Archive for the ‘Getting Around’ Category

Amazing what a difference a day makes… On Saturday night we were all kept awake by the noise from the square below us and from other people in the rooms around ours, but on Sunday night the hotel and square were pretty quiet and we all slept reasonably well (although we’re all looking forward to our beds at home tonight).

We woke up around 7:45 and slowly started pulling ourselves out of bed and started getting ready. A few last minute changes to how things were packed and we were ready to go. By 9am we were heading downstairs to checkout and settle up the bill. While I went to pay, Marie and Caitlin went to the store next door to get some yogurt and juice (no such luck… the store doesn’t open until 9:30am). Speaking of that store, last night we were in one of Madrid’s large department stores (Corte D’Ingles or something like that) and were thinking of buying a multi-pack of small bottle of fortified wines to use up our allotment of alcohol we can bring back to Canada… Turns out it was the last one and there was a woman who was quite agitated about getting it… Eventually we decided we didn’t want it after all so Marie went looking around the store to see if the woman who also wanted it was still there… She was and was very grateful to Marie for tracking her down to give it to her. The funny thing is she was the owner of the store next to hotel… What are the chances of doing a good deed for someone and having them turn out to be one of about 10 (out of well over 1 million in the city) you’ve interacted with in the whole city… We recognized the woman by the bright red shirt with distinctive yellow lettering she was wearing – she didn’t recognize us when we went into her store but it’s all good.

Back to our trip back to Victoria. We shouldered our packs and hiked the short distance to Plaza del Sol then made our way to the platform for a train heading to Nuevos Ministerios where we could transfer to the C-1 train that would take us to the airport. When we got to Ministerios, we found the platform for the train with no trouble at all (very well signed with clear instructions how to get to the airport). We had about 20 minutes to wait for the train to arrive so Marie and Caitlin scarfed some train station pastries while we waited. The train arrived almost exactly as scheduled and we piled on for the short (20 minutes or so) ride to the airport. In all a very civilized and economical way to get to the Madrid airport – cost was 2.55 euros each person and in total took about an hour from the time we arrived at the train station to the time we arrived at the airport Terminal 4. They only caveat would be to check the schedule online if possible as we were lucky and timed the trains just right (blind luck) – otherwise we could have been waiting over 1/2 an hour for the C-1 to arrive at Nuevos Ministerios.

Once at the airport we found our way from the train platform to the departures level and ultimately the shuttle for the other terminals. One confusing thing they do (that other airports handled better) is alerting fliers to the fact the your flight is really there but departs from a different terminal. When we looked at the departures board, our flight wasn’t on it. We knew from our paperwork that we’d be flying out of Terminal 2 but the poor German women who was also looking at the board was a bit panicked that her flight didn’t seem to exist. We explained the situation to her and she followed to the right terminal and the check-in counters.

At the check-in counters, the normal chaos was well underway. Some people were checking in using the electronic kiosks (which seemed to only work for about 1 out of every 2 people). They had one person checking in the decent sized line of people who for one reason or another couldn’t check-in electronically… For us that was our problem. We were unable to check-in electronically either online or at the airport due to some glitch in communication between Air Canada and the Lufthansa who was operating the flight… It’s kind of a pain in the butt in an era where getting a guaranteed seat is a luxury you have to pay for… In our case we had to take what we were given with respect to seats (a process accompanied by much sighing from the woman helping us and a discussion with her supervisor that seemed to have a lot to do with us (based on the number of times Canada and Canadians occurred in their conversation). Finally we were given our boarding passes (we’re sitting together from Madrid to Munich, Caitlin and Marie are sitting together from Munich to Vancouver and we’re all over the plane for the flight from Vancouver to Victoria). Now that we had our boarding passes, we were free to head for our gate. Total time from hotel to check-in: just over 2 hours…

Cleared security with few issues (the canned sardines in Marie’s pack caused them to open her pack and do a more thorough search but otherwise it was all routine) and found the gate with no trouble and had enough time to grab something to drink and a muffin before it was time to board the plane. This flight was on an Airbus A321 and appeared to be a very new place. It’s very open in the cabin compartment (lives up to its Airbus moniker) and is quite spacious in terms of head room and seats/leg room. Although the seats are a bit hard, I found it to be the most comfortable plane of all this trip. They fed us a decent lunch of chicken with a bit of tomato sauce and pasta and were reasonably free with the drinks… The only downside was the flight was a bit bumpy and you definitely feel the movement a bit more in the back of the plane than near the wing where we’ve been trying to sit for all our other flights.

We landed right on schedule at 2:45 and were scheduled to depart again at 3:20 so we needed to hustle to our next flight… But not to worry – it was delayed until 4:00 pm which left us time to hit the duty free to pick up some cigars (very expensive butI  got some hand-rolled Domincans and another bottle of port – a 10 year old Tawny this time – for those nights when I feel like playing a cultured sort of guy for a couple of hours…). When we got to the gate around 3:20 an announcement was made to say that no further information would be provided about our flight (which was quite visibly missing a plane at this point) until 4pm (our adjusted departure time)… Hmmm… At least it gave me time to get a couple of posts up on the blog…

At 4pm they came over the P.A. to say that the plane would be ready for boarding at around 4:45pm and would depart at approximately 5:15pm… Guess it could have been worse… although we are going to miss our connecting flight in Vancouver as we will be arriving right around the time it’s supposed to depart.

Boarding the plane turned out to be a fun experience as Caitlin went ahead of both of us and went through with no trouble but when Marie tried to board the plane, they quite brusquely I might add told her to go to the other gate person (no explanation just grabbed her passport and boarding pass and said “you go here”. This then happened to me when I tried to board. The woman did explain (in response to my question of what exactly the problem was) mentioned something about our tickets being group tickets… Which was strange given that I bought my ticket with cash while Caitlin and Marie booked their tickets (on a separate booking number) with RBC rewards points… They took a fair bit of time to sort the issue out (it seemed to be that the woman – remember she of the many sighs – had mixed up the names and passport numbers when she checked us in at Madrid. Eventually we had to get Caitlin to come back (she wisely waited for us at the top of the boarding tube) because there was something wrong with her boarding pass as well (but somehow they missed it when they checked her in). So now Caitlin is heading backwards through the boarding queue (by this time there’s virtually no one left to board as everyone else is on the place)… Where one the staff (other than the one who told her to come back) snaps at her for going out of the boarding area and snatches up her boarding pass… Lufthansa definitely needs to work on their customer service – pleases and thank-you’s and I’m sorries go along ways when your plane is delayed by almost 2 hours and your colleagues screwed up…

