Della dances around the world!

For those of you who follow us on Facebook, you may remember when Della posted her first video of dancing around the world. She used a song that she used to do with her class and is just a fun line dance called the Sid Shuffle. But, because the first edition wasn’t so much dancing around the world as it was dancing around southern Africa and Czech Republic, she’s created a Sid Shuffle Part 2! This one also isn’t exactly dancing around the world as is more the Balkans and Greece edition, but still! Hope you enjoy!

 

From Sid Shuffle Around the World Part 2

Istanbul, Turkey

Our second stop on our two week journey with Della’s family was the city of Istanbul.

Getting There

To get to Istanbul from Athens, we took a flight on Pegasus Airlines, one of Turkey’s low-cost airlines. This meant that we didn’t get a free beverage on the flight, so it was basically just like flying on any other airline back in the USA.

The downside of our cheap flight was that it deposited us at the lesser-known airport in Istanbul (Sabiha Gokcen). Since this airport is less popular for international visitors, it isn’t super easy for tourists to get from it to the tourist neighborhoods. We found a few different pieces of advice online and ended up coming up with a plan that worked quite well and gave us a nice first glimpse of the city. From the airport, we first took a Havatas bus to the Kadikoy ferry terminal (still on the Asian side of Istanbul). From Kadikoy, we were able to immediately hop on a ferry to Eminonu, the port of the Golden Horn on the European side. The ferry ride was quick (15 minutes) and gave us nice views of both sides of the Bosphorous Strait. Once at Eminonu, we hopped on the TI tram line and rode three stops to the Sultanhamet stop. From there, we were able to walk to our accommodation. It turned out being a lot cheaper than a taxi, and felt a lot more adventurous!

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Our first glimpses of old Istanbul by ferry

 

Where We Stayed

We chose to stay in the Sultanhamet neighborhood, near all of the major sites. The upside of this neighborhood was the proximity to the major sights in Istanbul, but the downside was that it was harder to find restaurants and other facilities with non-touristic prices.

We booked a nice three-bedroom apartment through Airbnb. It gave us plenty of space to spread out, and even had a small glimpse of the Blue Mosque from one of its balconies.

Our very comfortable AirBnB

Our very comfortable AirBnB

What We Did

Hagia Sophia – This very impressive structure, built in 537 AD, has served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, a mosque and now a museum. It is especially renowned for its massive dome, which was quite a feat for the time it was built. Walking into the nave and looking up at the dome was awe-inspiring. It was fascinating to look around and find the different examples of both Christian and Muslim decorations throughout the interior.

 

Blue Mosque – Across a park from the Hagia Sophia sits the “Blue” Mosque. Its name is actually the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but it is known as the Blue Mosque because of the prominent use of blue in the decorative tile work within the interior. Its construction was completed in 1616, so it is not nearly as old as the Hagia Sophia but still quite impressive. It is still an active mosque, so we had to delay our visit to the interior while we waited for the afternoon prayers to be finished. We also had to remove our shoes and the ladies had to cover their heads.

Basilica Cistern – We (Della and Eric) were excited to visit this underground chamber because it featured prominently in the Dan Brown novel Inferno and in the Clive Cussler book Crescent Dawn which we had just read. This large chamber was built under the reign of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century BC and was used for water storage for the city. The roof of the cistern is held up by a forest of columns, which seem to have been taken from different sources based on the fact that they are different sizes. Two of the columns have the head of Medusa as a base.

The Hippodrome – This large area next to the Blue Mosque was once the Hippodrome, a large stadium used for chariot races during the Byzantine era. Only the shape of the track remains today. There are two large obelisks in the middle of the Hippodrome. One is from Egypt and is in great condition. Another was built in place but looks in much poorer condition because its bronze plating was stolen.

Topkapi Palace – The other big sight in the Sultanhamet area is the Topkapi Palace, which was the home of the Ottoman sultan from 1465 to 1856. The palace has four different courtyards and many exquisitely decorated rooms. We toured through all of the areas open to the public, including the harem which required an extra ticket. We were particularly excited here because it finally happened!! – Someone recognized Eric’s Rice baseball hat. We met a current Rice student (Jones College) who was studying abroad. How fun!

