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Monday, December 28, 2009

Traveling Turkey - From Kusadasi to Selçuk(Ephesus) to Istanbul


10/01/2009 - We caught an early ferry from Vathy to Kusadasi.  Getting off the ferry the ferry collected some kind of entrance tax that was $10 Euros, which seemed kind of sketchy but, every one else was paying it so we weren't sure if it was legitimate or not.  We then entered the Turkish customs and they charged us another $20 Euros to get a visa for the country.  Apparently you need a visa if you are from the US but they freely issue them at the border.  We then walked out of the port only to be bombarded by people asking what they could do for us, if we had a place to stay, and offering tours to Ephesus.  One guy that spoke really good English and pointed us in the right direction kept talking to us and followed us for a while.  He seemed a little sketchy at first with is snake skin cowboy boots, button down shirt, and multiple piercings.  Come to find out he lived in Australia for a while and had traveled quite a bit.  He offered to get us to Selçuk, leave our things in his shop, take us to Ephesus and then pick us up after a couple of hours at Ephesus and take us back to his shop.  All this for about the same price as a bus and all he wanted was us to buy something at his shop.  After we talked to him we felt that he was fairly trustworthy and decided to go with it because it would save us alot of hassle.  So we waited about 10 minutes and he had a car out front for us with a driver named Ali Baba.  We jumped in with Ali Baba and were off to Selçuk.  While driving the 45 minutes we were able talk to Ali Baba about the country and he was a hard working man that was very sincere with good intentions.

We arrrived at Ali Baba's shop where were offered water and were able to use the decent bathroom of his restaurant next door.  We then left our backpacks in his store and were off to the ruins at Ephesus.  When we arrived Ali Baba dropped us off and even offered to let us borrow a tour guide book on the ruins.  Going through the ruins from one side to the next takes about 2-3 hours.  Although if you really want to see every little detail you could spend probably a full day here. There are 2 entrances to Ephesus but most people opt to start at the higher elevation end and then walk down because it is an easier walk.  At the bottom you can catch a bus back up the other side or just back to Selçuk. Selçuk is very close to the ruins and only about a 5 minute drive.  The ruins themselves are pretty amazing and there are several theatres and buildings as you wonder down the trail.  There are also an abundance of places where stones are just laying all over and they have Greek writing on them or ornate carved pictures.   The stone work is amazing and the ruins are really impressive.
When we were done walking though the ruins and looked for out driver Ali Baba and he was no where to be found, so after waiting a few minutes we went over to one of the other drivers and asked if they knew Ali Baba and they said that Ali Baba had talked to them and that we were supposed to get a ride with him. We jumped in the van with several other passangers and they took us into town and back to Ali Baba's shop. We then hung out for a bit in the shop and one of the members from our group purchased a rug from Ali Baba. We then headed to the town to get some food and check train/bus schedules so that we could get to Izmir for our 9:30pm flight. There is a train from Selçuk to Izmir that will actually take you right to the Izmir Airport terminals but, since the times didn't work for us we decided to just catch a minibus up which leave every hour and would drop us off on the freeway by the Izmir Airport. From where they dropped us off to the terminals was about a 10 minute walk. We decided to fly to Istanbul since the just over 1 hour flight with a local airline was cheaper than an 8 hour bus ride. If you are traveling within Turkey check out Izair. We got our tickets for about $28.

10/02/2009 and 10/03/2009 - We arrived in Istanbul fairly late and caught a Taxi to our Hostel called The Southern Cross Hostel that we had previously booked. The reason we chose it was because it's location in Sultanahmet.  Sultanahmet is very close to all of the main attractions in Istanbul.  We arrived late to the street our Hostel was on and found that the street had a very active night life of restaurants and small shops.  It was fairly active with people but very quiet and a good atmosphere.  The street our hostel was on was called Akbiyik Street and was just a short walk to the Blue Mosque(Sultan Ahmet Camii) and the Hagia Sophia Museum / Church (Ayasofya).  I have seen the Hagia Sophia spelled multiple ways including Hagia Sophia, Aya Sofya, and Aya Sofia.  I will call it the Hagia Sofia since there is a Wikipedia page on it spelled that way. :)