It was eventually resolved (and the woman who finally fixed the problem was decently apologetic and polite)… When we boarded the plane (dead last) there was another issue as the cabin crew were looking for the guy in 25D to move back to 39F to allow a dad to sit together with his wife and two young kids… Unfortunately I was the guy in 25D and we were hoping to change with someone so Marie and Caitlin and I could sit together… Unfortunately neither of the two guys flying solo who could have moved wanted to give up their aisle seats so I’m stuck in the 39th row sandwiched between a guy who is bundled up in a heavy jacket (which along with his stringy hair, swarthy skin and general air of oddness makes him look disturbingly like the guy most likely to release a weaponized form of anthrax into the plane’s air system) and a heavyset Iranian dude (got his life story after I figured I’d strike up a conversation with him even though he’s part of the reason I’m sitting between two dudes instead of beside my hot wife) who has a habit of getting up every half hour or so and then literally thumping back down in his seat (I’d hate to be the guy behind him). He also likes to pull the blanket up right over his head (it’s actually quite disconcerting as you’re constantly wondering what exactly he’s doing under there… and it sort of makes him look like one of the hobbits or someone who died…) and he sighs a lot. I see Marie and Caitlin occasionally when they go to the bathroom or get up to walk around… I was happy to give the dad my seat in 25D (which was a pretty sweet aisle seat in a separate section of the plane) but kind of miffed that the other two dudes weren’t interested at all… The cabin crew has been very apologetic that they couldn’t get Marie and Caitlin and I together and have been very appreciative that I gave up my seat for the other guy… Although I’d appreciate it if they didn’t show their appreciation by pouring heavy on the drinks – that gin and tonic almost put me under the table…

We’ve been flying for 8 hours of our scheduled 10 and they’re just turning the lights back on (I think I slept for 15 minutes for one stretch and maybe 45 minutes for the other) and getting ready to serve us our dinner. At least the food’s been decent on this trip and they’ve been good about coming around with snacks and water or juice to keep everyone hydrated…

Apparently they’re trying to rebook our flight from Vancouver to Victoria and will let us know what they’re able to do but one way or another we’re going to be getting home a bit later than we expected (we hope)… If it wasn’t for Ladybug, we could care less if they screwed up all our flights and took a week to sort it out… But we miss her and Caitlin and Marie are really excited to see her so getting home sooner rather than later would be a nice thing… Not to mention that when we land my watch is going to be telling me that it’s 7pm while my body will be telling me that it’s 4am…

We arrived at Vancouver International Airport around 7pm… right about the time our flight was scheduled to leave. We cleared customs without any hassles… No wonder you here so many stories of people exceeding their customs limits and getting away with it. I suspect that a lot of the customs screening is going on behind the scenes with sniffer dogs and x-ray machines and whatnot because we have not been subject to any kind of detailed inspection or questioning on any of the trips we’ve done. I think the last time we went through a detailed customs inspection was in 1996 when Marie and I traveled to Mexico – we got pulled out of the line up and they searched our bags carefully when we arrived in Mexico City.

After clearing customs we were told to head to the Air Canada counter to see about getting on a different plane to Victoria. The Air Canada staffed took our passports and now useless boarding passes and clicked and clacked away at her machine before concluding that we were not booked onto any flights for tonight and all the flights were full so too bad so sad go see Lufthansa and see what they can do about putting us up for the night in Vancouver… So downstairs we go to the Lufthansa counter where the woman clicks and clacks for a few minutes and says, wait a minute “you’re booked on the 11:45pm flight to Victoria tonight.” So she gives us a $45 meal voucher (enough for a decent meal at White Spot so not a bad gesture) and sends us back to Air Canada to check in and drop off our bags (which had to be picked up by us before clearing customs). How in the world Lufthansa can know we’re booked on an Air Canada flight but Air Canada doesn’t know that is beyond me…

With Lufthansa’s less than stellar customer service and a bunch of clerical screwups on this flight, we’re seriously considering them dropping them down a few rungs on our preferred airline list – like after Wizz Air and that no-name airline we saw in Rome a couple of years ago that painted their name over another airline’s name…

We grabbed a bite to eat at the Whitespot courtesy of Lufthansa and tried to play some cards but we’re all so tired we kept forgetting whose turn it was. After that we had to go back through security and were making jokes about what they would take issue with in our carry-ons after they’ve made it through a whacking great lot of European airports in the last 7 days… The tin of soap raised some suspicions and I got randomly selected for a body scan and Marie got randomly selected to have her bag and contents swabbed but other than that it was smooth sailing.

It’s now 11:20pm and we’re sitting in the gate area waiting to board our flight. We could have moved up to a flight that’s just about to leave but our luggage would still be on the later flight so we’re taking our chances (and given that a plane that was supposed to fly to Victoria is still sitting on the tarmac with maintenance people swarming all over it it’s actually a bit of a chance) with the flight we’re scheduled to take… I’ll post this up for now and finish the story tomorrow along with some final observations of the trip, etc.

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Day 36: Lisbon to Madrid

Posted: August 25, 2014 in Getting Around, Madrid
Tags: , ,

Day 36: Lisbon to Madrid

Our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 3pm-ish but we got up early so we could stop at the Oceanaria de Lisboa – the Lisbon Aquarium…

Our landlord (Pedro) met us at the apartment at 9:30am to handle the checkout and returning our deposit (100 euros). Very friendly (and chatty!) guy – we learned all about his business plan and operation – he has 3 apartments currently being rented out (he rents them from someone else and sublets them to tourists) and has just signed a lease on 3 more… He was telling us that a flat in the Alfama area the size of the one we rented (about 25 square metres) was selling for about 8000 euros two years ago but is now selling for over 100,000 euros! Given that he pays about 800 euros a month to lease the apartment he rented to us and he’s full 85% of the time at 60-70 euros a night, he’s not doing too badly but he’s got a ways to go before he can quit his day job…

After chatting with Pedro for a bit, we headed over to the Santa Appolonia train station to catch the Red Line metro to the aquarium. We navigated our way through Lisbon’s excellent underground system without any trouble – it’s weird how we can figure out the subway system in countries where we don’t speak or read a word of their language but figuring out the SkyTrain system in Vancouver is almost impossible…

We hopped off at stop nearest the aquarium and – as it used to be the end of the line until they pushed the airport extension through in July of this year, took advantage of their convenient luggage storage facilities (4.5 euros to store all our bags for a couple of hours) and then made the 10 minute trek to the aquarium.