 

The New City – After spending so much of our time in Sultanhamet, we decided to head to a different part of town to check out the modern face of Istanbul. We started at Taksim Square, the site of the recent political demonstrations, and headed down Istiklal Caddesi, a major pedestrian thoroughfare. The number of people going up and down this street was very high. There were many shops and restaurants along the way that were bustling with activity. We also enjoyed seeing the nostalgic tram go back and forth, but didn’t ride it ourselves. We finished our walk at the Tünel, a funicular that is one of the oldest underground rail lines in Europe.

The Grand Bazaar – We walked through the hundreds of shops in this large complex and did a little shopping. Our Rick Steves guide helped us find some hidden corners of the market, including a courtyard where we were able to observe silver craftsmen at work.

Süleymaniye Mosque – We also visited this massive mosque, which was built in 1558. Its architecture is reminiscent of both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The interior decoration is more reserved than that of the Blue Mosque, favoring pastel colors instead of the blue tiles. We found this mosque to be very peaceful inside and spent some time just sitting and relaxing.

The Spice Market – We shopped this market known for its food products. While the inside of the market was impressive, we were even more impressed by the amount of items being offered on the small streets just outside the market building. It was a very popular place, so the small streets were choked with people. At one intersection it was even a little scary – people were literally crammed together. Luckily we made it out safely.

Istanbul Modern Art Museum – Peggy and Dana took advantage of this museum’s extended hours on Thursdays and visited in the evening. They reported that the art was quite interesting. Definitely a different feel to this art than what we had been seeing in the other museums!

Where We Ate

The area around our apartment didn’t have many inspired choices; most of the restaurants seemed slightly overpriced. We did find one nice place the first night that offered a free appetizer, and gave us a good introduction to Turkish food. We also had an interesting meal near the Hagia Sophia where we ordered by pointing to different trays of food set up in the front. Near Taksim Square, we ate at a place called Taksim Sütiş which had good entrees, but the most impressive part was the wide range of puddings available for dessert. We did also get one of the classic fish sandwiches from one of the restaurants near the Galata Bridge, but we only thought it was ok.

Final Thoughts

We enjoyed our time in Istanbul, and found the architectural sites very interesting. The dreary weather and slightly higher than expected prices put a little bit of a damper on things, but overall it was still a fascinating city!

Athens, Greece (With Family)

Della’s family – her parents and her sister – joined us for two weeks in November as we traveled through Greece and Turkey. The first stop on our joint trip was Athens. We had already been in town on our own for a few days, but held off on the major sites until they arrived.

Getting There

We were already in town, but the others had a much longer journey to get to Athens. Della’s sister flew from California to Denver, and then the three of them flew from Denver to Houston, Houston to Paris and finally Paris to Athens. They arrived in the late afternoon. We were very happy to see them! But, after such a long travel day they were pretty exhausted!

Meeting each other in the metro station

Meeting each other in the metro station

Where We Stayed

With a group of five, we decided that a rental apartment was the best bet. It was a little tough finding a nice place for five on Airbnb, but we eventually found a good deal on HomeAway for a two bedroom apartment in the fancy Kolonaki neighborhood. The apartment we rented turned out to be quite fancy – it was clear that it was the primary residence of the older woman who owned the place. It was very nicely decorated so we were very careful not to mess anything up. There was some confusion about the large security deposit we paid, which made us wish for the simplicity of Airbnb.

What We Did

The Acropolis – We were itching to see this star attraction, so on our first full day we headed straight here. We decided to visit using the Rick Steves audio guide – the first time we attempted to listen to the narration instead of read it ourselves. Walking up through the columns of the Propylaea and onto the top of the hill was awe-inspiring. Even with the large amount of scaffolding covering the Parthenon, it was still very exciting to see the large temple in all its glory. The other highlight of the top was the back porch of the Erectheion with its six caryatid sculptures.

The Ancient Agora – After the Acropolis, we headed down the hill to the ruins of what was the main part of town during the heyday of ancient Athens. The most impressive ruin left is the Temple of Hephaestus, one of the best-preserved Doric temples. The rest of the agora was a mix of Greek and Roman stoas (covered markets) and statues. The site closed at 3 since it was the low season, so we didn’t get to spend as much time in the on-site museum as we would have liked.

The Acropolis Museum – The Acropolis Museum is housed in a fancy new modern structure just south of the acropolis. It is built over the ruins of an ancient neighborhood, so various places in the floor have clear panels so you can see what is beneath. The museum has a large amount of space devoted to different items from the acropolis throughout ancient history, laid out in roughly chronological order. The ramp to the first level has ancient pottery. Then, during the Archaic Era, the predominant artifacts were the kore and korous statues. They did a good job of showing how colorful they must have once been.

