we spent our money on the city’s excellent restaurants and riding my favorite transit option, the tube. And, as always, London has some of the best museums in the world and they’re free! Hence, the low entertainment costs.

Camino de Santiago Expenses 2012

One of the best meals on the Camino, broiled octopus with chunks of bread and bowls of white wine

One of the best meals on the Camino, broiled octopus with chunks of bread and bowls of white wine

After London, we began one of our greatest adventures yet – the Camino de Santiago. Plenty of literature can be found online and in books on the average costs of the Camino and we were right on target at $32.42 per day (not including costs to get to Spain and back). Obviously, the biggest budget item is food – necessary to fuel your body to walk 8 hours in a day. In this chart, I love how our transit costs are so low. This is because for an entire month I only moved by the power of my own feet. No buses, trains, bikes or cars. This $0.46 represents a day trip we took to La Coruna at the end of our trip, as we spent a few days in Santiago. Overall, the Camino is a great option for learning about Spanish culture on a serious budget.

Madrid Expenses 2012

At the hip Madrid tapas bar, La Musa

At the hip Madrid tapas bar, La Musa

During the Camino we became used to spending very little. So by the time we got to Madrid, we were ready to splurge! We joined the crowds at hip bars and new-age tapas joints. We ordered an enormous pan of paella topped off with a jug of sangria. We stayed in a private room in a well-located hostel. We still saved by timing our museum visits for free entry and walking around instead of taking transit or taxis. But in the end the Spanish capitol became our most expensive stop on the Big Trip.

Greece Expenses 2012

Gyro are filling, cheap and everywhere

Gyro are filling, cheap and everywhere

Everyone knows Greece has been one of the hardest hit by the recession. So this must mean low prices, right? Well, kind of. Museums have their entry fees and hotels were not cheap. So we did our best to couchsurf, which led to more awesome experiences and new friendships. Where we did stay in hotels, we used the fact that it was the shoulder season (October) to our advantage and bargained with hotel owners on the islands. This worked out to have some significant savings for us. You can’t really bargain at restaurants, though, so our food costs ended up being the biggest chunk of the pie. But at least our cheap gyro meals kept this cost lower than it could have been.

Turkey Expenses 2012

Delicious cacık is a tradition in Turkey

Delicious cacık is a tradition in Turkey

Turkey proved to be a similar cost to Greece, though the breakdown is quite different. Our eating costs reduced significantly even though we were still eating in casual restaurants. But our couchsurfing efforts didn’t pan out therefore we ended up in hostels. I really loved our Selcuk hostel, though, so in the end it all worked out. Compared to the rest of Europe, Turkey really offers great sights and food for relatively low cost.

Europe Expenses 2012

Overall, Europe was not a budget breaker at all. It can be, as our splurge in Madrid showed. And without the couchsurfing our costs would have gone up. But I feel that we had really found our balance in spending where it meant the most for us (more simply, food).

India Expenses 2012

Delicious idli and gunta ponganalu breakfast from Hampi, India.  I'm pretty sure this cost about $0.75 or less with our morning chai.

Delicious idli and gunta ponganalu breakfast from Hampi, India. I’m pretty sure this cost about $0.60 or less with our morning chai.

And now for something completely different. India was not only a culture shock to the system, it was shockingly cheap. Especially all the gloriously delicious food. We mostly ate at street food stalls and casual restaurants, but everywhere we went we just shook our heads at the low prices. Food has no cost premium, but land does. Fit a billion people in a country a third the size of the continental US and you better believe it’s crowded. Therefore, hostels were relatively expensive at $25 a night for a private room in the bigger cities. Of course, in the bigger picture this is cheap so go ahead and live like a king in India. For me, the budget in India was so low that it inspired my personal back-up plan. If at some point in my life I need to take a break, some time to step back and breathe, I’m headed to India where I could probably spend a year living comfortably and eating well for $10K.

Expenses YTD through India 2012

So I’ve taken you through the highs and lows of our Big Trip budget. Europe was our high, but by making key cuts in our sleeping and eating costs we were able to keep our budget in check. In India it’s not expensive to splash out but we still decided to keep budget in mind and stayed at low-cost hotels and ate plenty of street food. We were striving to keep our overall travel budget for the year at $50 per day, which means we were going to have to make-up for our blown South America budget. So far we were still around $67 per day.  Did we succeed in bringing it down? Our next post on costs through the rest of Asia will reveal all!

The Best of 410 Days of Travel (by Nathan)

Northside of Uçhisar castle in Cappadocia

Northside of Uçhisar castle in Cappadocia

Life without travel, to us, is not life.  In February of 2012 we set out on an adventure beyond what anyone could fathom.  Our destinations would be magnificent and our itinerary complex.  We gave up most of our possessions and set out to explore the world.  I remember our last night in Berkeley, we sat on the floor of our empty apartment eating a fabulous cheeseboard pizza washed down with rosé (from a winery aptly named L’aventure, The Adventure).  Both of us were nervous about what might happen over the next year.  We wanted needed to travel. There is only so much ground that can be covered on two week vacations, so we postponed our careers in search of historical, cultural and culinary education.  We met wonderful people and saw countless jaw-dropping sights.   In total we explored over 100 villages, towns and big cities in eighteen countries on four continents through 410 days of travel.  It was a wild ride of buses, rickshaws, trains and walking on our own two feet.  The best part is that I would not change any bit of it.  Every experience has its place and memory that I love.

Last meal in our Berkeley apartment: Cheeseboard pizza & L’Aventure Rose (perfect)

Last meal in our Berkeley apartment: Cheeseboard pizza & L’Aventure Rose (perfect)

I think the most impressive achievement of traveling is the accumulation of memories.  Every day traveling creates a new experience, a beautiful sight, a peculiar food or an awkward cultural exchange.  Each one of these unique events is stored within my brain like a painting of a vibrant and textured year.  The events shine with such color and flavor that Carmen and I can quiz each other and remember what we ate, saw and did exactly on any day of the last year.  What were you doing last May 7, 2012?  We woke up at sunrise and walked across the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, then bused to Puno, Peru and had Chinese food while watching a Bruce Lee soap opera with a funny theme song chorus.  I look back at my years working and there are a few standout events, work milestones, or an exceptionally fun weekend or a fabulous meal we created with friends.  But for the most part, memories just are not stored vividly because they get lost in the routine of the day to day while traveling provides so many novel experiences.