It cost us about $70 cdn to get in and was mostly worth it – they have a huge central tank that links all the various ecosystems of the aquarium and is full of sharks and rays and all kinds of other fish. Because you can view it from multiple angles, you get to see every kind of fish up close and personal through the floor to ceiling viewing spaces. The rest of the aquarium is set up around the central tank and is based on various oceans and ecosystems… It’s actually pretty cool and kind of made me want to get back into diving again… The only downside was the three resident sea otters (the only marine mammals they have at the aquarium) were sleeping while we were there so we didn’t get to see them… Kind of a bummer for Caitlin who thinks they might just be the cutest critters on the whole planet (after her dog Ladybug of course).

After the aquarium, we piled back onto the metro and traveled the three stops to the airport. Once there, we hopped the shuttle bus to the right terminal and entered the line to check-in (we’d already checked in but needed to drop out checked bags and EasyJet – like other low-cost airlines we’ve flown this trip – doesn’t have a separate baggage drop for people already checked in… It was a big line up… After standing in line for about 5 minutes, though, a guy came along calling for any passengers flying to Madrid… That was us so we followed him out of the line to his check-in counter where he got us all squared away… Best airline customer service we’ve had in all our flights thus far (on any of our trips). He explained we’d have to consolidate our carry on bags down to one each (Marie and Caitlin were carrying small “purse” size bags in addition to their backpacks) or we’d have to pay 55 euros at the gate and got us all set up for our flight…

After leaving the check-in counter we immediately headed through security (they’re less than 2 minutes apart)… Along the way, Marie slammed the little bottle of Licor Beirho that she had in her carry-on (we all got quite a kick out of her hustling along with all her bags taking little sips of liquor from her tiny little bottle). Security would turn out to be all kinds of fun… You see, at this point in the trip, we’ve accumulated a lot of souvenirs (more on this trip than previous ones) and some of them are quite fragile. So we carry them on the airplane instead of putting them in our checked bags. So going through security in Lisbon, Marie and Caitlin were carrying two medium-sized day packs full of assorted souvenirs – soaps in tins, canned sardines from Lisbon, vacuum packed bags of teas and spices from Turkey, scarves, magnets, mugs and other stuff from the various countries and cities we’ve visited… You get the picture… I think the security guy manning the x-ray machine had a small seizure when Caitlin and Marie’s bags went through… Not surprisingly they were both pulled aside (by a very polite and friendly security screener) and asked to unpack their bags… This was no easy task as these bags have been packed for days and days (Caitlin kept exclaiming “I forgot I bought that” as she unpacked her bag) and they were packed very precisely to maximize space and cushion the fragile items… It was all good fun as they’re pulling all these items wrapped in bubble wrap or plastic bags or paper out and handing them to the security screening who’s looking at the items (and us) with a “what the heck is this?” kind of look… The best part was when the security screener finished with Caitlin’s bag, she turned to Marie and said “I’ve forgotten why I need you to unpack your bag.” It all turned out fine in the end. We’ve seen enough people having to throw out toiletries, aftershave, food (I especially remember the elderly woman in Turkey who had to throw out huge tubs of hummus or some other kind of quite runny dip she was trying to smuggle onto the plane), water, etc. that we’re pretty careful about what goes into our carry on bags and the staff were very friendly and positive. What could have been a very lousy situation was no big deal at all.

After security we made our way to the loading gate… which more appropriately should have been called a cattle gate as we all got packed into these loading areas waiting for the doors to open… Again, EasyJet demonstrated good customer service as they had a couple of guys going up and down the line tagging any overly large carry-on items to be “sky checked” (moved into a hold instead of the passenger cabin) so that it didn’t have to be done at the gate proper. Once everyone was loaded into the holding pens, we waited for about 15 minutes (this would have been more comfortable with something to sit on or lean against) before the doors opened and we walked over to our plane… No concourses or buses for EasyJet – just good old-fashioned foot power. We boarded our plane (an older but well-maintained AirBus A319) and settled in for the short hop from Lisbon to Madrid.

The flight passed without incident and we were soon on the ground at Madrid airport – although we made quite possible the longest “gear down” approach we’ve ever made (the landing gear came down so early that at one point I actually worried that the plane’s altimeter was off and we were going to try landing at 15,000 feet). Once we landed, we also taxied from one time zone to another (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration but it felt like we taxied forever to get to our arrivals gate). Then it was pick up the bags and figure out how to get from Terminal 1 (where we landed) to Terminal 4 (where the train to the city leaves from)… We eventually found our way to the shuttle and made it to the terminal… From there we had to figure out where the trains were (took a minute or two but we found them) and made our way to the right platform. The train arrived right on time and, following the helpful instructions from our hostal, we made our way to Plaze del Sol in the heart of Madrid. Using Google Maps’ awesome offline navigation features we found the correct street and made the 5 minute walk to our hostal.

After that it was check-in, dump the bags and head out for something to eat (EasyJet doesn’t feed you unless you pay for it so we all shared a chicken sandwich we’d bought at the train station but other than that had not eaten anything other than some yogurt since breakfast). We wandered around for a bit before settling on the restaurant attached to our hostal (which by the way seems to be a Madrid of Spanish thing – sort of midway between a hostel and a hotel). Our hostal was situated on Plaza Angel which has a bunch of “tables with umbrellas out in the square” sort of restaurants – most of them were pretty pricey (especially after Turkey which was cheap for food and Lisbon which was quite reasonable). Our hostal’s restaurant was reasonably priced and the food was good. The service on the other hand was exceptionally poor – they managed to elevate indifferent well beyond Paris standards (which is quite an accomplishment).

After dinner we wandered around a bit more and found Plaza Mayor (one of the major squares in Madrid) and the Mercado de San Miguel – a happening market with a Granville Island sort of vibe with lots of different tapas and drinks and exotic foods to sample. We decided we’d eat lunch there the next day! We also found a Madrid specialty – chocolate churros – yup… your good-old-fashioned churro dipped into what is basically a cup of thick gooey hot chocolate… They’re delicious… After a bit of wandering around, it was back to the room toff to bed so we could make an early start the next day… Our room was on the third floor of an older building that looked out onto the plaza below (we even had one of those cute Parisien style wrought iron balconies). The hostal has made a good effort at soundproofing the room (installing a second set of soundproof sliding doors) but we could still hear a bit of the noise from outside (and quite a bit of noise from inside the hotel as the kids and family in the room next to ours sounded as if they were right in the room with us). Otherwise, the room was very cute with high ceilings and a lot of character…

I’ve also include a picture below of Caitlin and Marie bundled up in their blankets at the restaurant in Lisbon the other night… Yes, they’re wrapped up in blankets in 26° weather… Caitlin definitely inherited her mother’s “I’m cold all the time gene”

The other picture is of the box of meringues Caitlin and Marie bought for 1.5 euros on one of the days we were in Lisbon (I think it was the same day I bought my bottle of port) – the guy obviously took a shine to them as he packed the box so full of meringues it wouldn’t close… He kept peeking over at the other people working in the store then stuffing more meringues into the box. When he passed it over he made sure no one was looking and kind of gave Marie and Caitlin a conspiratorial look and a big smile… They’ve been eating meringues for days… They’re so obsessed that when one fell on the ground as soon as they opened the box for the first time they both looked at each other with a “oh no, did that just happen?” look then shouted “5 second rule!” and picked it up off the street (the dirty Lisbon street no less) and ate it… Sugar is a dangerous drug kids…

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Whew… that was quite the travel day. We left the guesthouse at 7am precisely (it was a bit of a struggle as no one really wanted to get up so early) and made the trip to the Izmir Airport in far less than the 90 minutes Google Maps said it would take… In fact we got to the airport so early the check-in desk for Pegasus Airlines hadn’t even opened yet. So we kind of wandered around a bit looking for something to eat (most of the places hadn’t opened yet) and a WiFi connection…

The airport is quite new and has obviously been built with expansion in mind as there’s a lot of empty spaces and room to grow.