For the main architectural elements of the classical era, they split the big items into rooms based on the structure they came from. This meant there was an area for the Temple of Athena Nike, an area for the Erectheion (showcasing the original caryatid statues) and then on the top floor all by itself, a large area for the Parthenon. There was also a video describing the decorations and layout of the Parthenon. The pediment, frieze and metopes are all laid out in the same order they would have been on the Parthenon, utilizing the entire floor which is of the same size. The museum is quite clear in multiple places that they would like the works of art that the British Museum “stole” back at this museum. The missing pieces are currently shown as ugly plaster casts.

The National Archaeological Museum

At the museum, we again all plugged into the Rick Steves audio tour. The museum went in chronological order and was quite extensive. The first major area was the Cycladic figurines and other art, from the 3rd century BC. Then, they covered the findings from Mycenae. We were pretty excited to see the artifacts from Mycenae that we had heard about when at the site and from reading Greek Treasure.

The next stop was the Archaic era, where we again learned more about the kore and kourous statues. The next major era was the Severe Style. The sculptures started to get more realistic, but the expressions were stern. The most classic piece from this era was a large bronze sculpture of either Zeus or Poseidon (we don’t know which because we can’t see if he is throwing a lightning bolt or trident).

For the classical era, many of the finds were split into different rooms. There was a large collection of rooms focused on the art found on tombstones in the ancient cemeteries. There were many elaborate marble carvings to be found. The sculpture of Paris was one of the highlights of this era.

The next period is the Hellenistic era, which was characterized by sculptures which more realistic faces (instead of idealized) and more active movements. Some of the highlights in the collection were the Jockey of Atemision and Aphrodite fighting off Pan with her shoe. The final period covered was the Roman era. Here they tried to copy the Greek styles and were somewhat successful, although the art was less impressive.

This concluded the main part of the tour. There was still a little bit to be seen of the museum, so we split up and saw the parts we were interested in. There was an ancient “computer” which calculated various celestial phenomenon. We also looked through the bronze collection, Egyptian collection and ceramics collection.

The ancient computer

The ancient computer

Rick Steves City Walk – We followed the Rick Steves walk of the main downtown area to get a feel for the more modern parts of Athens. The tour started at Syntagma Square, and we lucked out in our timing to see the hourly changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building. We then walked down Ermou, the main pedestrian shopping street. The second part of the tour focused on the Greek Orthodox church, so we passed by the main cathedral and a few other churches, plus some stores that sold Greek Orthodox icons. The highlight of the last part of the walk through the Plaka area was a trip through the small neighborhood of Anafiotika. It was built by residents of the island of Anafi, so it has that Greek island “feel” to it.

The Island of Aegina – One of Della’s dad’s priorities for the Greece portion of the trip was to make a trip to an island. We had read that Hydra was very nice, so we decided to make a day trip there on one of our days. We didn’t think we needed to stress about the ferry ticket, so we just showed up the morning of and went to buy our ticket… big mistake. They were sold out! We weren’t quite sure what to do, bu the ticket agent suggested the nearby island of Aegina. We decided to just head there and ended up having a pleasant day. We wondered around the back streets, sampled some of the local pistachios and found a beach that we ended up having mostly to ourselves. The archaeological site was closed for renovations, which was a bummer, but we could still see the lone remaining column from the Temple of Apollo from our beach. We rounded out the day with a seafood meal sitting next to the ocean, then caught the ferry back into Athens.

Where We Ate

The best restaurant we ate at by far was a little restaurant hidden away north of Omonia Square called Bread and Roses. The simple menu allowed you to choose a meat dish, a salad and a side (all homemade). Your choices were then prepared in the small kitchen just next to the seating area. The food was the best we had and the variety quite impressive as well (not your standard Greek taverna options). Highly recommended!

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Final Thoughts

We finished up our four weeks in Greece with a whirlwind of activity once Della’s family arrived. The limited amount of time made us feel a little rushed, but we are definitely glad we made sure to see everything that we got to see.

Flashback Friday: La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Flashback Friday is a picture series where we “flashback” to some of our favorite memories- from either our prior travel or from home. We hope you’ll enjoy some of our remembrances!