Nathan taking a rest during a hike

Nathan taking a rest during a hike

Carmen and another day of travel

Carmen and another day of travel

The memories of our trip hit me with amazing detail.  We are constantly asked what our favorite part of the trip was.  It is virtually impossible to compile millions of wonderful memories and synthesize them in a single answer.  We hiked mountains, canyons and through forests and ate dosas, ceviche and hot pot.  And we loved every bit of all of it.  I have tried to go through some of our favorite activities, tastes and sights and tried to compile a brief list of some of the “bests” of fourteen months of travel. 

Rio de Janiero - Ipanema Sunrise

Rio de Janiero – Ipanema Sunrise

Best Big Cities: London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Chengdu

Best Big Cities: London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Chengdu

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Big Cities

Carmen and I love big cities.  We love the life that one can feel in a city.  The people thrive with high-rises, public transit, beautiful museums, beaches and sights.  The food tingles with flavors so intense that the tongue and entire body becomes addicted.  And although there may be culture-shock these cities are welcoming and encouraging to be a tourist and maybe an inhabitant.  I loved Rio de Janiero from our week traveling there in March 2012.  The city is beautiful and the music passionate.  I can’t wait to go back.  London and Hong Kong are of course one of our most favorite cities in the world.  Chengdu feels a bit more scattered in its design, but remains one of my favorites for the food alone.  Istanbul is a gem in the world, a perfect crossing point for Asia and Europe with all the delicacies and beauty that make it uniquely Turkish.

Shaxi, our favorite small town

Shaxi, our favorite small town

The small towns often get missed in lists like these.  We visited a perfect little village named Shaxi in between Dali and Lijiang.  It was quaint and picturesque, and a wonderful variation from the Chinese tourist cities that are so common.  Unfortunately it is changing and I expect that it will not be the same when I return.  We visited countless small towns during our Camino de Santiago trek, each dainty or dusty, but fun to explore in search of a café cortado.

Tartine bread pudding with strawberries

Tartine bread pudding with strawberries

Best Sweets: baklava, sweet soup. Mango sticky rice & alfajores

Best Sweets: baklava, sweet soup. Mango sticky rice & alfajores

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Sweets

Amazingly enough we did discover coffee during our travels abroad.  Both Carmen and I appreciated coffee, but refused to be addicted so we drank it very rarely.  Walking across Spain changed that, now we just have to limit intake.  There are few better things to have a coffee with than bread pudding.  Tartine in San Francisco makes my absolute favorite dessert of the year.  We always used to eat here, but after having it again with strawberries, I cannot help but put it at the top of the list.  Other favorites include Honeymoon Desserts’ sweet soup and alfajores.   Mango sticky rice is so simple and perfect that I wish I could eat it every day.  In Turkey we tried to eat baklava every day, which were all phenomenal.  One place, Karaköy Güllüoğlu, created nut and phillo pillows of gold.  The fact is that there are just too many excellent places to eat while traveling.

Gong Bao Ji (Chicken)

Gong Bao Ji (Chicken)

Best Foods: ceviche, rajas y queso, boat noodles & pho

Best Foods: ceviche, rajas y queso, boat noodles & pho

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Food

I still stand my original statement on Chengdu that the gong bao chicken we ate on Renmin Zhonglu remains one of my favorite meals.  I am so happy that we ate there twice!  Another favorite is La Super Rica; you can order blindly here and you will be very happy.  Boat noodles and pho are charactieristic of the flavors of Thailand and Vietnam.  In general, the everyday food in South America is rather mediocre.  Culinary enthusiasts should rightly stay in Asia.  Although we loved the pizzas of Buenos Aires, my real favorite of South America was the ceviche that we consumed in large amounts in Lima Peru.  Survival during travel is not on food alone, it is the sights that often distinguish the destinations.

Ephesus library

Ephesus library

Best Ruins: Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Caryatids on the Acropolis, Vittana Temple & carved church in Cappadocia

Best Ruins: Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Caryatids on the Acropolis, Vittana Temple & carved church in Cappadocia

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Ruins

In school I never really liked history.  It seemed like such a mish-mash of random wars and crap that never mattered.  Then I started traveling and developed a love of understanding cultures and people and the history leading to their current lives.  I find that I can spend all day bouncing around a set of ruins, crawling around a cave or reading countless interpretive signs.  Seeing a place brings the history to life and ingrains a sense of reality that these events actually happened.  Some of my favorite places were the Inca Trail, Angkor and Athens; there are so many ruins that can be enjoyed and each building, wall and path defines a little bit of history that is easier to understand.  India’s civilization is thousands of years old and the variety of ruins and temples demonstrates a wealth of history.  One of our favorite cities was Hampi, the ruins were spread out, but beautiful and easy to explore.  Cappadocia was honestly unbelievable: underground cities and fairy chimney houses really do exist.

Hagia Sofia, most impressive building

Hagia Sofia, most impressive building

We were doubly awestruck when visiting the Hagia Sofia.  It is old enough to be in ruins, built 500ad, but still remarkably towers above and beyond what many modern engineers are designing.  I was deeply moved and inspired by this magnificent building and I look forward to seeing it and Istanbul again.  Beyond the buildings and the history it was the landscapes that intrigued us and kept us walking and walking and walking.

Grand Canyon Sunset from Cape Final

Grand Canyon Sunset from Cape Final

Best Landscapes: Salkantay, Camino de Santiago, Salar de Uyuni & Cappadocia

Best Landscapes: Salkantay, Camino de Santiago, Salar de Uyuni & Cappadocia

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Landscapes

The landscapes of the world vary drastically.  The contrasts between mountains, canyons and forests are immense, but one thing is for certain: the human heart is sure to skip a beat at certain places on this planet.  We sought out many of these spectacular sights, and some of my favorites include: camping beneath Salkantay mountain on the Inca Trail, The deserts, rocks and salt flats leading up to the Salar de Uyuni and Cappadocia rock formations and hot air balloons.  Grand Canyon, despite its ubiquity as being a beautiful destination, remains one of my favorite places.  We trekked for eight days and loved all the nuances, textures and colors that transition throughout the day.  We experienced so many beautiful things: Tiger Leaping Gorge and Zhangjiajie come to mind in China or Cafayate and Iguazu in Argentina; each is its own special and vibrant memory.

Walking the Camino de Santiago towards Sahagún

Walking the Camino de Santiago towards Sahagún

I value each experience of our trip uniquely, but one was critical to my well-being and my development as a human- walking the Camino de Santiago.  The steadiness of walking, the meditation involved with each step and the time to think is phenomenal.  I finished the Camino confident that I could achieve anything, but humbled that I finished it with someone I love, Carmen.  Walking the Camino de Santiago is special and life-changing for everyone in their own way.  I feel that I could walk it again tomorrow and it would still bring value and pleasure to my travels.

