Fast-Track Traveling

>> June 22, 2010

Our blogging has really taken a nose dive in the last few weeks. We have been traveling so fast that my head is spinning. Can I give you a tour through the Balkans? I must warn you, our experiences are brief and incomplete, but hopefully will give you a taste.

May 28, 2010: Arrive in Taşucu, Turkey, by way of Cyprus. What a wonderful change from Cyprus: normal prices, normal people, and although the tourism infrastructure is very apparent, it isn't all-consuming. The truth is that we very much enjoyed the "occupied" northern side of Cyprus, but cared little for the high fashion, high priced southern end of Cyprus. I think that, had we to choose again, we might not choose to travel from Egypt to Turkey by way of Cyprus. The flight seemed fairly cheap, but then we paid $100 each for the 2 hour ferry from Cyprus to Turkey. We spent two nights in Taşucu, dealing with a computer crisis and enjoying the permeating smell of peppermint drying on tables throughout our little hotel.

June 1, 2010: We left Taşucu by way of hitchhiking and scored a series of two friendly drivers who managed to get us 260 kilometers down the Turkish coastline in a single afternoon. We spent most of the day in the car, except for various stops along the way for çay (tea) and fresh seasonal fruit. Many thanks to two new Turkish friends! We disembarked early evening and camped in a beach park just west of Alanya. We spent a while cleaning the beach in the dimming light and then feasted on bananas, carob, and bread with tomatoes, cucumbers, salami, and cheese.

June 2, 2010: After awaking in our little cozy tent, we took a quick swim and then headed back to the highway for a lift, reaching Antalya by evening. Antalya, as expected, was touristy and filled with material things to buy: evil eyes, handloomed rugs, leather sandals, trinkets and treasures galore. We, of course, didn't add much to our already mountainous backpacks.

June 3, 2010: After failing for 2 hours to find a walkable way out of the city in order to hitchhike, we hopped a bus heading out of town, getting off at the entrance to the Gulluk National Park, which contains the site of the Termessos ruins. After some haggling with the guard, we pitched our tent and ate more bread and cheese and salami.

June 4, 2010: We awoke with the morning light and headed up the mountain, ignoring the taxi drivers to tried to pressure us to hire them for the 9km drive up to the site. "Only 50 euros, one way!" Yeah right. We walked for about an hour, then a park ranger gave us a lift up to the top. We had passed a couple the day before who said that the site could be seen in 2-3 hours. We spent nearly 7 hours wandering through the ruins, picnicking in an ancient amphitheater perched on the mountainside, and marveling at the remnants of this ancient civilization. We finally wandered back down the mountainside and caught a ride to the next town: Korkuteli. Far from the tourist path, Korkuteli felt like our real first taste of Turkey. We bought bulk olives and raisins, nearly three pounds of glossy cherries, gnawed on delicious fresh baguettes, overindulged on kebob plates, and certainly were the talk of the town.

June 5, 2010: Bright and early we started hitching out of town and snagged a ride with two friendly guys. They were enroute to Izmir and tried very hard to convince us to join them. But we had a different route in mind and hopped off in Saraykö. The next two rides carried us as far as Akhisar, a surprisingly expensive college town. We enjoyed wandering around and visiting the local produce market. It was a long day, but we managed to cover 450 kilometers! The Balkans began to speed by too quickly, but we kept going.

June 6, 2010: A nice semi-truck driver picked us up and drove us almost all the way to Bandırma, where we caught a ferry to Istanbul. The ferry ride was okay, but completely enclosed with big televisions and gift shops. We would have preferred a slower, open-air ferry for the experience. But it got us to Istanbul in record time, early enough to explore the city by bus for a few hours. Wow, what a city! We stayed in Istanbul for the next four days, exploring the city mostly by foot, traveling by seabuses, circumventing the major tourist areas as much as possible, and enjoying the company of a wonderful Couchsurfing host. It rained nearly every day of our time in Istanbul, but we persevered and took the deluge as excuses to explore mosques and churches and museusms and lovely covered ferry boats.