After shelling out an arm and half a leg for some muffins (that cinnamon raisin bagel I talked Caitlin into turned out to be an olive bagel… not so good with strawberry jam apparently) and juice we checked some emails, updated the blog (I’ve been a few days behind the whole trip) and basically killed time until it was time to board our flight.

We boarded. The plane took off. They served nothing to eat or drink unless you paid for it. The plane landed. It was pretty usual stuff… But we were landing in Athens… Home of the best feta cheese anywhere in the world. And Alfa beer… We ate better in the Athens airport than we have for days. I ordered a special at one place that included the biggest piece of moussaka you’ll ever seen in your life, a Greek salad and a cold Alfa beer (for €12 which isn’t exactly cheap but Marie and I were able to share it… sort of… Marie didn’t like the moussaka and was a little greedy with the Greek salad) – I was even able to convince the woman serving it all up to let me add some extra feta to the Greek salad… It’s funny – we hunt high and low in Victoria for authentic Greek feta and this stuff from some chain restaurant in the airport was better than anything we can find at home… And Alfa beer is one of my all time favourites and I’ve never been able to find it in Victoria.

We also found the whole check-in process a lot more civilized. We’d booked the flight from Izmir to Athens through Pegasus and they have no baggage drop desks – it doesn’t matter if you’ve checked in or not, you stand in the same line just to drop off your checked baggage. With Aegean, you don’t check in at all at the desk – they have kiosks or you do it on line and the only reason you approach the desk is to check your bags… It went much faster and even though we were flying two different airlines (Aegean to Rome and TAP from Rome to Lisbon) and had book our flights through Expedia, they were able to check our luggage through and make it all work…

Soon the gastronomic delights had to end and it was time to board the plane for our flight to Rome. Again, the plane  took off. But this time they served a decent hot meal of meatballs, rice with tomato sauce and a dinner roll and free drinks… It was positively decadent compared to the budget Pegasus flights we’ve taken since we left Istanbul. The plane landed (obviously or I wouldn’t be writing this) and we deplaned and headed into the heart of the Rome airport… Last time we were here, I’d found a little paper/pen store that sold Lamy fountain pens for 1/2 what they cost at home and wanted to replace the one I’d bought a couple years ago (it’s started to leak a bit) – I was able to find it eventually and their prices hadn’t changes since the last time we were there… Score!

We grabbed a snack from a serve yourself restaurant and used the free WiFi to finish up a last blog post and then it was time to board our flight… so far we’d spent about 6 hours in lay overs and a couple of hours of actual flying so we were all starting to feel a bit bedraggled…

Again, we boarded. The flight took off. And this time they served a chicken pasta with almonds and spinach and a cream sauce… Marie salivated all over herself at how good it was and tried to steal from Caitlin and I… I thought it was pretty good but wasn’t worth gnawing our child’s off over… The flight passed without incident (although they did announce that we were flying around some 100 km/hr winds and it might get bumpy but nothing really materialized) and we landed in the Lisbon airport a little after our expected arrival time of 9:30pm.

After picking our luggage up we headed for the exit and tried to figure out the best way to get to our apartment – having found out when we landed that our landlord wouldn’t be able to pick us up at the airport after all… After a bit of discussion we settled on grabbing a cab and checked with the tourism information booth about their prepaid taxi vouchers… Turns out they’re running a bit of a scam on the tourists as they were going to charge us €24 for an 8km cab ride (that in the end cost us €14 with a generous tip)… If we’d been traveling a greater distance it would have been a deal perhaps but for a short hop it was considerably more expensive to go the prepaid route… The scammish part of it was that the woman wasn’t wholly upfront about that when we asked…

Our cabbie whisked us to the front door of the apartment where our landlord’s surrogate checked us in, ran down the basics and collected our money. The apartment is located in a very historic part of Lisbon and is quite cute (albeit a bit small for three people) and the landlord has gone to great lengths to make it very homey and livable and even provides a decanter full of ginjinha – a traditional Portuguese liquor – and fresh fruit and pastries and a couple of Fado CDs (kind of a Portuguese jazz but that’s a bit of an oversimplification). Although the stairs to the apartment are something else (my shoulders touch the walls and if one were to fall on the exceptionally narrow steps it would be game over). After taking a bit to acclimatize ourselves and sort ourselves out after a full day of travel, it was lights out and off to bed for all of us after a long day of layovers and flights.

I’ll be doing an “omnibus” update on three days in Lisbon as soon as I can get to it… The short version: Lisbon is amazing. Great people. Great food. Beautiful views. Awesome architecture… I’m putting it my top 5 favourite cities of all time…

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I’m not sure I’d rent a car in Turkey again – the highway driving is perfectly fine but the city/town driving is a nightmare… Despite  this, there’s no doubt that one of the pleasures of having your own transportation is being able to set your own schedule… Today we were able to take our time getting out of the room and didn’t hit the road until just after 11am (check-out time). Our first destination for today was Aphrodisias – an old Greek/Roman town. Google maps had showed a route from the first town along the route that we never did see but fortunately we’d seen signs on our way to Pamukkale a couple days earlier so we knew we’d find the place eventually… We found the turnoff we’d seen earlier without any trouble and after an “interesting” 30 km drive along a narrow two lane highway we pulled into the parking lot for the site.

They have an interesting system here – you can’t actually park at the site, so you have to hop aboard (for 7 lira for the three of us) a little shuttle tram that ferries you across the highway and the short distance to the site… You could probably walk it yourself but why would you want to in this kind of heat??