Nathan & Carmen at Condoritos Park

Nathan & Carmen at Condoritos Park

We often get concerns about our travels.  People care to know about muggings, stolen property and the life and death situations that might have caused us head home.  Carmen and I were very fortunate to not have any serious turmoil happen to us while traveling.  Our worst evening was spent shivering on the side of the road next to the Condoritos Park.  We did hear of some friends who had cameras stolen from buses in Tupiza, or friends of friends who were pick-pocketed in Rio, but none of these things happened to us.  We did accidentally leave a nice steel canteen in Sao Paulo and another Nalgene on a minibus in Zhongdian, but that is it.  Carmen and I are very meticulous to carry very little, we pack light and we walk with our hands free and we secure our money when we get it.  We were lucky, but I feel that the people of the world are generally nice and helpful.  People in Vietnam were extremely welcoming and kind to us throughout our trip and we experienced zero hard feelings for being American. In fact, everyone was welcoming; we, for the most part, only encountered nice and thoughtful people.  (That crazy girl in Tiger Leaping Gorge kung fu kicks into my memory.)  Our trip was a great success and I feel confident that we could travel anywhere and have similar experiences and treatment.

Nathan getting a mud cleanse

Nathan getting a mud cleanse

Just as fast as the date came for us to embark, it was time to settle down.  We traveled hard and fast.  We were diligent to explore as many parts of the world as we could.  Language and food was no barrier, and we were entertained by the beautiful sights that both nature and humans have created.  The challenge with any travel is that the world never feels smaller.  The world feels more accessible, but our bucket lits of places to go and things to see has only grown larger than when we left.  The question we have to figure out now, is what country we will travel to next?

Carmen sandbar silhouette in Ilha do Mel

Carmen sandbar silhouette in Ilha do Mel

Many of you have been our readers throughout this journey and I thank you for your support.  For those who have just started following us: there is a wealth of excellent photos and information in our past posts.  Future posts will continue to entertain on the travel and food theme that we all love.

Past, Present and Future (by Carmen)

PAST
Looking back on our trip is an adventure unto itself as it provides me a rapidfire onslaught of memories and emotions.
 We had such a variety of experiences this past 14 months, how do I begin to summarize it all?  Fortunately, we have done a couple summary posts already.  Therefore, I’m going to pick up where we left off.  Here is a selection of favorite memories from the last part of our trip, Cambodia through to Hong Kong:

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

  • Squeezing fresh coconuts for milk and adding it to my fish curry in ultra laid back Battambang
  • That first bite of banh mi in Saigon – crispy, crunchy, sour, sweet, creamy, savory goodness
  • Being invited by locals for watermelon and rice liquor next to Pongour Waterfall near Dalat
Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

  • Chilling on the deck of our boat with Julia and Jonathan in Halong Bay
  • Observing a simpler way of life in the jungle villages of Luang Namtha
  • Being served delicious stewed pork by a street vendor in a cowboy hat in Chiang Mai
  • Sampling Yunnan’s famous mushrooms in steamed bun form at the early morning market in Kunming
Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

  • Getting up close and personal with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the intense rapids at its base within Tiger Leaping Gorge
  • Devouring dumplings then getting a taste of Tibetan spirituality at Ganden Sumtseling Gompa monastery in Zhongdian
  • Trying to get my head around the incredible rice terraces of Yuanyang while making new friends Michael and Albert
  • Eating the infamous black stinky tofu of Changsha and actually enjoying it
Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

  • Dipping fresh tofu in a bubbling red hot pot while sitting in a converted bomb shelter in Chongqing
  • Hanging out in the convivial tea houses of Sichuan
  • Finding my food mecca in Chengdu – mapo tofu, gong bao chicken, twice cooked pork, fish fragrant eggplant how I miss you so
  • Absorbing the vivacious energy of Hong Kong in its streets, dim sum halls, hidden bars and Michelin starred hole in the walls
"This food will change your lifestyle" from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

“This food will change your lifestyle” from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

Many of my memories have to do with food because I don’t eat to live, I live to eat. Throughout our travels I was struck by how much difference it made to eat a cuisine in the place it had originated. And it’s not just because things taste fresher. It is a about the environment and the people too. Take dosa for example.  I had eaten dosa, the Indian roll stuffed with potatoes and veggies and served with daal and chutney dipping sauces, in Berkeley.  But it wasn’t until I was in India – eating my dosa at breakfast on a metal plate with a metal cup of chai tea, breathing in the thick humid air, watching other groups chatting happily in their sing song accent – that I really got it.  Dosa is filling but not heavy.  Basically, it is a damn good way to start the day.  In each country, I learned more about foods that I thought I had known with the result being that I now have a greater appreciation for these cuisines.

Of course, travel is about more than food.  Travel changes you but not necessarily in a dramatic way.  I had experiences that caused me to do some thinking, yes, but no light bulb epiphanies that changed my life. When confronted with so many new or unique experiences each day it’s hard to gauge change within yourself. Perhaps a better way to put it is a better sense of self.  Because the saying is true – “wherever you go, there you are.”

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

And we went a lot of places.  Over the past 14 months I have ridden high speed trains, a 27 hour sleeper bus, overnight ferries, small vans overburdened with 22 people, and what I like to call the rickshaw roller coaster. Powered by my own two feet I weaved through traffic packed streets on a bicycle and walked 500 mile across Spain.  My career is in transportation and I can’t help but feel that these experiences brought greater insight to my work.

Women skillfully carrying their goods

Women skillfully carrying their goods in Hubli, India

To remember all these places, experiences and transport modes gives me an immense sense of gratitude.  I know how fortunate I am for the health and resources to do this trip.  As a woman, I’m also grateful for the fact that I was born in the West.  Sexism is alive and well in the USA but I’m happy we got past the women as second class citizens thing.  Not so in many other parts of the world.  It was annoying to see groups of men and women working in China because often the men were sitting around while the women were shoveling or raking or doing whatever job had to be done.  Of course in Turkey there is gender separation as a result of religious norms, though as a tourist I personally did not feel any discrimination. The country we visited where I felt it most was India.  The culture is positively obsessed with gender and the idea that men absolutely can’t control themselves in the presence of a woman.  Women must cover, must hide away, must have their own train car in order to not be groped.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Thailand just after India that I realized how oppressing it all was.  I could finally wear a tank top to deal with the heat and nobody looked twice!  There were more women walking the sidewalks, women riding scooters, women sitting next to the men they didn’t know on transit (gasp!) and life went on.  I do hope that India finds a better balance of equality in the years that come.

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to "cook" during our travels

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to “cook” during our travels

PRESENT
Given my tales of culture shock and exhausting bus rides, it’s no wonder people often ask if I’m tired of travel. I think I surprise them when I say not really. If someone offered me a ticket to Italy leaving tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate to pack my bags.

