30 Wonders

Today is a special day.

So I decided to celebrate it the way it should be!

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I woke up very early this morning, got picked up by a minibus at 4:45AM and by 5:45AM, accompanied by the sun, I rose into the air aboard a hot air balloon piloted by Lars, one of the most experienced pilot in the region of Cappadocia.

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This ride was a first for me and it will definitely be one of the highlights of my trip. Alongside a second identical balloon piloted by Lars’ partner Kaili, we were airborne for almost 2 hours reaching a max altitude of 800 meters (2400 feet). On a background spotted with tens of other balloons, we loomed over Cappadocia enjoying the valleys and the rock formations, descending in some of the canyons, brushing against the top of the trees, landing on the top of the fairy chimneys, hovering above villages or greeting people as they were peeking outside their house to find out from where that hissing sound was coming from.

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The two balloons followed an intricate choreography, played with the wind and with each other to see which one could get closest to the ground or a rock without touching it.
The view from up there was amazing and picturesque. People on the balloon were very nice and wanted to make this flight a great memory for me.

Long after all the other balloons had disappeared from the sky, we finally landed in a field several kilometers away from our take-off point. Lars landed the balloon right on the trailer (With some help from his land crew). We then jumped on the balloon to help deflate it.

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Soon after, we were served a celebration drink and cake.

Kaili, Sandie and some other people started singing the ubiquitous song for me.

Yes, today is my birthday. I am now 30. The big 3-0! My 30 Wonders :).

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If you did not guess it before, one of the goals of my trip was to fulfill a dream, a promise I had made to myself that I would go on a long trip before I was 30 y/o. I wanted to see more of the world. Especially its wonders and based on that list (that could be debated for hours on), Cappadocia is the 30th Wonder I have seen since I am born. How fitting!

Today is also the end of this trip. I booked the plane tickets and will be flying back to Paris tomorrow. I decided it was the perfect symbolic time to stop. I have been feeling overwhelmed and empty at the same time for almost a week now. If I had a lot more time planned for my trip, I would have settled longer here and waited until the will and desire would come back but since I have only 10 days left max, it does not make sense.

However, I am not fully finished with this trip yet since I will not be back to San Francisco and real life before mid-August. So keep on reading!

Istanbul Wrap-Up

I have been in Istanbul for 5 days now. Time has gone fast as I was trying to get a feel for the city, its history and its people. It is now clear why there are guide books dedicated only to Istanbul as one could stay here for weeks without seeing the same place twice.

Museum

On Tuesday, I visited the archaeological museum. As it is expected, it has some great artifacts collected from all the corners of the empire during the Ottoman era. The most impressive certainly are the sarcophagus of the necropolis in Sidon (Lebanon) that is so well preserved. I stayed a long time contemplating the so-called sarcophagus of Alexander that I had wanted to see since I had heard about it in Lebanon.

IMG_3890.JPGYesterday, I visited the Dolmabahce Palace. It is the last palace used by the Sultans which replaced the Topkapi Palace as the Sultan’s residence. It is an impressive place and is definitely worth a visit. Too bad I had to get on guided tours. I ended up being rushed around without much time to admire and contemplate what I wanted to see. With more than 2000 paintings and more than 200 rooms, it was surely worth more than my 1h45 visit. But unfortunately that is how long I was allowed to stay in the palace. At the end, it all blurred together as the guides were pushing us around from one amazing room to the next.

I also met with Taylan and some other friends of Elif for two evenings. Since she was not able to be here when I was visiting her country, she had given me the contact info of her family and one of her friends. Thanks so much Elif. Not wanting to bother her family I decided to contact Taylan instead. It was very nice as many of the guys speak very good English.

The first evening, I met Taylan and his friends in Taksim, the most bustling part of the European side. I found them quite easily and we went around to some cool bars drinking “Efes” beers. At the end of the night, I was offered a very good small hamburger that Taylan presented as a staple of late night eating in Taksim. I do not remember the name though!

The second evening, I accepted to join them on the Anatolian side (as they call the Asian side) so I had to find my way to the bustling street called Bagdat street. To tell the truth, it took me some time to get there as I did not have a map of that side (the Asian side is not documented in the guide book!) and I did not know how to get there either. Well, I went to the ferry dock and started asking around which ferry to take. First window, the guy tells me to go to the next on the left. I go there and the guy tells me to go to the left… hum, maybe he meant the next peer. Next peer, first window, the guy tells me to go to the next on the left again! I assume he means next peer so I go there and the guy at the window tells me to go to the next on the left again! Fortunately, it was the right peer as there was no other on the left! 🙂 Well, I managed to get to the other side and a taxi whisked me away to the right place. Taylan had invited some other friends of Elif this time. I had a good time but frankly, I did not notice much difference between Taksim and Bagdat. They kind of looked the same with clothing stores, cafes, restaurants and plenty of Starbucks!

