Archive for the ‘Travel’ 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.

Day 38: Madrid

Posted: August 25, 2014 in Madrid, Travel
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Day 38: Madrid

Our last day of the trip 😦

We all woke up very tired this morning. The room was really hot last night (until I figured out how to work their air conditioning system – then it was too cold for Marie and Caitlin) and I couldn’t sleep… And the noise from the square and in the hotel (Saturday night is definitely party night in Madrid) was too much for the ear plugs… Then around 6am we were rudely woken to shouted insults and angry swearing then the sound of police sirens… And the beds were too hard…When I went out on the balcony to check what it was all about there were 6-8 cops there and it appeared they’d broken up a fairly large fight… What was surprising was there must have been 150 people milling around in the square (many looked like they were just heading home from the bars).

Bleary eyes and aching bodies notwithstanding, we started our last day in Madrid early with a trip to El Rastro – the largest flea market in Spain (and one of the largest in Europe). It was a shopper’s paradise and Caitlin and Marie did some damage to their pocketbooks. Apparently there’s a limit of 3500 stalls scattered over an area encompassing about 10 square city blocks. Parts of it are a decent quality tourist market (lots of scarves, patchwork pants, etc.) with decent enough prices… The rest is true flea market with lots of antiques and odds and ends and DVDs, etc. There were lots of cool, funky things for sale but we’re pretty limited on the amount of stuff we can bring back and the packs are pretty full as it is… So lots of looking but no buying for us. Marie may also significantly damaged the image of Canadians in Spain forever in one stall… Her “who is this Renaldo guy anyways and what does he play” caused the guy to cough and sputter like he was having a seizure.

The guidebooks mentioned this place would be a zoo by 11am so we got there early (just after 9am) when a lot of the sellers were just getting set up and it was pretty quiet (lots of police around – presumably to check the sellers’ licences). By 11am it was wall to wall shoppers. We stuck it out until around 12:30 then grabbed a bucket of cold Radlers (those yummy low alcohol content, beer based drinks I mentioned in an earlier post) and some tapas for lunch… Then it was off to the Museo Reina Sofia – home to Picasso’s famous painting Guernica – considered the most important Spanish painting and one of the most valuable pieces of art in the world – and a bunch of Dali’s and other modern artists’ works. Turns out admission is free after 1:30 (good timing for us) but they close some of the exhibits so we weren’t able to see all of the art (Marie cried inconsolably at this turn of events) but did get to see the biggies.

Then it was back to the Plaza del Sol area to shop for some souvenirs… At one point I discovered a chain restaurant called 100 Motaditos (or something like that) where they serve pints of beer for 1.50 euros (about $2.25 cnd) and all the tapas are 1 euro… I made myself comfortable while Caitlin and Marie finished their souvenir shopping… Then it was over to the more swanky shopping area to check out a store called “Lefties” that we’d discovered earlier in our wanders… Marie and Caitlin did some back to school shopping (and stretched the limits of our packing space to their very max) and then we headed back to our stomping grounds for a final dinner in Madrid.

We settled on the place next door to the restaurant we’d eaten at the previous two nights (you can only take completely indifferent service so many times). They had a fixed menu where you got 4 tapas and a main plus bread and dessert for 16.5 euros (reasonably priced for Madrid). The food was good, the sangria was good and the shots of Madronos liquor they gave us for free (not sure if that was intentional or not but they weren’t on the bill) were also good… By this point it was almost 11 and we still had to pack for tomorrow so it was back to the hotel room (a whopping 20’ away from our seats) and off to bed.

Hard to believe that 38 days have gone by… although, we’ve been traveling for so long now and seen so many countries and cities that we’ve all kind of forgotten the first days of the trip…

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The picture above is called “Girl at the Window” or something along those lines. It is by Salvadore Dali (as is the picture below which is more along the lines of what he’s famous for)… I include this picture because it is quite noteworthy… Mainly because it is one of the few (as in quite possibly none) pieces of modern art Marie has ever said “I like that” in response to… She likes it so much she bought a copy of it to put in her office…

 

 

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Day 37: Madrid

Posted: August 25, 2014 in Madrid, Travel
Tags: , ,

Day 37-38: Madrid

We started off with a quick breakfast of yogurt from a mini-mart near the Plaza Mayor and then headed to the Palace to beat the hordes. When we arrived there was virtually no line and once inside the palace we found it significantly less busy than many of the sites we’ve visited on this trip. Technically the royal palace of Spain (although the royal family now lives in a different palace somewhere else), it was built in the 17th century replacing the wooden one that used to be on the same site but burned down in the 1650s…  Apparently having your wooden royal palace burn to the ground is good incentive to make sure the next one is built entirely of stone so that’s what they did.