The next day we got up early to go and check out some of the sites.  We basically looked at a book that had the top 10 things to see in Istanbul and tried to hit them all.  We walked up from the hotel and ended up in the middle of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia.  We then made our way around to the entrance of the Blue Mosque.  There was a little bit of a line to get into the Blue Mosque, so we decided to check out The Hippodrome, which is a massive amphitheater built in Byzantine times.  In the middle of the Hippodrome we checked out the Egyptian Obelisk, a column that was brought to Constantinople (now Istanbul) from Egypt during the Roman era, in 390 A.D.  When we were done there we headed back over to the entrance of the Blue Mosque to pleasantly find that the line was gone and we were able to go right in.  You are required to take off your shoes when you go in and I think if you had shorts they had to be past your knees but, I don't recall any other restrictions. The inside of the Blue Mosque was very impressive and from what we could find out the architect was commissioned to make a Mosque bigger than the Hagia Sofia and when it came down to it he wasn't able to achieve making it bigger, so it is now better know for it's symetry.
After the making our way though the Blue Mosque we headed over to the Hagia Sofia.  The Hagia Sofia was constructed as a Eastern Orthodox Church and was the largest cathederal for over 1,000 years. When Constantinople(Istanbul) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 it was converted into a Mosque.  In 1935 it was converted to a Muesum as it currently functions today.  It is a very impressive building and it is definitely worth taking some time to wander around and check out the architecture and view some of the beautiful mosaics.

From the Hagia Sofia we grabbed some of the local food and headed over to the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsisi).  After weaving through some streets and asking a few people here and there we were able to find our way over to the Grand Bazaar.  I was actually really suprised at how nice the Grand Bazaar really was.  I was expecting a normal small tent style bazaar, only to find that the structure where the Grand Bazaar was located was actually really nice and it was definitely catered towards tourists.  The Grand Bazaar is huge and takes quite a while to get through if you want to see everything, although I found that after going down a couple of aisles they all seem to be similar and your will start to see shops that seem to be duplicates of stores that you have already seen.  After the Bazaar we headed towards the Egyptian Spice Bazaar but were side tracked by a Bosphorus Cruise.  We wanted to try and hit this around sunset and we were passing by it around 6pm and were able to just jump on one as it was leaving.  It was nice to just sit down and take in some scenery.  We actually saw the Dolmabahce Palace(Dolmabahce Sarayi) on the shore and it inspired us to put it on our list of things to see the next day.  There are several Mosques along the river and the view is great.  This body of water also seperates Eastern Europe from Asia.  When we got off the cruise we headed over to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar(Misir Carsisi)  and even though it was closing down we were able to wander through it and see pretty much everything. We then just headed back to the hostel after a eventful day of seeing sites.
The next day we got up and headed to the Yerebatan Sarayi (Underground Cistern).  Known as Yerebatan Sarayi or Sunken Palace, this giant well once held water for the city residents. Today, it is a major tourist attraction, complete with piped-in music and pulsing lights and really has a cool atmosphere. We then made our way over to the Topkapi Palace. Topkapi Palace is an amazing place to see. It is not only immense in size and structure but also full of history. The Topkapi Palace was first constructed in 1459 by Sultan Mehmet II who had conquered Istanbul in 1453. It was the main Palace that was used by the Sultan, his family and thousands of staff. There are many different areas in the complex from courtyards, to meeting rooms, harems and much more. The Palace was fairly popular and crowded, although there is a ton to see within the walls.  Next we caught a subway to a station near the Dolmabahce Palace(Dolmabahce Sarayi). The Dolmabahce Palace was built in the mid 1800s to replace an earlier structure that was made of wood. The new Palace incorporated sixteen separate buildings with stables, a flour mill and a clock tower among them.  We caught a tour through it and it is fairly impressive inside and after the 1hr tour we headed around to catch a tour of the Harems quarters, which was anothe 30min tour and looked alot like the 1st tour.  The gounds are really well kept and are nice to wander around. 