Once you hop off the shuttle, you walk a short distance to the site entrance, pay your money (15 lira each), pick up a map and audio guide (10 lira) and start exploring. This site is fantastic… easily one of the most interesting Greek/Roman cities we’ve ever visited… The stadium is amazingly intact and the rest of the site is only partially excavated (they were still digging out the main bath complex (it was cool to see their ancient bath house floor was tiled exactly the same as the bathroom in our house) and working on excavating a huge pool in the south Agora) and there’s lots of stuff still buried in the forest (you can see bits and pieces of it sticking up here and there). We also saw some buildings/structures we haven’t seen at other sites before – namely the Bouleuterion (council house) and Sebasteion (dedicated to the Roman emperors who were worshipped as gods in the Greek provinces of the Roman Empire). We wandered around for a couple of hours (one of the nice things about this site is that there are some mature trees that provide some shade to escape the blistering heat).

After wandering through the ruins we also popped into the little on-site museum (included with your entrance fee and air-conditioned) and checked out their collection of statues and other bits and pieces from around the site… Then it was time to pile back into the car and make the 2.5hr drive to Kusadasi…

Once again, the highway portion was fine. The Kusadasi portion was nightmarish. We started off just using a google map route that we’d pulled up on the iPad before left but after a bit it became clear that google maps had no idea where the hotel was so we switched to Apple’s “Maps” app and it quickly got us back on the right (albeit not much less hellacious) path. Even using the navigation feature on my iPhone it was a tortuous series of insanity-provoking roundabouts (whoever designed these clearly hated humanity) with multiple lanes of traffic entering and leaving and criss-crossing from one side to the other… Then it was into a maze of single lane streets and 90° corners and twisting allies… Eventually,  we found ourselves in front of the guest-house/hostel and even lucked out enough to get a parking spot right in front of the entrance to the hostel… It’s a good thing the mirrors on our rental car fold in because the street is so narrow the street side one definitely wouldn’t survive a night if it didn’t.

We dumped our stuff, cleaned up a bit and had showers then headed for a restaurant (Esenday) recommended by our host. Turned out to be a great recommendation – off the tourist path about a block (so mostly locals eating there and much, much lower prices) and fantastic service and good food. Our server even joined in a couple of times with our Rummy game and was very gracious… Definitely got a big tip from Marie… After dinner it was back to the room and to bed after a long day of exploring the ruins and driving…

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Today we were up bright and early to catch our 6:10 shuttle to the airport for our flight to Izmir… Unfortunately, the bug Caitlin had hopped back to me and I was feeling pretty crappy (pun intended) and wasn’t moving too quickly this morning… Marie and Caitlin helped pack up the last things and we made it to the shuttle – more or less on time… We picked up one more set of travellers from another hotel and then the driver – apparently cognizant of being a couple minutes behind schedule – floored it and headed for Kayseri airport (about an hour away) at warp speed… Not a good idea in a fully loaded van driving on cobblestone roads and poor quality paved roads… After about 10 minutes at warp factor 9, a loud bang followed by a telltale thumpity-thumpity-thumpity ride signalled a blown out tire… We didn’t mind as our flight didn’t leave until 9:10 but there were some very stressed people on the bus as it dawned on them that they were going to miss their flights… We all piled out of the van (and a few of us pitched in and helped as best we could to speed up the process) and eventually the damaged tire was replaced and we were good to go again… Of course, we were even further behind so the driver cranked it up to warp factor 10 and did a passable impression of a Formula One racer as he darted in and out of traffic, around buses, through red lights, etc.

We arrived at the airport in a literal cloud of dust and squealing tires… Everyone piled out and joined the huge queue of people waiting to get into the airport (remember, here you have to go through security to get into the airport). Our luck held out as they opened up a new screening station right in front of us so we made it in before a lot of other people and headed for the Pegasus check-in counter. At this airport they did the check-in by flight (which made a lot more sense than the gong show we encountered in Istanbul) so we were able to check-in quickly and then headed for a completely deserted waiting lounge on the second floor… Where I promptly stretched out and tried to sleep… The Immodiums I’d popped back at the hotel were doing their job but I was still feeling lousy… Just as I started to drift off, a couple of kids arrived intent on testing the acoustics of the empty room by yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs (I’m not exaggerating here… they literally yelled, shrieked, screamed, etc. with abandon and a complete lack of parent supervision). Luckily Marie and Caitlin returned and prevented me from stuffing the screaming tots in a garbage bin…

We hung out for a bit longer and then it was time to board the plane… Air Canada take note… When a plane has exits at the front and back it’s super fast to load the plane (and unload it) if you use both exits… I know… It seems like a radical idea but it works! The flight was uneventful (save for a bit of confusion we created when we told them we didn’t want the chicken sandwiches we’d ordered… They were the same as the ones on the last flight and some things you can only eat once in a lifetime…). Then it was into Izmir airport to wait for our bags… I think they loaded each bag onto the conveyor one at a time… With a smoke break in between bags… Ours were among the very last bags to show up on the carousel (about an hour after the flight landed)… Then we made the trek to the International Arrivals level to find our car rental agency…

We picked up our car (given that the girl at the counter spoke very little English and we speak no Turkish, I’m not sure if we have insurance but it’s all good)… Only problem… they have no GPSs to rent… No problem… We’ll just use the airport’s free WiFi to google maps a route… No free WiFi… No problem… We’ll just drive around until we find a McDonald’s and use WiFi to get a route to Pamukkale…

Can you believe there’s an airport in the world that doesn’t have a McDonald’s right nearby… After driving white-knuckled for about half an hour (remember, I’m operating on little sleep and feeling crappy still and am now in Turkish traffic) we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere with no WiFi restaurants anywhere around… So we pull out the iPhone, fire up the cellular data and start roaming (at $9.99 per 20MB). We leave the data on long enough to get a route and use the iPhone as a GPS to get us out of Izmir and onto the right road to Pamukkale (about 3 hours away).

Partway along we stop at a Burger King (not by choice…we do our best to stay away from fast food both in Canada and while travelling but we were desperate for WIFI and it was 2 pm and we were getting by on baby cookies since 6:00 am – so a few chicken tenders would tide us over).  The Burger King restaurant itself was kind of cool – the restaurant was built spanning all 6 lanes of a 6 lane divided highway so you’re sitting and eating above the roadway… Definitely never seen that in Canada.

Once we got to Denizili things got a little complicated (helped, no doubt, by me feeling way under the weather by this point) as we missed a couple of turns and had to do some backtracking but eventually we made our way to the hotel where we checked in around 7 pm and I promptly crashed for the night…

Marie and Caitlin went for a swim, had dinner and played some cards (while checking on me occasionally) and then called it a night as well – but not before dosing me up with enough Gravol and Tylenol to possibly cash in on my life insurance.   Hopefully I’m feeling better tomorrow because I’ve been looking forward to Pamukkale for a long time.