This palace is very similar in design and look to Versailles but the part open to the public is much smaller (we spent 8-10 hours at Versailles where this one took about 90 minutes). Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures in most of the spaces so you’ll have to take my word that it was very elegant and extravagant – one positive difference between this palace and Versailles is that much of the furnishings are intact as it’s been continuously used since it was built (where a lot of the furnishing in Versailles are copies or period pieces as the originals were stolen or destroyed during the French Revolution).

After the palace we checked out the Royal Armoury (included with admission to the palace). Your usual collection of swords, muskets, etc. and a great collection of model horses in full tournament and battle armour – very impressive. Some of them were so heavily armoured that seeing one of those bearing down on you at full speed must have been like watching a small tank come at you… It would have taken a brave pike man to stand and hold the line in the face of one these things coming at them.

After the armoury we paid our 8 euros to enter the cathedral… Well technically to enter the museum and the cupola – the cathedral itself is free to enter. First time on this trip that Caitlin was denied the student rate because she didn’t have her ID… Can’t say the young guy behind the counter was particularly friendly either… It seemed ironic that he was working in a church. In any case, this was probably the most disappointing site we visited on this trip. The cathedral is quite modern (it was actually finished in 1993) and is built to modern safety standards so you have a glass wall keeping you from being able to look down from the cupola on the cathedral below and everything is modern. You do get some nice views of the city from the cupola though. The cathedral itself is decent enough albeit a bit bland and modern after all the old churches we’ve visited.

After the cathedral we walked back to the Mercado de San Miguel and sampled some of the tapas, paellas and other food we’d seen there the night before. It was all quite tasty but quite expensive by our standards (our whole lunch came to 28 euros – about 42 cdn – which is 2-3 times what we we’ve been paying for lunch in most of the cities we visited).

After the Mercado we walked over the Museo del Prado – the Prado Museum – one of the best art galleries in Europe. It was very big… Some of the highlights included “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch – that dude was so far ahead of his time and the inside of his head was a scary place, some very nice and some very disturbing works by Goya, a fascinating exhibition on the way El Greco (who I always thought was a modern painter but was really a Renaissance-era painter) influenced modern painters like Picasso, Pollock, Dali, etc. It was quite interesting and El Greco’s works are amazing (another painter light years ahead of his contemporaries). After a while, though, our feet were hurting (the hills and cobblestones in Lisbon had pummelled all of us pretty good) and our eyes were glazing over a bit… But we did backtrack to make sure we saw the Raphael’s we’d somehow missed earlier… In all we spent about 3 hours in the museum – enough that Marie was wondering again where all the art comes from and Caitlin was reprising her suggestion that there be some kind of spay and neuter program for artists… The part that gets me about art is that aside from the truly great artists (put a Picasso or a Dali or Raphael or El Greco in a room with hundreds of other paintings and even the most neophyte viewer would be drawn to them – their works really do stand out that much) much of the art is sort of ho-hum… Unless you’re an art historian, it’s hard to tell the difference between a nice painting you could pick up at a garage sale and a museum quality piece (the really old stuff being an obvious difference).

After the Prado we walked through some of Madrid’s swankier areas and visited the famous city gate (I’m typing this on the plane without WiFi and the name escapes me) and the Fountain of Cibeles (I think that’s the name) – a couple of famous Madrid landmarks. Then we headed back to the Plaza del Sol and Plaza Mayor areas to find some souvenirs and explore… Marie even paid money for one of those cheesy tourist pictures where you stand behind some kind of costume (must have been something she ate). We also stopped for some tapas and drinks at one of the places near the mercado… Turns out Marie still doesn’t like mojitos so Caitlin ended up drinking both of them… Good thing they were pretty weak (you can’t expect much when they’re 2 for 8 euros I guess) or we’d have been rolling her home.

We decided to eat at the same restaurant we’d eaten at the first night (lousy service notwithstanding) because the food was good and the prices were better than the rest… Then it was off to bed for an even earlier start the next day (our last in Madrid and the last of the trip).

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I don’t usually take the time to comment on the pictures (just takes too much time and it’s hard to keep up with the blog as it is with all the stuff we do during the days) but I had to point out that this photo is of Caitlin – completely exhausted – after we left the Prado… And it was her idea to go there!

 

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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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It seemed like we’d just fallen asleep when the alarm jolted us awake at 3:45am… We quickly brushed our teeth, got dressed in the dark (to disturb Caitlin as little as possible) and then headed out to meet our 4:15am pickup for Turkiye Balloons (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g297983-d3581662-Reviews-Turkey_Hot_Air_Balloons-Goreme_Cappadocia.html#REVIEWS). They’re the number #1 rated activity in Goreme and the #1 rated hot air balloon company so we felt pretty confident accepting the hotel’s recommendation to book with them.