We then just headed back to the Hostel and prepared for our overnight train to Sofia.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Traveling Greece - Athens and Greek Islands (Paros, Naxos, Vahti)

09/27/2009 - We landed at the airport in Athens and from there it was pretty easy to jump on the Athens Metro catch the BLUE line and head to the City Center.  Depending on where you want to go then you might have to switch lines to the RED line at the Syntagma Station or to the GREEN line at Monastiraki.  I actually found a pretty cool tool to plan a route on the Athens Metro which tells you which lines you need to take and the best thing about it is that it will estimate the travel time between 2 stations, so that you can plan appropriately.  It is located at the Athens Metro Website. We stayed in a small hostel called Dioskouros which was nothing special, relatively cheap, and had a great location with access to most of the sites.  We dumped our stuff and headed up to the Acropolis.  On our way in we found out that we had come on National Historical Day or something like that, so we lucked out that all of the sites were free and so were the museums.  Saved us some money which was great!  We headed up to the Parthenon and there are plenty of ruins to see around the Acropolis along with the Parthenon.  We were a little disappointed with the amount of scaffolding on the Parthenon which detracted a little from the beauty but, from what we were told you are pretty lucky if you hit a time when there isn't scaffolding since they are constantly renovating & restoring it. We then made our way down through Thissio Park where there were several other ruins.  Then we popped out into the Monastiraki Flea Market where they were selling just about anything you could think of and there were also several restaurants along the roads where you could sit outside and enjoy a meal.  We opted to find a small hole in the wall and pick up some cheap Gyros!  They were great and cheap. We then made our way back to the hostel through the Plaka area and were able to see all the shops and older part of the city.

For the top 10 things to do in Athens I recommend the Eyewitness Books as they have tons of great pictures and informaton.

09/28/2009 - We caught the Athens Metro to the Port of Pireaus and switched to the GREEN line and it took us about 20 minutes to get to the Port.  Once we arrived at the port we just went to the various Ferry lines and bought our ticket to Paros.  We opted to buy one of the cheaper tickets on one of the slower ferries.  The ferry was actually pretty  nice and included a Cafe, Restaurant, etc. and had airline type seats in various rooms where you could sit & watch TV or just do your own thing.  We hung out in the Cafe for a while which was open to the outside & gave us a view of the city of Athens.  After a couple of hours outside we moved to one of the rooms with seats and took naps for the rest of the journey.
Paros is a medium sized island in a group of islands called The Cyclades.  I have posted a map of the all the Greek islands below to give you an idea of where Paros and the other islands are with respect to each other.

When we arrived at the island at the Port city of Parikia we made our way over to our hostel which was only a short 10 minute walk up the coast.  We stayed in a place called Ampeli Studios.  It was a decent place to stay and not far from everything.  We then went up the street to rent some mopeds/scooters to cruise around the island.  There are plenty of places to rent them in Parikia.  Although we did have one place deny us rentals because we didn't have motorcycle endorsements on our drivers licenses.  There were plenty of other places that would rent to us without the endorsement though. We were able to work out a deal since it was the off season and got the mopeds for €8(Euros).  We then took off around the island, which you can easily make it around in one day. We made our way up to Naoussa, which was a small town that had a quite feel to it.  It was a good stop for a break and to just walk around for a little bit.  It is not a very commercial town but did have people working on their fishing boats and going about their normal day activities.  Here are a few pictures.
 From there we headed down the coast to a town called Piso Livadi, where we went to a beach called Pounda Beach.  It was supposedly one of the most popular and happening beaches although since it was the off season, we were almost the only people on the beach.  The water was warm, so we jumped in for a short swim. Here are a few pictures.  The beach was sandy and there was 5-10 feet of rocks when you first get into the water but once past them it is all sand.

From there we continued our trek around the island on the mopeds we briefly went to Aliki which had a similar type beach and then we made our way back up to Parikia. This was plenty to do in a day and if you want to relax more there are plenty of beaches where you can just take it easy. We stayed the night & then hopped the ferry in the morning to Naxos. Had we had more time there is a short 45min ferry over to the island of Antiparos where there are some caves that are a local attraction.

