Three Days in Istanbul

See our gallery of photos tagged with “istanbul”.

Of all the cities we’ve traveled to so far in our trip, Istanbul provided us with the most dramatic introduction. The directions for getting to our hostel were reasonably straightforward — take the tram from the airport to “Sultanahmet”, walk through the park along the entrance to the Blue Mosque, wind down a couple back streets, and there you’ll see the hostel. Everything went as expected until we stepped off the tram… into what seemed like another world. You see, we weren’t aware that we had arrived during the final few days of Ramadan, and that this park is where many people go to celebrate the end of a day of fasting. As we entered the park, we stepped into a nighttime festival scene with loud prayers playing from the mosque’s loudspeakers and crowds of families wandering through the park while enjoying roasted corn cobs, chestnuts, fresh-made candy, and small cups of tea. We made our way through the crowds (looking and feeling very out of place with our travel clothes and large backpacks) and somehow found the hostel quite easily. We had the next three full days to check out Istanbul’s sights, many of which were located a short walk away.


Among the sights we visited were…

Topkapi Palace, an impressive palace in the old town, containing ancient buildings and treasures ranging from golden artifacts to Moses’ staff.


Aya Sofia
, an enormous Cathedral-turned-Mosque (the opposite of what we saw in Cordoba).


And Taksim Square, the center of modern Istanbul and site of Where’s Abby? Round I.


On the food front… aside from the many kebap stands that we also found in other European cities, the food and drink in Istanbul were considerably different than what we had elsewhere. In addition to serving the spit-roasted meat dishes you’d expect, most restaurants served freshly squeezed orange juice, a sour yogurt drink, and small glasses of tea. We also enjoyed Pide (also known as Turkish Pizza), pickled vegetables from a street vendor, roasted chestnuts, and even a Nagileh, a traditional Turkish water pipe. All of this was delicious.

Overall we had a wonderful time!

Where’s Abby?? Round I – Official Results

Congratulations to Austin, the official winner of “Where’s Abby? Round I”. Not only was Austin the first person to respond, but he was also the only one to provide us a clear picture showing exactly where she was:


Excellent work, Austin! And thanks to everyone else who participated.

Where’s Abby?? – Round I

As we’re ending the European leg of our journey and getting ready to head to Africa, we’ve decided to introduce the newest interactive feature on our blog. This is a game called “Where’s Abby??”. The objective of the game is simple, you need to find Abby in the picture, and be the first to comment on where she is. Today’s picture comes to you from Taksim Square, Istanbul. Best of luck to you all.


Hint: click on the photo to view a larger version of the image in Flickr.

Plazas, Picasso, and Politics in Madrid

See our gallery of photos tagged with “madrid”.

We arrived in Madrid craving … Thai food. After nearly a week in Spain during which not a single day passed without cured meat, there was nothing that sounded as good as a big plate of pad thai. So that was what we found for lunch just a few blocks away from our hostel near Puerta del Sol. After refueling, we headed out to explore gorgeous and energetic Madrid.

Over the course of our first afternoon and evening, we wandered through Plaza Mayor, the Salamanca shopping district, and ended up at a mesmerizing traffic circle right around dusk. It might sound strange, but this traffic circle provided a solid fifteen minutes of entertainment for us. Sandwiched between four outstanding buildings (including the Banco de España and Palacio de Communicaciones), this circle is where two broad avenues meet and it was absolutely mobbed on that Thursday night with cars, buses, bikers, and rollerbladers. We even saw one “tall bike,” which I’ve only seen before in Portland, Ore. We loved the mixture of real-life energy and gorgeous architecture.


After a dinner of tapas at a cozy neighborhood bar, we returned to a quiet night at our hostel and found we were the only ones occupying our four-bed room. We had expected a bit more energy, given that the hostel owner had earlier invited Dan on an excursion to the club that was slated to start at 1 a.m. Madrid is well-known for its late-night revelry, but we didn’t get a real taste of that until our second night at the hostel (more on that later).

We had breakfast the next morning at the Museo del Jamón, which was a bar/cafe/deli down at the corner of the street we were staying on. It also featured the largest display of hanging jamón that we saw during our travels in Spain, which may have been part of our reason for going there. It was an interesting mix of all ages of people having everything from coffee and toast to beer and a sandwich.


We then set out to run a quick errand of faxing my credit card information to Namibia for a charter flight. Long and frustrating story short, and due to reasons that we still don’t understand, this errand required three different fax attempts and one phone call to Namibia. In the end, our successful transmission was achieved by e-mailing photos of the authorization form and photos they required. (The photo below shows me in front of the “Work Center” that became my temporary office for the day.)


The much more enjoyable second half of our day included a visit to the wonderful Reina Sofia museum, which houses Picasso’s Geurnica mural along with a rich collection of modern art. The museum is housed in a huge stone building that used to be Madrid’s general hospital and now features these really cool glass elevators on the front facade. After the Reina Sofia, we enjoyed some fabulously thick chocolate and churros on our way to the Palacio Real — the official residence of the King of Spain. The grounds of the palace are gorgeous at night and apparently elicit passion as almost every bench in the park was occupied by couples discreetly making out.