June 10, 2010: Bus to Edirne, Turkey, which is the last town before reaching Bulgaria. Twelve days in Turkey was frustratingly short; it was a kind a generous country that formed an appropriate and softened bridge between the third world and the western world. There was a nice balance in Turkey: history is integrated into modern life, the old and young both have strong and valuable places in society, food is plentiful and locally grown or produced, cafe culture is strong and public spaces are well-used. We spent our last night in Turkey enjoying köfte (meat balls) and big tomato salads.

June 11, 2010: Crossing the border and receiving our first EU stamps was easy and accomplished by foot. A series of kind hitchhike rides got us to a couchsurfing spot in Haskovo, Bulgaria, only about 100 kilometers from Edirne. Our hosts were very kind and gracious; we enjoyed rich conversations about travel, hitchhiking, eco-education, and insights about the world. Thanks T and I for such a wonderful experience and for the delicious traditional Bulgarian soups!

June 12, 2010: An exceptional driver picked us up on the edge of Haskovo and carried us all the way to the outskirts of the capital city of Bulgaria: Sofia, about 250 kilometers. Along the way, we stopped at a restaurant for Turkish kebobs and çay and limited spoken conversation and lots of smiling. We arrived in Sofia, tired and unsure as to what our evening situation might be. We headed to a park where a Couchsurfing meeting was taking place, hoping to find a few friend (with a couch) in the mix. We were delighted to make two new friends that evening, and stayed up late chatting. Thanks so much for hosting us T and V!

June 13, 2010: We spent the morning exploring Sofia: parks and museums and churches and art galleries. Then we continued on our way, Serbia here we come! One long and ridiculously hot bus ride later, we arrived in Niš, Serbia, and were met at the station by yet another generous Couchsurfing host. We enjoyed a great CS gathering that evening, and added to the croquette feast with some pizza bites and southern coleslaw. It was a fun group of people that gave us a sense of Niš in a limited period of time. Thanks to the four Ms for their friendship, kindness, and hospitality!

June 14, 2010: In the morning we set out to see some of Niš. Although closed on Monday, we wandered around the grounds of the Crveni Krst concentration camp, thinking to the thousands of persecuted people that passed through this site. Although horrific, we couldn't help but compare the camp to the Cape Coast slave castle that we visited last month in Ghana. So many similarities, yet so many differences. Perhaps I will delve more deeply into this in a later blog. But for now, our fast track continues and we move onwards, to Belgrade! More hitchhiking included a big rig ride, some maple syrup, and a new friend who took us to the Belgrade train station. Thanks!! We spent the night with more couchsurfing hosts, right on the edge of a fantastic daily market.
June 15, 2010: A visit to the United States embassy ensures that we have enough pages in our passports to travel the world again in the next 10 years, and we spent the whole day exploring the great city of Belgrade. We visited the botanical gardens, the bohemian distict, the museum of Applied Art, nd many many markets. At 9:30PM we boarded a train heading north, next stop Zagreb, Croatia! Because of the low-cost European flights, trains in the Balkans seem to usually be mostly empty. Our private (we weren't sharing!) compartment was reminescent of a Hogwarts train, with banks of three seats on either side, a door + curtain to block vouyers from the hallway, and chairs that slid down to meet in the middle a form a bed. The window even opened and we slept deeply in cool Balkan breezes.

June 16, 2010: Whoops! There went Croatia, speeding by in the early morning light. We continued onwards to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. It was chilly and rainy when we arrived, but we stowed our backpacks in a locker and set out to explore the city. We hiked to the uppermost point, a medieval castle atop Castle Hill. It was a bizarre and surprising combination of ancient castle and modern renovations. Very little of the castle was educational, the majority of the space was taken up by a very modern bar, a cafe, a gift shop, and elaborate corridors of glass and metal. Perhaps the photos will do a better job of explaining.
After hours of walking, we hopped aboard a local train heading for the Italian border, with plans to arrive in Trieste that evening. Thinking that we required a border stamp when crossing into Italia, we opted to walk from the local Slovenian train to the highway, hoping for a ride there. It was a depressing and entirely fruitless venture: we found the highway, and had no ride offers for the entire hour that it took us to reach the border. And when we arrived at the border, we realized that not only were stamps not required, but that there wasn't even a border control, just some random polizia watching cars zoom past. So, we tried hitching on the other side of the "border," still no luck. Until a very sweet couple gave us a lift to the tram that runs to Trieste. And there we were arriving at our first point in Italia, happy to be there! We found a great Albergo right in the downtown and enjoyed a romantic Italian meal close to the harbor. Needless to say, we slept profoundly that night.