IMG_4024.JPGTonight was a mellow evening as I went to the Turkish bath for a complete cleaning. It was very similar to the one I had last time albeit more expensive but less dangerous :). I also splurged myself and got a 30 minutes oil massage for that much more. I can tell you I was feeling great and was radiating peace as I was walking out of there. When I arrived at the hotel cafe, I was welcomed by a belly dancer who took me on the dance floor for some dancing. It was a great way to finish my stay here :).

That’s it for Istanbul. Tomorrow I am going South along the Aegean Sea :).

A Wonderful Time

Ledi had a week off work (yes, some people have to work) so we had decided to meet in Greece and visit the island of Santorini. It is considered a wonder by itself to the point that it has come to symbolize Greece, or at least the Greek Islands. We actually met in Athens on Friday evening and flew to Santorini early on Saturday morning to stay 5 days there.

Volcano’s Villa, our hotel, was just great with very discreet staff and an awesome view. The hotel is located a bit out of Oia (second largest city of the island) making it looking secluded at first but it actually is great to not be cramped in the city like the other nice hotels of Oia.

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And it even ended up being awesome when on the last day, the whole city of Oia got closed to cars as the mayor had decided to redo the streets then! Walking in the city became a bad idea as you had to go over hot asphalt. We felt so sorry for the shop owners and the tourists that had paid so much for their hotel room. Frankly, what a stupid idea to do large scale road work in the beginning of July in the heart of the tourist season. One sure thing is that this mayor is trying everything he can to make sure he is NOT going to be reelected!

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Anyway, that is it with the rambling :).

Our room was one of this nice cave house with all amenities and a gorgeous view of the Caldera and the Volcano. The pool was very nice too with a view as magnificent as the one from the room. But sadly, we did not get to enjoy it as much as we should have since we were most of the time gone to explore the island and its great beaches.

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For that purpose, I had the fancy of renting a scooter and ride along the winding roads, shirtless, and the wind blowing through our hair 8-). OK, I don’t know about that last part because first I don’t have much hair to blow and second, it would have been really reckless. Anyway once on the island, we realized how dangerous it was at night with the locals driving like crazy and how strong the sun was during the day and Ledi wisely and easily persuaded me to rent a car in place.

But I did not fancy a dull Hyundai so we looked for something a bit different. We ended up renting a Smart cabrio and it was definitely a smart choice :-p. First, I always had wanted to try one of those and second that little car was the perfect size to go around and park anywhere in usually full parking lots. It had a very cool blue color with numbers as you can see on the picture and we fell in love for it as soon as we got it. We took that little beater all around the island covering almost all its roads. Even if its little engine had some trouble sometimes getting through steep slopes, it never let us down and gave everything it had and more to get us where we needed to go. A real little warrior! Yeah, I know, I got gaga for that car. Ledi was too and we ended up haggling to know who would be driving :).

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While there, we mostly drove around checking out the landscape and stopping to nice spots to take pictures, to supermarkets to stock up on goodies, to small sandwich places to get the best panino ever or to major beaches to lay back and enjoy watching the time pass doing nothing. Exactly the kind of activities we needed.

Our favorite beach was the Red beach where we went the first day. It owes its name to the red cliff at the foot of which it is located. It is small and secluded, well protected from the wind and has some great spots to dive from. There we met a group of six cool Greeks that invited us to join them as they were diving from rocks and taught us some words in their language including some bad words.

We also visited quite extensively the city of Oia and Fira (the main city) jam packed with shops, restaurants and tourists. As it is the case on the rest of the island, the new view you get at every street corner calls for a photo and one has to control oneself to not take pictures all the time. Not to be missed, the port of Ammoudi at the bottom of the cliff in Oia is very nice and triggered our picture frenzy one more time.

Of course, we had to at least look at the sunset once but since the sun was not decided to go down and it was well over 8PM, we turned that time in a silly photo session, once more.

We sure had a great time in Santorini where everything was just perfect. I already miss that little island! We loved it, I am sure you would too 8-).

The Amazing Race

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My mission was to get from Fethiye to Athens in less than 2 days without spending a lot of money. That meant no flying or using any kind of private transportation.

I had been planning this trip for more than a week and I was looking forward to it, since I was going to meet Ledi in Athens. I had contacted a travel agent to help me book the ferry tickets from Bodrum to Pirraeus via Kos since it is difficult to do it on the Internet. It went well. I had my tickets in hand:

  • Bodrum – Kos / June 29th / 5:30PM – 6:30PM
  • Kos – Pirraeus / June 29th / 8:40PM – 9:20AM (+1 day)

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Fethiye – June 28th – 4:30PM.

Just out of the boat and freshly checked into a nice hotel thinking I had plenty of time to get to Bodrum the day after so I could visit the town.

Everything was just perfect.