That said, I am excited to resume some of my hobbies that I haven’t been able to do because of my travels. Cooking and having my own kitchen is a big one. I’m looking forward to have those lazy Sundays when I get to dedicate my day to making a delicious bolognaise. Also, learning about some many cultural histories has me thinking about my own familial one. I’ve always wanted to make a family tree and now I’m more inspired than ever.

Therefore, we are now in the process of settling down. At least for a short while. The big question is where. Part of the impetus of this trip was an was a desire to move from the San Francisco area, where we had spent nearly 10 years. We are looking for a new place to call home. Our main desire is a big city that supports our lifestyle of exploring by foot and eating good food. Will it be New York? London? Hong Kong? I wish I knew! But the main determinant will be where we can land jobs.

In the immediate future, there is our wedding to plan which is both exciting and anxiety-inducing. Meanwhile, we will be posting on some of our local travels to see friends and family as well as advice on how to plan your own trip.

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

FUTURE
But just because we are staying in one place doesn’t mean I can’t already plan my future travel adventures. Taking a year off just opens your eyes to more places to visit and explore.

My dad asked me where would I return of all the international places I’d been this year, which is much better than asking what my favorite place is (impossible to answer!).  For some places, one visit is enough.  But it’s the ones that call you back that indicate that there’s something special there. Here is a list of places I would return (* means I visited pre-blog):

  • The Camino
  • Greek islands
  • Istanbul, Turkey
  • Southern Vietnam
  • Thailand beaches
  • Sichuan
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan*
  • Anywhere in Europe*
I want to have a wall map in my apartment (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

I will definitely have a wall map in my apartment! (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

And then of course there are the places you hear about and see tantalizing pictures of.  A list of countries I have never been but want to explore:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Korea
  • Western China
  • Nepal
  • The “stans” in Central Asia
  • Russia
  • Croatia
  • Lebanon
  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Morocco
  • Botswana
  • Northern Brazil
  • Southern Argentina

It’s time for us to put down some roots and have a bit more routine in our life. But wherever we end up one thing is for sure. A map will be posted on the wall. Pins will be pushed in to the countries we’ve been to, the ones we need to go back to, and the ones we’ve yet to explore. It will serve as a reminder of fortunate we are to have seen all that have as well as an indicator that the next adventure just around the corner.

But this is not the end!  Stay tuned for Nathan’s thoughts on the trip coming up next.

Making The Most Of 100 Posts! (by N&C)

100 Posts!

100 Posts!

We made it to 100 posts!  The genesis of this blog was simple.  The initial conversation went something like this:

Carmen: Hey, why don’t we start a blog? That way we won’t have to write all those emails to family and friends letting them know what we are up to.
Nathan: OK (with approving shoulder shrug)

What began as an easy method to update loved ones quickly morphed into a full on photo and text journalist exercise.  Neither of us realized the amount of work we would end up putting into the blog, but as we put pen to paper we became enthusiastic to share our stories.  With over 100,000 words and 1,300 images the blog has become a medium for us to relive, share and promote our exploration of the world.  Our efforts felt particularly recognized when our blog was featured on the WordPress Freshly Pressed site, which highlights top blog posts..

4feet2mouths is Freshly Pressed!

4feet2mouths is Freshly Pressed!

Beyond journaling, the blog has even become a way to connect with other travelers and travel fantasizers.  The feedback we received through your comments is much appreciated. (A special shout out to our most frequent commenter, Manish!) On our 100th post, we would like to simply say thank you to all our readers for joining this exciting journey with us.

Machu Picchu friends

Machu Picchu friends

Looking back at the past 10 months it’s hard to believe the incredible journey we’ve had.  As we reviewed pictures for this post we kept thinking,”Wow, did we really get to do all that? Did that really taste as good as I remember?” People often ask us what our favorite places have been but honestly we’ve enjoyed pretty much all of it.  Perhaps we can describe a few favorite moments, though.

And that is truly just a handful.  We are incredibly excited for what is to come – more great memories and mouth-watering food.  Our journey continues through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand as we make a counter-clockwise loop through southeast Asia. From Bangkok we fly to China where we will spend the last part of our trip.

Two hikers

Two hikers

The next biggest question we receive is how we can afford to travel for over a year. This is a challenging to answer simply and we will be writing a series of blog articles to encourage and mobilize the average traveler into the world.  The key reality is that vacation and long-term budget travel are very different activities.  Negotiating with a taxi driver to save $1 or finding a $6 room because it is without air conditioning, hot water or windows or eating food from street carts are daily activities for us.  There is an art to traveling the world, it is a frugal expression, but it is possible.  We have no bills, no mortgage, no car and only one mobile phone.  Simple world travel is cheaper than when we lived in Berkeley!  Most of all we had friends and family that supported us.  We had the great fortune to gain college degrees with stable salary.  After saving for several years, we took a leap of faith to sell everything and travel the world.

Buenos Aires Food

Buenos Aires Food

“Why are you not fat?” Well, our families tell us in amazement that we are looking thin.  We eat a light breakfast and simple lunches and dinners.  We search out great food and when it is good, we photograph it and put it on the blog.  When it is bad, you don’t hear about it.   Ten months of eating is a large number of meals, and we only have the best for you.  Tasting the world is part of our journey and our passions, so if you are hungry when you finish reading- good.  We also only choose the most slimming of photos of course!

Thank you for hopping on our Rickshaw Roller Coaster to see Camino Miracles and Carved Canyons.  We hope you will be able to join us for the next few months as we trek across Southern Asia, return to the U.S. and search for jobs in Europe.  Cheers to more great adventures!

Eurasian Istanbul (by Carmen)

View from Galata Bridge

My first view of Istanbul was at dawn through the bleary eyes. We had just taken an overnight bus from central Turkey. Sometimes buses are overheated, sometimes they are freezing cold. This one happened to be both, with the heater on full blast at the feet and the air conditioning blowing from above. All night I wished I could perform some advanced yoga moves to help me find the perfect temperature balance. I imagine this would involve one foot sticking straight up while the other is crossed behind my head. I tried but alas I’m not that flexible.

İstiklal street with tram

Upon arrival, the sights and sounds of the city were enough to give me a pick me up on the way to the hostel. I had been looking forward to Istanbul for a while so we wasted no time in getting to the old town. First stop: Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia’s grand interior

The gold mosaic dome

View of Hagia Sophia from the side nave

The Hagia Sophia was one of the most magnificent buildings I have ever seen in my life. Stunning. Jaw dropping. And it was built in the 500s(!!!) by the Roman emperor Justinian. I am so happy that this incredible piece of architecture survived the past 1500 years intact. In order to do so it had to change with the times. For its first 1000 years it was a Christian church. But when the Ottomans came they brought Islam with them. The building was converted to a mosque. The most notable additions were large chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, huge disks with Arabic calligraphy and a mihrab showing the direction of Mecca.