We walked through the hip and lively La Latina neighborhood on our way home, but with our tired feet could not even contemplate standing in one of the crowded bars. When we finally made it back to our hostel, we were greeted with a rocking party in the common room, which incidentally was right outside of our room. There were probably 25 people in the common room, with very loud music as accompaniment. But we decided that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, so we hung out with the group until they all went out at 2 a.m. This was a pretty late bedtime for us, but just the start of the night for our hostel-mates. Despite the difference in sleep schedules, we thoroughly enjoyed all of the people that we met at this hostel and enjoyed the very social nature of the place.

On our last day in Madrid, we visited the Chamberi neighborhood, where we both agreed we would live should life ever take us to Madrid for a permanent stay. (This is also the former home of good friend Susan B.) We wandered the parks and broad avenues of this neighborhood before heading over to the Parque del Buen Retiro. This is a very popular gathering place for madrileños on the weekends and we enjoyed walking with the crowds and watching many others enjoy rowboats on the central lake. Seattle needs more major parks like this!


Our final activity — and one of the most interesting — in Madrid was attending a recording of the previous evening’s presidential debate hosted by Casa America. We found out about this event while researching how to vote on the Democrats Abroad web site. It was totally non-partisan, although the crowd seemed distinctly weighted toward Obama. We weren’t sure what to expect, but were blown away by how many people were in attendance. We had to stand for the full 1.5 hours, but it was so much more enjoyable to watch the debate with other people than by ourselves on YouTube. It reminded me of watching election returns out at the bars while living in D.C. Also, I accomplished one of my top-priority to-dos at this event by successfully registering to vote and getting an absentee ballot sent to Dan’s friend Bill in Bangkok (where we will be on Nov. 4). It was really heartening to see how many people they were getting registered! Unfortunately we will be on a plane to Namibia during the vice-presidential debate, so we may have to turn to YouTube for that recap.


After a relatively loud Saturday night in the hostel, we woke up the next morning to more music and loud voices in the street outside. Our first thought was that we couldn’t believe how people really do stay up all night in Madrid. Upon further investigation, though, we realized that a major road-race was going by on the street right outside and we had prime seats.


Haircuts, Jamón, and Hobnobbing in Sevilla

See our gallery of photos tagged with “sevilla”.

We had a little more we wanted to share with you about our experiences in Sevilla.

Haircuts: Here are the results of our very risky, all explained by hand, haircut mission. (Also, please note the amazing meat plate.)


Jamón: Here’s a video we took of an activity that we always wondered about — starting the next leg:

Hobnobbing: And finally, some new friends we made from Poland in the tapas bar. The amazing meat plate was our connecting fiber with this couple.


Alta Velocidad Española

For two of our journeys (Córdoba to Sevilla and Sevilla to Madrid) we had the pleasure of riding the Renfe AVE, Spain’s high-speed train line that reaches speeds of up to 300 km/h (186 mph) while keeping riders perfectly comfortable. Here’s what the dining car looked like at 180 mph (my espresso is in the styrofoam cup up front):


Here’s a video of what the ride looked like from the passenger seat:

I want a train like this from Seattle to Portland!


See our gallery of photos tagged with “sevilla”.

We arrived in Sevilla on Tuesday afternoon, checked into our hostel, then headed out for food and sightseeing. Our first stop was lunch at a tapas bar that had a different set-up from the other places that we had visited in Spain. There were about 10 different types of pre-made tapas you could choose from, and the cost of each dish was indicated by the type of toothpick used to hold it together. The restaurant asked that you save all of your toothpicks so that the final bill could be determined at the end (much like the color-coded dishes at a conveyer-belt sushi joint). We wondered what happens to the bill when the customers use the toothpicks to pick their teeth.

After lunch, we walked through the center of Sevilla, seeing a public art exhibit, the orange-tree filled Santa Cruz neighborhood, some beautiful gardens, and the enormous Plaza de España, a large semicicular building built in 1929 to host the Spanish-American Exhibition.


After all of this walking, we ended the day with more tapas (a common theme for us), this time in Plaza Alfalfa, a square close to the hostel and filled good places to choose from. We chose Bar Alfalfa, the one that seemed to have the most character. Here we had some more great jamon and queso, and Abby enjoyed a tinto de verano, her new favorite summertime drink (I stuck with vino tinto).


We returned to this square the next morning for a breakfast of coffee and churros, then headed out for our primary mission for the morning — to get our hair cut in a city where neither of us were fluent in the local language. One of the women working at the hostel suggested a salon in her neighborhood, so we walked over there and checked it out. Surprisingly, the stylists did a great job despite not being able to understand what we were asking for.

Later, we visited the cathedral (the fourth largest in the world), and climbed the tower for a great view of the city:


And finished it up with a visit to the Alcázar:


We left Thursday morning a little tired, but satisfied by how much of Sevilla we were able to see in this brief visit.

Cruising through Córdoba

See our gallery of photos tagged with “córdoba”.

When we originally planned our time in Andalucia, we only allotted one night to Córdoba. Neither one of us had heard very much about this city, so we decided just to check it out briefly. Once we arrived there and started walking around, however, we realized that we could have happily spent much more time there.