It is when I checked my emails that luck turned around. There it was, a notification from the travel agent that my boat from Bodrum to Kos had been cancelled and he had rescheduled me on the 9:30AM boat on the 29th. That certainly was not good news but I was so thankful I had gone through an agent who took care of rescheduling and notifying me. Kudos to “Anker Travel” for their great work.

Hum, there was no way I could get to Bodrum on time if I slept in Fethiye that night. So I rushed back to the hotel and asked the clerk if he could find out when was the next bus to Bodrum. It was at 7PM and he told me the bus company would come to pick me up down the street at 6:30PM. I was there but I never saw the bus and it was already 6:50PM when I hopped on one of the buses that had Otogar written as destination.

“The bus station is only 2km East so I should be there on time” I thought optimistically. I was quite wrong as it turned out I had taken the bus in the wrong direction (misunderstanding between me and the Turkish driver). Well, what could I do? I arrived at the bus station at 7:15PM hoping that the bus had not left yet. Turns out Turkish buses leave on time so no luck there and I started to feel bad when I was told there were no other buses to Bodrum before 5AM the day after (too late for me).

This is when a guy just showed up from behind another bus and told me there was a way to get to Bodrum if I took his bus and changed at some other place whose name I could not understand. But he seemed to know what he was talking about and I did not have much choice anyway so I got on that bus hoping for the best ;). Luckily everything went smoothly from there. When we arrived where I was supposed to change bus, the bus steward told me to get out and handed my bag to the other bus’ steward. I got on that bus and we were in Bodrum at 1:30AM. Not the fastest way to get to Bodrum but I was on track to catch my ferry the next morning.

After a very short night spent in the first cheap enough hotel I found, I made my way to the ferry dock to recover my tickets and check into my first ferry. The guy at the counter gave me my Bodrum-Kos ticket but he could not give me or tell me where to get my Kos-Pirraeus ticket. I was a bit annoyed about that but I thought I would leave it up to my good stars (that have been good to me so far) to take care of putting everything together at the end so I got my exit stamp, boarded and found a nice spot to read and enjoy the view.

As soon as the ferry departed, an employee came towards me and told me he needed my passport in order to take care of my Kos-Pirraeus ticket! Yes, he just found me on the boat and took care of everything returning 5 minutes later with the ticket. It all worked out for the best again :).

Once in Kos and through the emigration check (welcome back to the EU!), I had almost 10 hours to spare on the island so I thought I could check it out a bit and take it easy on one of the numerous beaches for the rest of the time.

I just needed to find a place to store my bag for the time. As I was thinking about that, a woman on a scooter with her little girl standing in front of her came toward me offering lodging. After I explained what I needed, she told me I could store my bag and even take a shower at the end of the day all for 5 euros. I sat on the back of her father’s scooter with my big bag strapped on and here we were going through the streets of Kos. I have to say it was quite cool :).

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The day went well. I mostly lingered on one of the long chairs at the beach enjoying the sun, the warm water, and the “view”.

I was on time but the ferry ran late. Nothing too bad and we were on our way soon after 9PM. I spent my time reading, walking around the decks, watching Turkish TV, and sleeping where I could.

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We arrived in Pirraeus at around 10:30AM with the seagulls accompanying the boat as we entered the port. It is quite fascinating to see them play in the boat wind.

With some help from the locals speaking good English, I was in the metro bound to the Airport and checking into the hotel in no time.

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Athens – June 30th – 12:30PM – Not the freshest but Mission Accomplished! 🙂

A Blue Cruise Along the Turquoise Coast

Blue Cruise

My cruise along the Mediterranean coast ended today. The boat left Sunday morning from the Finike harbor and arrived this afternoon at the Fethiye harbor. We actually got transferred from Olympos to Finike by bus but I knew this beforehand so it was not a sour surprise.

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The gullet was a very nice boat called Suleimanbay with 8 cabins and sleeping space for 14. There were only 8 people on the boat the first day, Erin and Ann (Australians living in London), Stanley and Cecile (French), Sebastien and Marilou (French speaking Canadians) and Natalia (South African). A very nice American couple joined us the second day in Kas. Kind of a strange mix at first glance but it all worked out well as there was a lot of room on the boat to keep everybody content without stepping on each other’s toes.

The boat moved from one beautiful spot along the coast to another during the day. It anchored at the harbor on the 2nd night and at a cool spot the rest of the nights.

When the boat anchored at a nice place, a staircase was lowered to the water level. So, I was able to dive from the boat directly in the water and swim around the boat or even to the shore. I could also ask to be taken to shore by boat if there was something nice to see, which usually required some hiking as well.

When the boat was on the move, I socialized with the rest of the passengers, contemplated the amazing view, sunbathed, read a book, or simply slept.

I can remember a lot of cool moments that made this trip memorable.