We arrived in Naxos which as we got off we started our walk to our hotel which was called Saint George Hotel.  The hotel was right on the beach of the Agios Georgios beach which is just south of the commercial part of the town of Naxos.  We got checked into our rooms that were actually pretty nice considering the price and location.  We then took a stroll out on the beach and then went looking for a place to rent some mopeds to cruise around the island on.  We didn't have to go too far before we found a rather large rental company and once again we were able to get out mopeds for about €8(Euros) per day.  We then jumped on the mopeds and headed south to check out some of the other beaches in the area. Just about 15-20 minutes south are some beautiful beaches and we ended up at the beach of Agios Prokopios.  This is a great place to lay out & the water is warm with an amazing view with extremely blue water.  We had lunch at one of the many local restaurants on the main street along the beach and then went for a swim.  We also cruised further south on the mopeds to check out some more of the beaches and found the further south you go the more secluded the beaches get and the less clothes they wear. We found a local scuba diving shop which is harder than we thought because according to the locals there are only 2 on the island.  The locals said that the reason that scuba diving is not very prominent on the islands is because it used to be prohibited until recently when they have opened it up for diving. We decided to do a dive with the Blue Fin Divers.  They were great people and more than willing to help us.  They are close to the beach but we did have to wear wet suits because it was a little chilly at the end of September.  The only downfall was we had to put our gear on and then walk down to the beach and then get in the water and swim out to the boat. Once we got to the boat, it was a 20-30 minute boat ride out to the dive site.  The dive site that we chose was full of arches and small caves that weren't too long that you could swim through.  There is not alot of marine life but, we did get to see a couple of eels and an octopus. 

We finished the day off with a beautiful sunset and then headed back to Naxos main strip by the port to finish the night off with some Gyros and just kind of bum around the shops in town.

The next day we went to see some of the sites around the island on the mopeds.  We went to Melanes where we were able to hike to some different Kouros statues and also some gardens. We saw alot of marble quarries up on the hills while driving around.  We then headed to the The Temple of Demeter where we spent some time wondering around the small site.  We then made our way off the beaten track to the Plaka beaches & founds ourselves riding on farm roads & dirt roads.  From there we headed north back to the beach of Agios Prokopios where we spent some time lounging around and then went back and caught the sunset at the beach of Agios Georgios by our hotel & then prepared to go catch our night ferry to Vathy.

- Vathy is located on the island of Samos and is actually the capital of the island. We only spent a morning at the Port in Vathy waiting for our ferry to Kusadasi, Turkey.  It was a quite little port in the morning but started to pick up some speed as we got ready to leave on our ferry.  Nice little port where we were able to catch a sunrise.

    Map Of Greek Islands

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Island Hopping from Athens Greece to Turkey

There are several ways that you can Island hop from Greece to Turkey. We started our journey from the port of Piraeus in Athens. This seems to be the more popular port and there is a Metro(Subway) that you can catch that drops you off right at the port which makes it fairly convinient.
The 4 main crossing points are:
  1. Chios -> Çesme
    - This is the easiest route to get to Izmir, if you are trying to make your way up to Istanbul and is the closest to Istanbul.
  2. Samos -> Kusadasi
    - If you are planning a trip to the popular Ephesus ruins then this is a great option. Kusadasi is a short distance(~20min) from Selculk, where the ruins of Ephesus are located.
  3. Kos -> Bodrum
    - This is further south and if you are coming from some of the southern islands of Greece or are going to some of the southern towns then it may make sense.
  4. Rhodes -> Bodrum, Fethiye, or Marmaris
    - If you are making your way to Fethiye then this might be a good option.
I found that in my searches for ferries there were plenty scheduled in the High Season, which is from June to September. When you get into the Low Season then is becomes a little more challenging with ferries only running on certain days, so if you have a time sensitive schedule during the off season then make sure that you plan ahead for the ferry times.
Also, I would recommend that if you are traveling during the high season that you book your ferry tickets ahead of time to make sure that you get a ticket. I traveled during the off season and it didn't seem to be a problem booking a seat at the time of departure at the ticket offices at the ports. The only onle that I did book online was an overnight ferry that I wanted to make sure that we caught and even so, when we arrived there seemed to be quite a few vacant seats and we probably could have bought our tickets the day of.
I found that the best way to plan my Island Hopping and find the schedules for the different options was to use the Fantastic Greece website & they have a link to ferries where you can put in you destinations and it will give you different options. Fantastic Greece. You can also book at but, I find the Fantastic Greece site to have a better user interface.
Here is a list of the main Ferry Lines:
  1. BLUE STAR FERRIES (Attica Group)
If you are interested in more information about the different ferry lines you can visit: Ferry Line Details.

One other note is that if you are looking to get from Izmir to Istanbul I found that there is a local airline that can offer some pretty cheap rates.  It is called IzAir.  It would have taken me 8-10hrs by train or bus to get from Izmir to Istanbul and cost $35(US) by train or bus but, instead I got a one way ticket from IzAir for $27(US) and I was there in an hour and a half.  Pretty sweet deal!

There are some great books on the Greek Islands and as usual, I am a huge fan of the Eye Witness books.