We rose bright and early at 5:30am to be down on the street to meet our driver at 6:15am… He was there right on time (a bit early even) and we piled our stuff into his van and headed for Sohiba airport (about 60km away). Because traffic can be a nightmare in Istanbul (one blogger reported taking 4 hrs to get from Sohiba to Taksim Square) we left ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport ahead of our 8:40 am departure.

Traffic was light so we got there around 7am. It’s a good thing we left early. When you get to the airport, you go through security right at the entrance (your luggage and everything goes through the scanner and you walk through the metal detector) so there’s a lineup (it moves pretty quickly). Then once you’re in, there’s a huge lineup for the Pegasus check-in. They have electronic check-in kiosks but once you’re checked in, if you have baggage you want to check you need to stand in the same lineup as everyone else. They have no Pegasus employees floating around or directing people to tell you this (I eventually found a supervisor and was able to ask him). At first the lineup was moving pretty quickly but then the chaos started. They kept pulling people out of the line (presumably for flights that were boarding) which moved the line forward but created huge backlogs at the actual check-in counters. And the people left in the line started yelling at the Pegasus staffers (one guy spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy explaining, we assume because it was all in Turkish, how to improve the system to a guy who was probably making minimum wage). The staffers yelled back. One poor woman who was hauling two large pieces of luggage and two young kids held it together admirably for about 40 minutes – until one of the Pegasus staffers chewed her out because her three year old tried to check himself in as baggage and was walking the conveyor belt… She lost it. He lost it. It wasn’t pretty. So a supervisor pulled her out of the queue to help… She was still standing in line at the supervisor’s wicket after we had checked-in. In all, it took us about an hour to drop off our three pieces of checked baggage (we’d already checked in electronically). The system would have worked a lot more smoothly if they’d had staffers floating to talk to people before they get in the lineup (ie. the people who checked in electronically but had no luggage to check who stood in line anyways) and if they had a baggage drop for those people who just need to drop luggage…

It was now just before 8am and our flight was scheduled to start boarding at 8:10am but we still needed to clear security. They had two sections – one for international flights and one for domestic and both had quite huge lineups. We entered the line for domestic security expecting to be there for a while but they opened up another security station and we made it through quite quickly – although the extensiveness of the security check was a bit questionable as Marie packed a full 500ml bottle of water through in her pack and I’m not sure the staff were even looking at the monitors… Although they did catch the guy whose belt set off the metal detector so that’s a good thing I guess. In any case, we made it through security and found our way to the boarding gate around 8:10 and waited for the buses to show up to take us to the plane. They started boarding quite late but this part of the process was pretty smooth… Being used to the more stringent security procedures in North American airports we were a little surprised that no one checked out passports (or any other ID) at any point during the entire process. Hopefully they’re more stringent with their international flights.

We took off a few minutes late (after the somewhat worrisome announcement from the cabin staff that the flight was bound for Kayseri and could people please check they were on the right plane…) and the flight was pretty routine. We’d paid in advance for a package that guaranteed seat selection and also provided a sandwich and drink on the flight (otherwise you get nothing… they must have studied the Air Canada domestic flight model). Our chicken sandwiches were “interesting” but appreciated given we had not had time to grab anything to eat at the airport as we’d planned due to the lengthy check-in process. Marie and I choked down a few bites of our sandwich (way too much mayonnaise for me and Marie just couldn’t stomach the chicken and peppers first thing in the morning… Caitlin managed to chow down on her whole sandwich by washing every bite down with a drink of cherry juice (we also got a full bottle of juice – a major bonus on domestic flights anywhere!) It was a pretty good value pack – for 8 lira you got a guaranteed seat, a sandwich and a drink… We felt bad though because we were those passengers (you know – the ones who get something to eat and drink before everyone else).

As we were part way through our sandwiches, the plane started its descent… I’m not an expert on air travel but this descent seemed awfully steep (as in about a 45° degree descent)… I sort of expected the oxygen masks to pop down. With a couple of little pockets of turbulence as we descended, we even got a couple of roller coaster style stomach lurches (Marie was not amused) but the cabin crew seemed unconcerned so it must have been normal for this flight. We landed without incident, picked up our luggage (eventually) and headed out to meet our shuttle bus (we’d booked on through our hotel) for the drive to Goreme (about an hour away). We loaded with about a dozen other passengers (including a young Asian couple who left their pack on the seat beside them despite the bus filling up pretty quickly… until another Asian traveller (not traveling with them) got on the bus and then they quickly moved their pack so she could sit… We were also joined by a young Turkish couple who quite literally talked non-stop for the entire hour… Leading me to this conclusion about people in general: in any public setting you will have people (like us) who talk in whispers and who essentially keep a private space within the public space and there’s another group of people who treat the public space as there own and carry on conversations at full volume, etc. as if there were no other people around… This couple were the latter type of people… They jabbered away and laughed and yelled as if they were the only two people on the bus. I slept on and off for a lot of the trip which is probably what saved their lives…

Eventually we arrived in Goreme and started the milk run of drop-offs at the various hotels (glad we didn’t try to find our place on our own – we’d have needed a GPS unit at least). We piled out of the van and headed into the reception area of our hotel. There was no one there so we headed up to the restaurant where Hassan – one of the young staffers at the hotel immediately greeted us, explained that our room wasn’t going to be ready for a couple of hours (it was only 11am after all so we weren’t expecting our room to be ready) and showed us some things to do and places to go while we waited.

So we changed into some lighter clothes and headed out to find something to eat. We stopped at one of the usual touristy restaurants offering a variety of Turkish and Turkish-style dishes and ate and drank our fill… Then headed for the Goreme Open Air Museum – a UNESCO World Heritage site… To say that it was hot would be an understatement of colossal proportions…. But that didn’t stop us from making the 1km or so trek to the museum (made longer by a couple of wrong turns)…. Once at the museum we joined the usual tour groups and started exploring the site. Basically it’s the remains of a small Christian community who made their homes and their churches and monasteries and nunneries in the fairy chimneys and rocks… It’s pretty cool. You have mini-cathedrals carved out of the rock and living spaces and kitchens, etc. all carved out of the rock with tunnels connecting the various spaces. There’s lots of places they won’t let you go and you can’t take pictures in any of the churches but overall it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours… At one point we stopped to play with an adorable 7 month old German Shepherd puppy (it was a good thing his owner was there or Marie and Caitlin would literally have stolen him and snuck him home in our luggage).