Mosaic of Jesus

Original carved marble capital

Fortunately, the conversion to a mosque did not demolish the Christian art already in place. Gold mosaics of Jesus, Mary and saints are still present. Other original details such as the marble column capitals engraved with Justinian’s crest are also there. In the early 20th century the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum to earn money for preservation efforts.

Blue Mosque from the courtyard

Inside the Blue Mosque

Supposedly, Sultan Ahmet I wanted to outdo the Hagia Sophia. Thus, the Blue Mosque was created very close to it. Overall, he succeeded with the exterior which has a harmonious symmetry. The inside is also grand but not quite as impressive as its much older neighbor.

Roman Cistern

Repurposed Greek Medusa head becomes a column base

Just across the street was a special surprise, the roman cistern. At first I thought, “what is going to be so special about a big water storage basin?” But as I descended the stairs to go below street level I realized it was much more. Columns taken from other already ruined temples were used for this utilitarian space meant simply to hold water. That’s how a giant Medusa head ended up as a simple column base. But they put her upside down just to make sure she couldn’t cast her deadly stare.

Turkish flag outside the Grand Bazaar

Another highlight of Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar. It is a 600 year old labyrinth of food and market stalls selling carpets, trinkets, jewelry, clothes, textiles, pottery and pretty much everything you could want. Nathan and I were extremely excited to explore every last nook and cranny. But we didn’t get to see any of it. We had been told that the October 25 was an important Muslim holiday. It is the day that Abraham was to demonstrate his devotion to God by sacrificing his own son. However, God allowed him to sacrifice a goat. However, no one mentioned that everyone would also be off the for the four days following the holiday. Therefore, many of the shops, eateries and the entire Grand Bazaar were closed for basically our entire stay. Now we have a reason to return.

Baklava from Hafız Mustafa Şekerlemeleri

Best baklava ever at Karaköy Güllüoğlu

So how does one drown their sorrows in a city that has high alcohol tax to discourage drinking? Eat more baklava. We sampled from several baklava shops. The first was Hafız Mustafa Şekerlemeleri in the old city. We couldn’t resist the trays of baklava variations backed up by mounds of Turkish delight. I happily bought a box to go for a midnight snack at our hotel. It was delicious, but not quite as delicious as Karaköy Güllüoğlu. This place, across the river in the Beyoğlu neighborhood makes magic. The walnuts and pistachios were freshly roasted and dripping in a persimmon simple syrup.

Spice Bazaar

İstiklal filled with people

The baklava made me feel better. And truth be told not everything was closed. For example, we still made it to the spice bazaar. Yes, it’s touristy but the piles of spices, teas and sweets housed in a 400 year old market building are still fun. However, the real action was on İstiklal, a major shopping thoroughfare that is largely pedestrianized. Thousands of people could be found strolling up and down from midday to late night.

River activities – fish and ferries

Fortunately the ferry cruises were still running so we caught one to take a ride up the Bosporus. We followed up with a balık ekmek (fish sandwich) near the dock. Crispy fish is fried up on small boats, stuffed in some bread with onions and handed over for 5 Turkish lira, about $2.50. It’s up to you to douse it with as much lemon sauce as you want. We bought some cucumbers pickled in turnip juice to accompany our quayside meal.

The famous wet burger

The fish sandwich whet our appetite for more street food. For ideas we turned to Anthony Bourdain. His trip to Istanbul included a late night snack at Kizilkayalar to eat their famous wet burger. We followed suit and found a crowd huddled around the “burger hammam”. Hammams are the Ottoman era public baths/spas. The name burger hammam makes me smile thinking of burgers wrapped in white towels lounging in a sauna. Perhaps they didn’t have towels but they were definitely steaming in their street side case. The burgers were warm and fluffy with a tomato based sauce. Seriously worth the 2 lira.

Crispy, crunchy simit

Other popular street food snacks were roasted chestnuts, corn, steamed mussels and popcorn. But when we wanted something to nibble we most often reached for simit, a toasted, sesame crusted bread ring. Dürüm, a simple Turkish wrap of barbecued meats filled our late night cravings. Especially the fine example at Dürümzade.

Süleymaniye mosque near the university

Inside Süleymaniye

Despite the holidays, the mosques were still open to visitors. High up on a hill we explored the Süleymaniye mosque. A little younger than the Blue Mosque, it was just as grand and elegant.

Carpet within the mosque with prayer spaces

Blue İznik tiles

Inside the mosque, the carpet clearly delineates where people should kneel to pray. The same is true at nearby Rüstem Paşa Mosque which was much smaller but adorned with intricate tile work.

Nathan at the lavish Topkapı Palace

Incredible jeweled dagger

More İznik tiles

There was one more major sight on our list, Topkapı Palace. This huge complex is the Ottoman version of the Forbidden City. Access to the lavish courtyards was once confined to the royal family and their closest advisers. Now, tourists explore the grounds oohing and ahhing at the spectacular tile work and gold leafing. The greatest crowd reaction is probably in the treasure room where you can find enormous and dazzling emeralds, rubies and diamonds encrusting everything from cups to daggers.

Datli Maya, a true find

During our stay in Istanbul Nathan and I celebrated a very special holiday of our own, our anniversary. We hoped to find a romantic but laid back place that served delicious food. Fortunately we succeeded on all fronts after scrolling through recommendations on the excellent food blog, Istanbul Eats. Our dinner at Datli Maya featured an incredibly moist kebab baked in a clay dish. We ordered a side of roasted eggplant dip and a couple of lahmacun (crispy, thin flatbreads with toppings). Most of our meal had been baked in the large wood fired oven that dominates the ground floor. It was comfort cooking taken a step further by a chef that knows how to add a special touch. We enjoyed our meal so much we decided to have breakfast there as well. A buffet of crunchy cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, three types of cheese, jams, butter, sesame sauce and fruit salad was spread out in front of us. Of course, this was accompanied by a mix of freshly baked sweet and savory breads.

Nathan overlooking Istanbul

I had a feeling I’d like Istanbul. But as it turned out, I loved it. The city commands your senses – your eyes are drawn to beautiful domes, your nose fills with the aroma of spices, and your taste buds can’t get enough sweets. The architecture, food and culture are a beautiful mix of European and Asian influences. Indeed, Istanbul is a true Turkish delight.