Our driver arrived right at 4:20 – sans van as the road was so blocked with other vehicles that he couldn’t make it up the road – so we hoofed it down the road a little ways and piled into the van for the 5 minute drive to their restaurant/booking office where they provide a buffet breakfast (typical Turkish breakfast fare) while taking care of the administrivia – which basically consists of typing your name, sex and age into their computer – there were no waivers or liability insurance or anything (I can’t imagine the paperwork that would be involved in doing this back in Canada).

Then you’re sorted into vans based on where your hotel is and driven to the launch site. When you arrive, the balloons are attached to the baskets and the ground crew is in the process of inflating the massive balloons with high powered gas fans… When the balloons are partially inflated they fire up (literally) the hot air part of the process and start firing huge jets of propane fuelled flame into the balloons… Once the balloon is upright, they start loading you into the baskets (24 to a basket) and once everyone is ready they release the ground lines and you rise slowly into the air. Just before you cast off, one of the ground crew climbs aboard to tell everyone that the pilot has no control over where the balloon goes and can only control up and down… Marie was not terribly impressed by this piece of news. There’s virtually no sensation of movement when you take off and, when the jets aren’t firing, the whole thing is almost silent… Marie was pretty nervous leading up to the take off but relaxed as soon as we were off the ground and moving as it’s so smooth and they stay pretty close to the ground to start…

Shortly after takeoff, though, we were skimming the ground at a stately pace and edging up the hills leading to the valley and the panoramic views of Cappadocia. It’s pretty magical as you rise slowly above the landscape (which is impressive in its own right) and on one side you’re seeing the sun “rise” against the hills and in front of you there are around 100 balloons of all shapes and sizes and colours spread out across the sky… It’s hard to know what to look at as your eyes are drawn to a particular balloon then to the colour of the sky then you realize you’re hundreds of feet above ground as you’re passing over one of the many valleys. The whole time our pilot, I’m sure, is showing off as he drops us perfectly into one valley after another and then perfectly gauges the ascent so we just skim over the land as we come back up… There were a few times we weren’t quite sure if we were going to clear the land but he gauged it perfectly each time.

The hour passes quickly in a blur of breathtaking vistas and the exhilaration of floating through the air… But then it’s time to get some altitude and the pilot fires up all four of the burners and we start rising fairly rapidly… 500 metres, 600 metres, 700 metres, 800 metres and we’re now above almost all the other balloons and can see the earth curving off in the distant blue haze…

Then you’re descending gently and heading for an open field as the ground crew chases the balloon with the vans and the support vehicles and the balloon pilot is gesturing this way and that predicting where the winds will bring the balloon… Although the pilot’s in perfect control of the balloon, it’s clear from his “yuck yuck yuck” that the wind is taking him someplace other than he’d like to go and at one point we literally skim the top of a tree (we could hear and feel the topmost branches brushing against the bottom of the basket as we passed over). Once past the tree and other obstacles, we all assume the landing position (knee bent, facing away from the direction of travel and braced against the frame of the basket) and touch down with a gentle thud in some farmer’s potato field as the pilot opens the top of the balloon and releases much of the hot air… As the balloon’s momentum threatens to tip the basket, the ground crew is there hanging on and pulling the balloon back down to the ground… There’s a final moment or two of struggle as the balloon tries to get airborne once more but the pull of the land (and a half dozen beefy guys) is too much and everything comes to a stop… The lines and halyards are disconnected and the balloon slowly deflates and lies flat on the ground while the elated passengers climb out and mill around talking excitedly amongst themselves.

The ground crew quickly sets up a table and starts pouring glasses of celebratory champagne (and grape juice for the kids) and they hand out commemorative certificates. Then it’s back in the van and back to the hotel by 7:30… just in time to download the pictures and type up this blog entry while Caitlin sleeps.

If you’re in Cappadocia, don’t even think about whether to do the hot air ballooning or not… Do it. You won’t regret it. It’s super expensive (€130 per person and that’s the discounted cash price) but there’s just no better way to see this amazing landscape and the ballooning experience itself is indescribable…. I don’t know what all the companies are like and with so many balloons up at any one time I’m sure there are some sketchy experiences but we found Turkiye Balloons to be very safe and very professional and our pilot made it all look effortless… Marie was pretty nervous (she didn’t sleep well at all) leading up to the flight but enjoyed it immensely… It’s nothing at all like any other form of flying and it feels incredibly safe…

All in all, it was a great way to start our last day in Goreme and a highlight of the trip… It’s too bad Caitlin wasn’t able to join us but she did enjoy the extra 4 hours of sleep…

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