Córdoba feels a bit like a maze — made up of narrow, winding streets that seem to snake in all directions. The sidewalks are maybe one-foot wide, so you have to flatten yourself against the buildings every time a car rolls by, which is more often than you might think. All of the buildings in Córdoba are white-washed, but feature colorful doorways, windows and tilework. Inside of many of the buildings are the city’s famous inner patio gardens — private retreats that we tried to catch a glimpse of whenever possible. We both really enjoyed just wandering the streets with no real purpose or destination.


The one sight we made a real effort to see was the Mezquita, a former mosque turned Roman Catholic cathedral in the center of town. The combination of Moorish & Catholic styes made for some truly outstanding architecture.




See our gallery of photos tagged with “granada”.

We had a great stay in Granada. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, during siesta (which lasts from 3:00 to 5:00 and turns the city into a ghost town). After finding a nice “pension” near one of the city’s main squares, we went out for a stroll to check out the city’s main cathedral. The enormous building has a white arched ceiling held up by a series of columns (as pictured below), and a generous amount of stained glass.


Afterward, we walked down the city’s main shopping drag in search for the English bookstore listed in our guidebook, but unfortunately it was closed. The walk was great for people-watching though, and we saw plenty of examples of a new European fashion craze that Abby will be writing about soon.

On Sunday, we got up early to check out Granada’s main attraction: the Alhambra, a large palace / fortress complex built by the Nasrid dynasty in the 13th and 14th century. The main sections are the Generalife (a large garden), the Palacio de Carlos V (an large Renaissance building with a circular courtyard), the Alcazaba (a set of ramparts and a large watchtower), and the Palacio Nazaríes , which is the main attraction. The Palacio Nazaríes is considered by some to be the most impressive Islamic structure in all of Europe, a statement that we certainly can’t argue with. The palace had room after room of arches and ornately carved stone walls and wooden doors. It was truly impressive.


Out the window was a beautiful garden.


We spent about three and a half hours total exploring the Alhambra, more time than we’ve spent at any other site on the trip, and finally left satisfied but exhausted. It’s impossible to show the real splendor of the place in a couple blog pictures, but take our word for it — it’s a sight not to be missed!

Aside from the sights, the other part of Granada that Abby and I really enjoyed was tapas. Granada takes pride in being one of the last few cities in Spain where it is still customary for bar owners to serve a small complimentary snack with each drink order (bars in most other cities charge nowadays). For example, when we each ordered a glass of sangria, the bar also brought out a couple pieces of bread covered with a tasty crab spread. Different tapas come out with each round of drinks, apparently in some pre-set order defined by the bar. The patron does not get to choose what they get. Perhaps this makes it easier and more economical, since bars can pre-make a bunch of small plates and hand them out as the drink orders come in. In any case, it’s an interesting and wonderful concept.


Observations on Coffee in Italy

(yes, i know this is a little late)

As an owner of an espresso machine and red-blooded Seattlite, I was very interested to see how the Italians drink their coffee. Over the course of our stay, we had the opportunity to try many cups of coffee at a variety of establishments. Here are a few things we observed…

Espresso = 0,85 – This is the standard price for the most common coffee drink we saw in Italy, a single shot of espresso served at a stand-up bar counter in a small ceramic cup with a matching saucer and demitasse spoon. The price is nearly 100% consistent across the board, though the premium to sit down while drinking your coffee varies and can double the cost of the drink. Adding a shot of Sambuca (as we saw somebody do) increases the price as well.


Multitasking baristas – It’s common to see a barista making 3-4 shots of espresso at a time, simultaneously attending to a bunch of customers. Since classic manual machines (portafilters, tampers, …) are the norm and typically deliver two shots simultaneously to two separate cups, their job is a little easier than it sounds. At the autogrille (tollway restaurant, picture below), the coffees were coming out 4×4 and I had one in front of me before even ordering it!


Efficient milk re-use – Unlike in America, it’s common for coffee shops to steam a bunch of milk ahead of time, then use the pre-steamed milk for macchiatos and cappuccinos as they’re ordered. This makes it possible to serve a milk-based drink nearly as quickly as it does to serve a straight espresso. There’s no waiting in line for your morning drink – it’s set down in front of you nearly immediately after you order it! Milk drinks are rarely ordered after lunch.


“Bar” – Italians typically enjoy their espresso at a “bar”. These “bars” are not fancy lounges, dance clubs, or pubs. The typical “bar” is a place where people go for drinks and snacks, which almost always serves both coffee and beer.


American drinks – Cafe Lattes are in fact sold in Italy, though they do not seem to be ordered very often (unlike their cousin, the Cappuccino). All drinks are small (no larger than 6 oz or so), and there is no such thing as a 2% triple-shot venti caramel frappacino. As far as we could tell, drip coffee doesn’t exist here either, though Cafe Americanos (espresso + water) are available. Other than Granita (a thick and potent cross between espresso and italian ice), we didn’t see any iced coffee drinks either.

Nescafe – No matter what anybody says, this is not espresso. It’s a disgrace to coffee in general. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s even legal here. I was only served this once.