Every morning, I would wake up, get on the deck and jump right into the water. It was great; I did not even have to walk to the pool or to the beach.

The second evening, we harbored in Kalkan so that the Ausies could see their team loose against Italy in a nice dive at the last minute. After dinner, Natalia and I checked out the little resort town. It is a very nice place built around the harbor.

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On the morning of the third day, we arrived early at a beach located at the end of a valley called the Butterfly valley. Rod had mentioned to me that the place was very nice and I really wanted to check it out. Surprisingly the captain was saying the opposite, not nice, too hot, too far, trying to get us to stay at the boat. However, I had my mind set on going and was ready to swim there even with my shoes on if I needed to. But finally I managed to convince 3 other people to come with me. The captain had no choice but to get us to the shore. I was happy to discover a beautiful white sand beach with not too many constructions on it. The place had a warm feel of community with a garden and a small hotel. The way to the valley was very easy to find and the path was very pretty. It leads you to a lovely waterfall where I took the liberty to shower under it (How cool is that? :)). To add to the magic we were accompanied by beautiful butterflies along the way. Rod was right, the place was just perfect and we had the chance to enjoy it without other people around. Our boat actually left just as the place started to get crowded. The whole setting was amazing and I would not have minded staying there a bit longer. It was definitely better than Olympos. Thinking about it, maybe this is how Olympos used to be when it all started.

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Our next stop was in Olu-Deniz whose lagoon is called the “dead sea” because it is protected by a natural rock formation. After lunch, I swam all the way to the beach with Ann and Erin to check it out. The water was much warmer in the lagoon and the setting was just beautiful. Unfortunately, the beach is fully covered with lounge chairs which is totally the opposite of what we experienced at the Butterfly Valley beach. Still we ended up staying there a bit too long for the taste of the captain who had raised the anchor and was ready to go while we were swimming back. He sent the small boat to get us and we were soon on our way. 

The final stop of the day was in the bay of Saint Nicolas Island. It was a bit disappointing because it was only 3pm and it seemed there wasn’t much to do there. I would have much preferred to have stayed longer in Olu-Deniz. The captain did not give any insight on the history of the island and declined to take us to the shore with the excuse that he was busy working on the anchor system. I guess that might be the reason he left early from Olu-Deniz. To make things worse, it started raining and sadly there was not much to do except dive or swim around the boat. However luck was with us that day as another tour boat anchored close by. It turned out this boat had a water slide on it and we were more than ready to try it out when invited by some Turkish guys. It was quite an experience sliding through the boat which certainly brightened up our day.

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On the last morning of the tour, we anchored close to a nice little beach and I decided to swim to the shore. On my way there, I spotted a small inflatable red ball that was drifting on top of the waves. It turned out some little girls had lost it and the waves and the wind drifted the ball too fast for them to be able to seize it. I caught the ball and took it back to the girls who… immediately lost it again :). So, I caught the ball and brought it back one more time (It was quite a fast ball!). Then I left. It turned out the girls had lost it again while I was on the beach but nobody was there this time to catch it. That little ball just wanted to be free!

Overall the cruise was great. However, some things were disappointing or just plain bad.

The program mentioned that the boat carries water toys like snorkeling gear and a windboard but unfortunately they were not available on board. There was a windboard but it was missing the sail and some other parts so it could only serve as a decoration! The captain on the other hand continuously promised he would buy some snorkeling gear at the next harbor but he never did.

Also, I was hoping to do some water sports at the stops but never managed to. Wave ridding and water skiing are forbidden in many places because there were too many tourists to make it viable, and not offered at all in some other places because there were not enough tourists to make it worthwhile. I was thinking to try paragliding in Olu-Deniz but as I mentioned earlier the captain wanted to take off earlier, so I missed the chance. Gokkaya bay is the only place where water skiing is available, but we arrived there too late because of our delayed departure from Finike. It was already dark when we got there :(. Too bad, it would have been a lot of fun to have tried these things.

The captain never sails the boat. He only uses the engine to direct it. It would have been nice to shut the engines down and just sail, as the wind was definitely strong enough to pull us. I guess I have to rent a boat some time and try it myself ;). 

I lost two towels in two days! Yes, I first forgot my travel towel in Olympos and then the towel I had just bought in Kas fell off the boat during the 2nd night! It must be a sign. I don’t know yet what kind, but without doubt it must be one.

And definitely the worst part was the fact that the captain and the cook made advances on the two Ausies during the first evening. The girls were certainly very upset and did not tell me until the next day. But, because of my experiences in the Middle East, I kind of guessed what might have happened when I saw them agitated that night. Very sleazy indeed!

But all these did not really compromise my enjoyment of the trip and the good definitely outweighed the slight bad. I would do it again any time.

At the end of the cruise it started raining, so I did not feel too bad about leaving the boat. I also have a long journey ahead of me so there is no time to look back yet ;).