After exploring the “museum” we headed back to the hotel and checked-in to our room – which is really cool. We have one of the actual cave rooms so the whole space (even the bed platform) is carved from the rock. We all took advantage of the best shower we’ve ever had in a hotel (a true double rain shower) and cleaned off the grime of travelling and refresh ourselves a bit before heading out to get something to eat. We chowed down on some delicious pitas and played some cards before exploring some of the shops on the main tourist drag. Goreme is a small town entirely based on tourism so there are lots of shops and tour agencies booking balloon flights, ATV tours, horseback tours and bus tours of the various attractions in the area.

We’d been up early and were tired out from a week of exploring Istanbul so we headed back to the room around 10:30 and called it a night. Tomorrow we’ll make some plans for what to do with our two days in the area.

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Our day started well enough. It was pretty late when we turned in last night so we ended up sleeping in a little bit this morning. We still made it downstairs in plenty of time for our free breakfast, though… and what a breakfast it was. A small glass of orange juice (glorified Tang), a cup of tea and 4 slices of white bread with salami and cheese. But it was free so no one’s complaining (at least not loudly).

After breakfast we finished packing up and went back downstairs to check out and store our packs for the day then headed out to explore Tsaravets Castle (more accurately Tsaravets citadel or acropolis) – I don’t know much of the history of this place other than it was built during the middle ages and is pretty huge. It’s situated (as is the case with most such fortifications) at the top of a hill with sheer cliffs on a couple of sides and must have been quite something in its day. Now all that’s left are the foundations of the inner buildings, some reconstructed buildings (not spectacularly accurately, I suspect) and sections of the fortress walls and towers. It cost us 6 Bulgarian lev (about $4.20 cdn) to get into the site and you can pretty much explore to your heart’s content so it’s good value. Unfortunately, all the signage is in Bulgarian or German so we didn’t get as much out of it as we might have liked but it was still worth a couple of hours.

After the fortress we hopped on a little tourist train (4 lev each for the adults but the “child” rode for free – Caitlin is still seething at being relegated to child status but Marie was happy to save the $2.80). The train was really nice (basically brand new) but the “tour” was pretty lame – basically the train acts as a shuttle bus for a parking lot at the bottom of the fortress… so you drive down to the parking lot and then you turn around and go back the way you came. There’s no commentary of any kind and not much to see so in all it was sort of disappointing. But we didn’t have anything else we needed to do so it was no loss.

After the train, we roamed around a bit checking out the souvenir shops – good prices, decent selection of things we haven’t seen before – the pottery was especially good value (like $14 for pots that would cost $50-60 back home) but we’re pretty limited in our space so bringing back a whole bunch of cheap Bulgarian pottery isn’t going to happen any time soon. After a bit of souvenir shopping we took a break at one of the cafes and grabbed something to eat and drink and played a couple of hands of hearts and then headed back out to do some more exploring and shopping. Marie and Caitlin found a few bargains while I popped into a hillside restaurant/bar to check out the scenery, work on the blog and have a cold grapefruit Radler…

Soon it was time to head back to the hotel to retrieve our packs. After picking up our packs we stopped at a pizza/pasta joint and ordered some food to go, then grabbed a taxi to the train station ($3.50 cdn and saved a half hour of walking at least). At the station we queued up with our fellow Istanbul-bound passengers and waited for the bus to arrive. It showed up more or less on time and we piled on to start our 13 hour epic bus and train journey to the fabled city of Istanbul… If only it had all turned out that way.

We had only been on the road for about 25 minutes when we turned off and stopped in Middleofnowheresgradski – as in one store with 16 bottles of beer and a can of Fanta in the fridge – we waited there for almost an hour for a mini-bus to show up with 3 people on it… The highlight was definitely the running of the goats down the main drag… Yup, a whole herd of goats comes trotting down the main street and then splits off into 3 smaller groups – each going its own way. Which explained the two guys sitting on a chair drinking beer with long wooden “switches” – as soon as “their” goats turned up, they finished off their beer and headed after their goats. It was quite comical… After what seemed like an eternity (but only because we hadn’t experienced a real eternity yet) we piled back on the bus and resumed our trip. I think we might have made a couple of quick stops after that but nothing noteworthy… But then came Dimitrovgrad… Somehow we ended up there about 2 hrs earlier than the schedule we were given said we’d get there… They needn’t have bothered with a schedule.

As soon as we pulled in our driver was like “it’s off the bus time to switch buses, wait here” and then, after throwing open the luggage compartments, was gone – never to be seen again… Which was probably a good thing because someone might have killed him as the evening progressed. We waited for about an hour until the anticipated bus (the one that was supposed to take us to Kapikule, Turkey) showed up… When it finally arrived it had 5 empty spaces… Only problem? There were about 30 of us looking to get to Istanbul tonight… It quickly became apparent that we weren’t all going to fit on the bus. With visions of Hunger Games dancing in our heads we queued up for a while at the front door of the bus until it became clear that it wasn’t going to work out.

So we waited (without any explanation from the bus company staff) for another hour and half until some genius decided to call for a second bus for the overflow passengers (or maybe he called earlier – we wouldn’t no because no one did any explaining). So we waited another half hour for the second bus to show up… Then we waited another half hour for the driver to show up… Finally – more than 2.5 hours later we were pulling out of Dimitrovgrad headed for Smilograd or Smaugville or some damn place… all we knew is that it most definitely was not the place we were scheduled to go to… Everybody dozed fitfully for a couple of hours until it became increasingly clear that the driver was completely lost… He was talking to someone on his cell phone while going the wrong way down one way streets for a while until we turned off onto a rutted gravel road that apparently led to the Smirnoff of Sackville or whatever it was called customs station… Where a guy in nothing even remotely resembling a uniform collected all our passports and went back into the station to do something with them (I think he was writing down the pertinent information on a sheet of paper but who knows). After about 45 minutes we were back on the road again heading for god-only-knows-where-grad but hey, we did pass some signs saying “Istanbul” so we must be on the right track… Alas it was not to last.

We pulled into a 24 hr kind of rest stop not far from where we cleared Bulgarian customs (presumably that was why they collected our passports) around 3:45am and were told we’d need to wait for about an hour for the Turkish bus to arrive and then it would take us to Istanbul… It’s now 5:40am and I’m sitting outside on a plastic chair typing this blog entry (I’m outside with the frogs and the mosquitos because with the doors closed and the engine turned off the interior of the bus heats to 6th level of hell temperatures in about 9 minutes). We left Veliko Tarnovo around 7:30pm… We’ve been on the road (metaphorically because much of the time has been spent waiting) for 10 hours and apparently we have 5 more hours of driving in front of us whenever we leave.