Our very first international trip together was to Costa Rica in 2011. We weren’t totally sure how our travel styles would mesh! Luckily, it worked out great and that was the beginning of us seriously considering this crazy RTW thing 😋

This picture is of Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna. This is a seriously beautiful and still active volcano! Unfortunately it was very sleepy while we were there!

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Athens Part 2

We already briefly visited Athens earlier in our trip when we needed to take care of some business. After we finished our tour of the Peloponnese, we wanted to make sure to get to Athens in plenty of time to meet Della’s parents and sister for a trip through Athens and Turkey starting on Saturday the 8th. So, we got to Athens on a Tuesday just to be safe. However, we didn’t want to see the major sights in Athens without the rest of the group, so instead we saw some of the lesser known sights. This post will just describe this pre-family part of the time in Athens.

Where We Stayed

We felt like Airbnb had provided a good value the last time in Athens, so we decided to choose an Airbnb for this stay as well. Unfortunately the place we stayed the previous time was unavailable, but we were able to find another nice apartment near the Panathenaic stadium. Again it was a decent-size studio apartment with a bedroom/living room, kitchen and bathroom. We took advantage of this space to do our own cooking and just relax during most of the evenings.

What We Did

Like we said, we still didn’t want to see the major sights, so we had to do a little research to decide what to see.

Panathenaic Stadium – Our apartment was near this large marble stadium, which was built in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games. Our Airbnb host told us that there was a back entrance that would be more convenient to use, so we tried that. What we didn’t realize until we got in was that this got us entrance to the wooded park around the stadium, but not the stadium itself. On the positive side, the park gave us great and free views of the stadium. The negative side that we figured out the hard way was that the only way back out was the secret way in. Instead, we spent quite a bit of time walking around the park, encountering multiple locked gates. We intended  to pay to enter in the front gate, but by then time was running short so we decided it wasn’t worth it.

Philopappos Hill – Out Airbnb host also recommended climbing to the top of this hill next to the Acropolis near sunset for good views over the city and the Acropolis itself. We headed up just as the sun should have been close to setting… but it was a little overcast so the colors weren’t spectacular. Still, it did provide great views of the surrounding area.

Numismatic Museum / Iliou Metharon – We both read the book Greek Treasure on our trip, which described the exploits of archaeologist Henry Schiemann. In the book, the author described the large mansion that Schliemann built in the city of Athens. When we saw that the mansion still exists and can be visited, we decided to make a trip! It currently houses the Numismatic Museum. We don’t really have an interest in coins, but we figured it would be worth it just to see inside the mansion. We really enjoyed our visit, especially since the mansion is still decorated in the manner that Schliemann designed, with the walls covered with colorful paintings inspired by his finds. The museum also included a nice audio guide, so we ended up learning quite a bit about coins as well.

Temple of Poseidon at Sounion – We took a day trip out to the archaeological site at the tip of the Attic peninsula. The star attraction is the Temple of Poseidon, which sits high on the peninsula overlooking the sea. We took a KTEL bus from the station north of the Archaeological Museum, and enjoyed the two-hour ride down the coast. At the site itself, there wasn’t much to read or see, so we just spent some time admiring the views (and finding Lord Byron’s graffiti on one of the columns of the temple). After only a couple of hours, we decided to return home on another KTEL bus that was about to leave: after our KTEL frustrations at Mycenae and Epidavros we decided it was a good idea to catch a bus when we saw one!

Where We Ate

We again took advantage of having a kitchen and cooked a couple of meals. We also went to a local pita place and had souvlaki pitas a couple of times. And, we’re a little embarrassed to admit… one night we saw a Domino’s pizza and we decided to get just a little bit of taste of home. Please don’t judge!

Enjoying some of the traditional local cuisine

Enjoying some of the traditional local cuisine

Final Thoughts

We think we did a pretty good job of seeing some of the second-tier sights in Athens. It was a little tempting to sneak up onto the Acropolis, but we were able to resist until Della’s family arrived in a few days :).

 

Flashback Friday: Birthdays in the Basement

Flashback Friday is a picture series where we “flashback” to some of our favorite memories- from either our prior travel or from home. We hope you’ll enjoy some of our remembrances!

So, we’re getting pretty close to celebrating Della’s birthday on the road. It is one of a series of special days in fall that we will be missing being at home. So, this Flashback Friday remembers many of the good times we have had celebrating birthdays at our house! Here’s to good fun, good friends, and a LOT of line dances!

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Luckily, we will have the company of Della’s dad, mom, and sister for her birthday! Yay!!