The Unbelievable Cappadocia (by Nathan)

Sunrise hot air balloons in Cappadocia

Want to see a place that is magical, astonishing and entirely unbelievable? Visit Cappadocia in central Turkey for one out-of-this-world experience.  Spectacular land formations converge with exemplary culture for an experience of a lifetime.

Colorful Turkish carpets

Göreme rock tower and former home

Sizzling clay pot chicken

We landed in the city of Göreme from Selçuk on one super long bus ride that passed through Ankara.  It is difficult to know all major holidays while traveling, but our time in Turkey coincided with one of the largest Muslim holidays of the year, Eid al-Adha.  Thus busses were booked and we added an extra four hours of travel time just to get to Cappadocia.  When we finally did arrive, we staggered out of the mini bus completely in awe.  Enormous cones of rock scattered the landscape. Each miniature mountain had been hollowed out with windows, rooms, and elaborate entrances.  Everywhere we looked was a cave home or cave hotel towering over the city.  We explored the city for a short while, but our afternoon ended quickly as the clouds closed in overhead and our daylight disappeared.  For dinner found a cozy restaurant with some pide (Turkish style pizza) and clay pot roast.

Sunrise balloon silhouettes

Checkered hot air balloon drifting through Cappadocia

We awoke in the dark.  Despite our desire to sleep in, we were eager to climb to the Göreme lookout point.  We ascended to the ridge to discover eighty hot air balloons preparing for take off.  There was a silence in the air that was broken by scattered rough coughs of enormous torches heating the gigantic balloons.  In the faint light the balloons slowly rose from the canyon.  They drifted into the air and above the horizon.  The colors and designs of each balloon varied- there were stripes, checkerboards, rings, flags and advertisements decorating the orange sky.  The sun peaked over the mountain ridge in the distance and the balloons rose higher and higher.  After an hour of flight the balloons steer themselves to an opposite canyon and land effortlessly on trailers waiting for them.  The balloon travelers viewed the drastic landscape from the sky, but we wanted to explore the canyons on foot.

Shadowed eroded contours

Our hiking companion Spotty

Colorful contours of the Red Valley

We began our hike at the top of the Red Valley, looped into the Rose Valley and returned to Göreme.  In our first hour of hiking we immediately found a new friend, Spotty, a friendly stray dog that loved to walk and show us around the canyon.  There were some sections where we needed to climb a ladder into narrow tunnels.  Spotty would pout, we would say goodbye, then five minutes later he would return to us jumping up and down excited that he found another way to the trail.  He reminded me of the sweet dogs that hiked with us in South America.

Frescoes of a Red Valley church

Carved cave cathedral in the Red Valley

The cliffs in these valleys are amazing.  Huge ridge lines of rock overshadowed our trail.  Looking into the rock face we would see a carved window.  We approached one former habitation to find a beautiful church, full of colorful plastered and painted frescos.  We were mesmerized by another church down the trail; an enormous cathedral, a man-made cavern carved out of the rock.  Columns and beams were cut from the original rock as one continuous formation.  The church was beautiful, welcoming and peaceful.  After a few pictures, we continued our walk through the canyon.  The colors of rock were fantastic with subtle pinks and oranges contrasted with bright whites and drastic wave-like erosion grooves.

Beautiful Cappadocia landscape

Fairy chimneys of Love Valley

Delightful Turkish trail mix

The next day we explored the valleys to the west, the White Valley and Love Valley. We descended from Uçhisar and into the deep canyon.  Within a half hour our perspective was cutoff and hiked deeper into the canyon.  Two hours into our walk and we realized that, although beautiful, we had been hiking the wrong canyon and we were lost.  We refueled with some Turkish delights. We crossed a few ridges and found our way to the Love Valley.  Sixty foot fairy chimneys stood as prominent, and slightly phallic columns in the valley. We continued our hike to the adjacent city of Çavuşin, picked up a local bus and returned to Göreme exhausted.

Lamb döner sandwich

Chicken döner plate

With all this hiking our lunch times have been sporadic and our hunger voracious.  It seems to be a common occurrence for us to push hard to see sights all day and when we finally stop for a break we are eating lunch at 4 o’clock.  The go-to place for a quick and delicious bite are the many döner kebab stands throughout every Turkish city. Chicken or lamb is layered onto a spike and rotated slowly over a flame until the meat becomes juicy and delicious.

Backside of Uçhisar castle

Amazing 800 year old cave home

The cave buildings are everywhere.  One enormous one is Uçhisar castle.  This gigantic rock has been carved with at least ten stories of rooms and chapels.  The look-out point can be accessed around the side of the castle and offers excellent views of the nearby cities and valleys.

Göreme open air museum

The dark church frescoes

The best preserved churches in the area are in the Göreme open air museum.  This collection of eight or so fairy chimneys and cliffs house beautiful chapels decorated exquisitely with colorful frescoes.  One frustrating part of Turkey has been the constant demand for entrance fees from tourists.  I am happy to be a tourist, but frustrated when I am considered a cash-cow.  The last time I felt like this was in Cuzco.  Of course we payed extra to get into the dark church.  Hiding behind one of the columns, I befuddled the security guard and took this photo of the ceiling.  Breaking the law for the blog!

Kaymakli underground city

Deeper into the earth we explored.  A short bus ride from Nevşehir and we were descending a set of stairs into a underground city of Kaymakli.  Eighteen hundred years ago, christianity was just picking up momentum.  In order to protect themselves the people dug out elaborate tunnels, ventilation shafts and locking doors deep into the earth.  We climbed down a stairwell, through a dimly lit hallway and room after room showed a history of food storage, wine making and cooking.  There was even a place for livestock to be kept safe.  The entrance fee covers a lit path the descends one hundred feet (30m) down through six levels of the eleven that exist.  I counted at least six sections of the city that were not lit; I strapped my headlamp on and I climbed into the darkness.  I crawled on my hands and knees and eventually the tiny hallway opened up into a room, another hallway and I found a bigger room.  Sections of rock were carved out to hold a round door used to block the passage way.  Deep and alone and feeling like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, I turned around and returned to Carmen.

Cave buildings in Rose Valley

Cappadocia continued to take our breath away.  The natural formations of rock alone are spectacular.  Combined with colorful balloons, cavernous underground city’s and cave churches makes the region a magical and unbelievable place.  This is one of the best places we have ever been, go here!

Visiting Ancient Rome In Selçuk (by Carmen)

Welcome to Turkey!

Nathan in the lounge at Pension Homeros

The sun was setting over rolling hills.  I had a wine glass in one hand.  The calls to prayer began emanating from minarets throughout the town.  It was a perfect moment at our sweet guesthouse in Selçuk.  This was our first stop in Turkey and we had received a warm welcome of wine on the hotel’s terrace.  I was immediately enchanted with the Turkish decor of thick carpets, a mix of patterned fabrics and comfy pillows.