Highlights of the trip thus far:

1) The kids who pulled out a ukelele and headed to the nearest shop to buy beer as soon as it became apparent we were going to be in Dimitrovgrad for a while. Kudos to them for making the best of a bad situation… but please, please, for the love of all that is holy and good learn some decent music. Beyonce songs are not made for the ukelele nor should they ever be played on such…

2) The Bulgarian grandmother who clearly has a timetable to keep to… She speaks no English but has pestered every single person on the bus at least twice to confirm we’re going to Istanbul, to ask how long it will take (presumably because she keeps pointing at her imaginary watch) and who just finished railing at the driver (who, remember was pulled out of bed – or the bar – at 2am to drive) so vociferously that he gave up trying to sleep and is now out here with those of us who are braving the bugs and the frogs… She has, at one time or another, managed to disrupt almost everyone’s sleep on the bus by chewing out the bus driver. Her days may be numbered if this trip lasts any longer.

3) The spectacularly creepy dude who took way too much interest in Caitlin and Marie – fortunately he deciphered the cave man glare I gave him (assisted no doubt by some strategic body positioning to quite deliberately put myself between him and them) before anything more drastic had to be done… Kudos to Caitlin for picking up on his creepiness instantly. Her radar was obviously working overtime at 1am in the sketchy Bulgarian bus stop.

4) Nature pees… Caitlin and Marie heading off with a flashlight to let ‘er rip in the urban park (more accurately a strip of green space with a couple of trees sandwiched between the bus depot and the strip clubs and late night stores) where we waited incessantly for the bus – any bus to arrive. They weren’t the only ones doing it… There was a pretty steady stream (no pun intended) of people heading for the bushes while we waited.

5) Marie feeling okay for most of it… Of course the half bottle of Ginger Gravol she took over the course of the trip (okay it wasn’t half a bottle… it was only 8 tablets… out of 20 in a bottle…)

It’s now 6:04am and we’ve just finished piling onto an even more dilapidated bus (I wasn’t sure that was even possible given the state of disrepair of the ones we’ve ridden so far) and are pulling out of the parking lot. If I understand things this is going to go one of two ways from this point: either this bus is going to take us all the way to Istanbul or this bus is going to take us to Kapikule and we’ll need to get on another bus that will then take us to Istanbul.

We just cleared Bulgarian passport control (everybody disembarks from the bus and walks up to a window where your passport is scanned and stamped) then you pile back on the bus and drive across the border to Turkish passport control. There’s a line of maybe 4 buses ahead of us (most with a stream of passengers catching up to the bus with their duty free purchases). At the Turkish side of the border, they come aboard the bus and collect passports (not all but most – some countries must not need visas or scanning or something) and then disappear into officialdom with our passports and printed visas (you apply for and get them electronically before you leave Canada – at a cost of $60 USD for each!). We’re just sitting in the line idling and then it’s off to Kapikule to switch buses (again) for the final trip to Istanbul. In all, it took us just under an hour to clear the border and get to the Kapikule bus depot so it’s now about 8am…

At Kapikule, order and decent customer service took over. The Turkish side of the operation quickly got us off our beater bus (this thing was clearly pulled out of retirement for tonight’s shenanigans) and onto a smaller bus (perhaps a bit too small as there wasn’t enough luggage space for all our packs) that was in pretty decent shape. They showed everyone to the bathrooms (something most of the people on the bus hadn’t seen since just before 2am when we left Dimtrovgrad) and were friendly and communicative – a stark contrast to the Bulgarian side of the operation who never spoke, never smiled and couldn’t have cared less if anyone needed to use a toilet…

We pulled out of Kapikule and headed for Istanbul (about 3 hours away) in a much better frame of mind. The only downside to this part of the trip was the heat in the bus – in about 5 minutes it was literally a sauna in the bus – a bus, remember, with 22 (Marie counted) people who have not slept well and who have not showered in quite a few hours (some in quite a few days from the smell of them)… It got pretty ripe and extremely hot really fast – which just helped everyone get a bit more sleep. After 2 hours of driving we stopped at a rest area (with a variety of food options and bathrooms no less) for a quick 10 minute pee break and then piled in and made the last part of the trip…

There are a couple of jobs I would not do for love or money – a bus driver in Istanbul would be very near the top of that list. The traffic in this city is insane – think 3 lane highways made into 6 lane highways by people just driving wherever there’s a space. Think roundabouts with no lights and people cutting from the outside of the roundabouts to the inside at high speed. We entered Istanbul around 10:30 am and didn’t arrive at our destination (Silecek Train Station) until 11:30 (most of that last hour was stop and go bumper car traffic – no wonder the driver lit up a smoke (despite the no smoking signs all over the bus).

In all, our trip from Veliko Tarnovo ended up taking 16 hours and 4 separate buses… But we made it. There were a few moments where we weren’t entirely sure they weren’t just going to dump us off the bus and leave us but in the end they got us all here in one piece (more or less).

Once in Istanbul we found a bank machine and stocked up on Turkish currency, then hit a tourist information booth for a map and some instructions about using the tram system to get to our apartment/hotel… We figured it all out, shouldered our packs and climbed aboard the first tram heading in the right direction. Four stops later we piled off (right at the historic Grand Bazaar no less) and then made a quick right and started walking down a pretty impressive hill towards the water… Near the bottom of the hill we hooked another right and within 5 minutes found Ajans Pi House. They were awesome! Grabbed us a seat. Offered us some tea or coffee while we waited for the manager (Muharrem) who quickly showed us the room and then walked us to his restaurant around the corner a bit where he gave us some information about Istanbul, talked a bit about the food we were eating (which was delicious – although a bit higher priced than some of the more touristy restaurants in the area) and then left us to our well-deserved (and much needed) afternoon power nap. He was a breath of fresh air after all the lousy and indifferent service we’ve had on this trip. We’re hoping to touch base with him a couple more times during our stay…

Our room here in Istanbul is small but comfortable. It’s suffered a bit of wear and tear but is clean and they provide daily room cleaning (something we haven’t had much of at all this trip) and they provide free bottled water and soda water (a nice touch in a place where even the locals drink bottled water) and tea for breakfast.

After a couple of hours we roused ourselves long enough to do a quick turn around the neighbourhood (we’re staying in the Kumkapi area near the sea with lots of fish markets and restaurants) and then headed back to one of the touristy places near the tram stop and had a light dinner (this area is lile the Plaka in Athens – every restaurant has people outside trying to convince you to eat their place… we choice ours because the guy called Marie “calm and kind” – she was hooked! After dinner, it was off to a market to stock up on breakfast foods (yogurt, cereal, juice and fruit) because the room includes a bar fridge (score!) and now we’re just finishing up blogs, checking emails and reading the news before turning out the lights and calling it a day… Or more accurately two days I guess.

It’s been an adventure getting here and Istanbul – a city of 15 million people – defies description but we’re super excited to be here and have a pretty full list of places we want to see and things we want to do so it’s off to bed now…

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