June 17, 2010: As per the usual scene, we spent the morning wandering through Trieste, reveling in the beautiful architecture and Italian culture, and tentitively trying our Italian phrases. My memory was continually jogged by reminders of a wonderful trip that I took to Italia with my family eleven years ago. What a special gift it was for a 17 year old, thanks Mom and Dad! Early afternoon, we caught a train to Casarsa, to meet a friend in Valvasone. What a wonderous opportunity to spend a few days without backpacks on, reveling in the kindness of a new friend, and enjoying the epic countryside of small-town Italia. We bicycled around the village, indulged in local wine, ate enormous amounts of speck and proccuito and cheese, visited an incredible mosaic school, and readied a 5 kilo package of to send stateside. Special and specific blogs will be dedicated to this special visit. Thank you so much E for such a special visit, we are so lucky to have a friend in you!

June 19, 2010: With deep regret, we departed from Valvasone on an early morning train, next stop: Venice. We sent our package with minor complications and set off to explore the great city. I wanted to revisit this special place, and I thought it important for my husband, who is also from a city that resides at/below sea level, to visit. Venice is incredible. It is beatiful and delightful and perfect for explorers like us. The city planning is exceptional, the churches are staggeringly awe-inspiring, and the people surprisingly friendly considering the annual tourism traffic. The day was cloudy with intermittent rain, which far from dampened our spirits. We wandered for the day, getting lost, avoiding the 100-person line to enter the S. Marco Cathedral, and snacking on Italian proccuito with cheese on steps leading into a canal. It was a wonderful day, but by evening, we went back to the train station to collect our considerable-lightened backpacks, and caught a train heading towards France. We had a date to meet a friend in Marseilles on the 22nd, so onward we pushed. In our rush to make the departing train towards Milano, we neglected to look carefully at our itinerary to Ventimiglia, on the border between Italia and Francia. By midnight, we had passed through Milano and were half an hour from Genoa. Upon arriving in Genoa, we groggily moved towards the train door exit; I made it, Nathan didn't. There is something insane about standing in the chilly wind on a train platform at 12:30AM wearing a backpack and watching your husband speed away into the darkness, destination unknown, return unlikely. But, amazingly enough, he did return about an hour later, after catching the last local bus back to Genoa, since the next train wasn't scheduled to pass until 4:30AM. He found me, snuggled up on the marble floor, covered in the rain fly of our tent, keeping a wary eye on the other strangers waiting in a cold train station for early morning trains. I was delighted to see him and we unrolled our sleeping bags, huddling down for the six hour layover, waiting for our connection to Ventimiglia.

June 20, 2010: I can't say that I awoke refreshed from my night on the floor of the Genoa Train Station, but I was surprised to feel slighly rested. From Ventimiglia we continued on, emerging in Monaco and walking through some beautiful gardens before catching a bus to Nice. Nice was nice, but expensive and not receptive to hitchhikers. We traveled on. The downtown of Cannes was beautiful and filled with references to cinema, but we can return there some day. Back on the train. Finally we arrived in Marseille. And here we are still. Our friend is unable to meet us, but we are staying with some wonderful new friends right downtown. I love this city!! Yesterday we walked to "little Morocco" to shop for ingredients for dinner, walked along the port, and up to Puget Marseille to see a statue of Louis Braille. Last night we attended a outdoor classical concert with our new friend C and enjoyed pastis at a street bar afterwards.

It's been a crazy few weeks. The fast pace has us neither here, nor there, but always in motion. Feelings and images and observations are so fleeting; there is hardly time to grasp the feeling before it is left in the distance. It is certainly a different way of traveling, perhaps not the method that I prefer, but does give me greater appreciation for the luxury of the slower travels of the beginning months of our journey. And I keep telling myself that we will come back to this part of the world, that we will again someday take trains through the Balkans and explore more of Italy, that we can visit all the places that we couldn't include on this trip ont he next go-round. And we will.

But for now, I am delighted to have landed in Marseille. Keep tuned, I feel some more writing coming on.



Marty June 20, 2012 at 5:04 AM  
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