Walking up to the Roman theater at Ephesus

Inside the theater

Selçuk is best known for one magnificent, very special sight – the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Ephesus which peaked in the 2nd century AD.  This archeological site is up there with the likes of Pompeii in terms of intactness.  As we walked in I was immediately blown away by the huge theater built into the hillside.  It could hold an astonishing 25,000 spectators.  This generous capacity hints at the city’s large size, which is estimated at a quarter of a million people.

Library of Celsus

One amazing porch

Beautiful carving on the library exterior

The true star of Ephesus lies just beyond the theater.  Up a marble path, past the old agora (market) is the Library of Celsus.  Based on the intricately carved exterior, I can l  only imagine how grand and elegant this three story structure must have been.

Main Street Ephesus

Yes that would be the communal latrine

From the library the main street leads up hill revealing more and more incredible buildings with each step.  We even found evidence of more mundane spaces, such as the latrine.  Advanced plumbing meant waste was swept away quickly. The Romans understood cleanliness thousands of years ago. It amazes me how far down Europe sank in the dark ages after the fall of Rome, when hygiene was practically nonexistent.

Roman mansions

Intact Roman mosaics

Also on the main street is a collection of lavish homes of the rich.  They were large complexes with every inch of wall space frescoed or covered in marble.  And the mosaics were spectacular, depicting animals or mythical characters such as Medusa or Poseidon.  

Chicken shish and köfte

Turkish salad mix plate

All that scrambling over ruins got us hungry, so our first stop back in town a plate of chicken shish and juicy köfte (meatballs).  After relaxing at the hotel, we headed out for a simple dinner of Turkish salads.  These included stuffed peppers, sautéed eggplant, tangy thin green veggies, tomatoes with green beans and yogurt. With each new Turkish dish I tried, I was hungry for more.

Delicious cacık

Saturday market in Selçuk

Yogurt is a staple of Turkish cuisine and I love the traditional way to serve it.  Cacık is a thinned yogurt mixed with cucumber, garlic, dill and lemon. Used to dip thick, spongy bread it makes for a delicious snack.  We enjoyed some as we made our way through the lively Saturday market.

The god Artemis

For the rest of the day we headed back to antiquity.  First we visited the one remaining column of the Temple of Artemis.  Once one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple once had 127 columns. Inside, the giant statue of Artemis a symbol of fertility towered over worshipers.  The temple eventually fell into disrepair and the marble harvested for other uses.  But the footprint of the structure is still visible and impressive.

Virgin Mary’s house

We rented a scooter to visit one more historical site.  Virgin Mary’s believed final residence is outside Selçuk in a pretty mountain valley.  We had expected a spiritual place but it turned out to be a rather simple chapel with one wooden, handless statue of Mary.    The government charged to get into the park and it just felt like people went in, lit a quick candle, and left.  Definitely not our favorite visit in Selçuk.

Crescent moon rises over Turkey

Another sunset on the terrace made up for it.  We were welcomed with another glass of wine and the hotel owners even fixed up Nathan’s shoe that had broken that day.  We relaxed, watched the moon rise and got ready for our bus to Cappadocia.

Crossroads Rhodes (by Ναθεν)

Essential theme to life

He leaned over the table for what felt like the thirtieth time that night to fill my wine glass; he looks at me straight in the eye and says “Se kalo.” Then he downs his entire glass of wine. Then I choose someone, “Se kalo” and again my glass is empty. We are at a Cretan tavern in Rhodes. Our table is a battleground of Greek and Cretan specialties: dakas, feta, fritters and fries have been landing endlessly on our table all night. The jug of wine always seems full and the traditional music from Crete can be subtly heard over the constant clinking of glasses and loud conversation in the room. This was the conclusion to our time in Rhodes, a celebration of Greece and new friends. We were at crossroads of Europe and Asia and tomorrow we would be going to Turkey. At 2am we stagger walk with dignity through old town to grab a few hours rest.

Our new friends in Rhodes

Meet my friend Mike, who is actually from Crete, and his lovely girlfriend Alexandra. We met them in Rhodes and our three days have been filled with nonstop adventures and good food. They are university students here in Rhodes, studying to become teachers. I am always impressed by the seemingly instant friendship that is possible with people. There is a little bit of circumstance, some willingness and a whole bunch of letting down guards, but we quickly became friends.

Local eatery with stewed meats, veggies and village salad

I should have recognized how the weekend was going to turn out. In our first hours of arriving to Rhodes, Mike pulled out a 5L jug of clear liquid from the back room. “Want to try Cretan Tsikoudi.” Mike’s dad distills his own moonshine in Crete and sends it with his son to keep him company while at school. It only takes a few minutes before we are all talking about hunger. They take us to lunch at this local restaurant around the corner. The waiter ushers us to the glass case in the back; we are shown an array of stews and specialties of the day. Everything looked and smelled fantastic. It only takes a few minutes before steaming plates occupy every free space on the table.

Cosmopolitan buildings for the Knights Hospitaller from the crusades

Sunlit arches

There is substantial history in Rhodes. It has been inhabited for millennia, but the most prominent occupation was during the first crusades. The Knights of St. John established a fortress in the fight for Christianity. The most impressive part of old town is the street that the knights lived, the hospitalier. Each nation had their own building for meetings, organization, dining and lodging. Walking along the cobblestones we saw the Spanish, English and German headquarters for the crusades, each over a thousand years old.

The Colossus of Rhodes (Credit: WikiCommons)

For centuries Rhodes was a stronghold. After defending themselves against Cyprus, they built an enormous statue, The Colossus of Rhodes, to symbolize their victory. This 107ft (32m) wonder of the ancient world no longer exists, but the entrance to the harbor where he once stood is still there.

Old town Rhodes typical street

Walking through old town in Rhodes is wonderful. The stone buildings and cobblestones reflect a time hundreds of years ago, but most everything is still in use. Carmen and I walked ancient alleyways and underneath buttresses bracing buildings. It is easy to get lost meandering around Rhodes, but that is the fun of exploring these cities. Eventually we would run into the enormous wall that surrounds the city. Beyond it is a moat that is great for walks and runs.

Medieval town wall of the Knights Hospitaller

Our time in Rhodes was filled with new friendship and the history of an old city. We soaked up the atmosphere, snorkeled one last time in the Mediterranean and wondered through the stone streets. Rhodes is a crossroads between the old and new, but also between Greece and Turkey. We were excited to head east, to a place we’ve never been before. We boarded onto our last ferry boat and said goodbye to Greece.

Swimming In A Volcano In Santorini (by Ναθεν)

… and then we found ourselves on one of the most beautiful places on the PLANET.

Firostefani and ocean

Golden Fira

Santorini deserves all the hype, all the magazine cover shots, and all the glory because it truly is a spectacular place. We arrived on a commuter ferry that chugged along the Mediterranean from Naxos. The arrival to this island was different than the others, everyone on the boat was anxious and giddy in anticipation. When the boat wrapped around the crescent tip of the island, people rushed to take photos. If there is such thing as hunger for sights, then there was definite drooling and jaw dropping as the curved white buildings that frosted chocolate colored cliffs came into focus.

Oia cave and cliffside homes

Carmen and I also became bleary eyed at the sights. Unfortunately for us we were already in island mode. We slowly exited the boat, drifted over to the tourist office and chatted a bit for a map. We went back outside to board the public bus that climbs the steep switchbacks and we realize we missed it. And it was the last bus of the day. A moment of panic when understanding hits us that the closest city of Fira is too far to walk and taxis are expensive because we are the last tourists on the port. We work out a deal with a hostel owner for a one night’s stay and a free shuttle to Perissa. Not exactly our plan, in fact, it is on the opposite side of the island from where we wanted, but we load into the van and set off for a spontaneous adventure.

Sunset Santorini

As expected, Perissa wasn’t our style. The resort-like cafes and lawn chairs in the black sand were beautiful, but we came to Santorini to see the magic of a civilization that lives and dies along the volcano.

Fresco of 3500 year old building

Three story building from 1500BC

The Minoans inhabited Thira (another name for Santorini) for thousands of years. Their civilization was immensely successful with tens of thousands of inhabitants throughout the Greek islands. Unfortunately all these great islands existed because of a dark past. This section of the Mediterranean is a boundary zone of the European and Asian tectonic plates. A volcano erupted around 1,600BC that wiped out their civilization. This was not just any eruption, it is the largest eruption ever recorded and documented by humans. The sound was so enormous that Chinese records describe the sound of it twice as the wave reached them from different directions around the world. Enormous amounts of material blew into the sky, the whole island grew a thousand feet taller and tsunamis expanded the havoc around the world.

Akrotiri excavations

Evidence of ash and volcanic eruptions

Akrotiri was an ancient city on Thira. When the volcano exploded, the city was covered in thirty feet of pumice and ash. This rare circumstance allowed the what was left of the buildings, that survived the earthquakes before the eruption, to be remarkably preserved for 3,500 years. The city was discovered in the 1960’s and slowly they uncovered buildings and intertwining streets rich with painted frescoes, advanced multi-story buildings and sewer systems. This was an advanced civilization, and there are no records to their existence beyond this enormous volcanic event.

Satellite view of Santorini Volcano (Photo credit: WikiCommons)

Walking on the center of the volcano

The volcano around Santorini has shaped and reshaped the islands for millions of years. Each explosion destroyed whole mountains and continued to build up the layers of Islands that remained. We took a boat to the center of the volcano; we walked on the cooling magma center. Standing on the foreign landscape is surreal, perfectly silent and covered in jagged dark brown rocks. There are small craters on this island showing minor eruptions, but it is the whole group of islands, the caldera that is many miles wide that shows the enormity and unrelenting unimaginable power of the earth. The cliffs communicate this history with portions of black crumbly stone, or jagged red boulders or loose pock-marked ash and pumice. And like all beautiful, but dangerous places, the people eventually forgot the catastrophic event and they reinhabited the island.

Rustic door

Chapels of Santorini

Fira is the main city on the island. It is built on the cliffs in the middle of the crescent-shape and the city is packed with thousands of cute whitewashed buildings that curve and flow with the contours of the mountain. There is a beauty in the haphazard construction of all these buildings right on top of one another. Stairways twist and weave in between the buildings, paths start and stop almost randomly, and buildings occupy every little bit of space. I may even make the jump to say that the buildings on the steep slope remind me of a favela. Trash free, plastered and painted with sewers; Rio could make its densest neighborhoods into high-end real estate.

Locally brewed beer

Moussaka from Nikolas Taverna in Fira

Lamb kleftiko

Reward for hiking from sea to cliffside village

We drank locally brewed beer on a picturesque patio. There was moussaka, and kleftiko dinners paired with wine and of course ice cream rewards for those climbs up the steep path from water to city.

Firostefani in the morning light

Carmen and shadow

An essential activity for any visitor to Santorini is to walk the ridge line of the island. The end points of the walk are Oia and Fira and it is about 12km (8mi). We walked it one morning starting at Fira at sunrise with a destination of Oia for lunch. The path works its way through Fira, into the picturesque Firastefani. Outside of town the dirt and cobblestone path follows the ridge and cliff’s edge allowing for endless views around the island. Occasionally a small lonely chapel appears on the path, a remnant of a gracious sailor who braved a storm and lived to fish another day. The sun beats hot on our backs and slowly the buildings of Oia come into view.

Oia, the most beautiful city on the most beautiful island

Blue domed churches and contours of Oia

Walking into Oia, is strange and exhilarating, it is hard to believe that a town can be so gorgeous. Every building has a dome or a curved arch or rounded balcony; straight lines are the minority which creates a natural and harmonious addition to the glowing Mediterranean sea below. Churches with their bright blue domes scatter the cityscape and every surface that is not a walkway is a patio for sunbathing.

Our seafood cantina lunch spot

Tomatokeftedes and sliced feta lunch

Swimming hole below Oia

We decided to walk down the several hundred stairs to swim and grab lunch in the tiny marina. Katina served us delicious tomato fritters, a hunk of feta cheese and a grilled whole fish. We walked left from the harbor to a tiny beach overlooking a small island. The water was cool, but not cold, turquoise and crystal clear. There is a thrilling concrete platform on the side of the island that made it possible to cliff jump into this beautiful water. Swimming in a volcano has never been so much fun.

My gracious jump into the Mediterranean

Sunset Santorini x4

The challenge of any Santorini tourist is where to watch the sunset. I love sunrises and sunsets (as you have seen), but the tourists on Santorini push and shove to get the perfect view of the sun hitting the water. A sunset in Fira showers the city in golden light, in Oia it is possible to stand on the ridge of a peninsula with all periphery consumed by sun, ocean and other camera-wielding tourists. My favorite was Firastefani, a tranquil setting with a more local feel. And the sunsets on Santorini are amazing and worth it. Perched high on a cliff we could see a world vast with beautiful ocean and a scattering of islands. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful place.

Oia silhouette

Sunset from Firastefani

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