Thursday, October 27, 2011

roomorama review part 1: how we found our istanbul apartment

not a roomorama apartment, mirtos, crete, greece
having the luxury to spend a week or two in any given location has been a great experience while on the road. we've taken advantage of our extended stays to rent apartments which typically means we're staying in actual neighborhoods. you know, among "the people." staying for ten days in zagreb, for instance, we got to know our local grocery store, made friends with people we'd seen day after day, and even if it's just a nod of recognition it makes us feel like we're "living" while traveling.

apartments are the perfect mid-category between a hostel and a hotel (or bed and breakfast). typically it costs less per night than a hotel and we've stayed in some great spaces. they've all been clean, they've all been private and they've all been a great way to travel.

there are a few sites on the web now that provide similar services to each other: a secure site to connect property owners with travelers looking for an accommodation not in the hostel or hotel category. in actual neighborhoods. with coffeemakers! we're heading to istanbul next week and we've added to our arsenal of apartment sites and, as far as the ease, convenience and security while booking goes, it's a huge winner.

essentially, it works like this. you've chosen a city to visit. you fire up your favorite browser, browse to, enter that city name in the "where are you going" search field, your 'check in' and 'check out' dates, the number of people in your party and click "find now." it's that simple.

sure, other sites have similar interfaces but there are two features we loved that made Roomorama stand out among the others...

SHOUT OUT: a sort of built-in twitter service within the site that allows you, as a registered user, to message property owners in your destination city with something like: "couple, looking for great apartment, close to public transport..." within two hours i had twelve offers. within twelve hours i had twenty two offers. like twitter, you're limited to 140 characters so creativity regarding likes and dislikes expressed in a small format is well worth your effort because you WILL get replies.

WHERE ARE YOU GOING?: when you enter your destination city, in our case istanbul, a very large city with many different areas and their own personalities that may be lost on first time visitors (us), a breakdown of neighborhoods is provided that allows you to narrow your search. HUGE help. it was a tip to us to go back and do a little research.

your apartment could be steps from here
once we entered our contact information, and choice of payment method, and clicked "book it," we received an immediate reply from our host with detailed information on how to find the apartment, who to contact upon arrival and, in our case, a handy "tips of istanbul" paragraph. sweet!

we now have that great apartment we asked for waiting for us upon arrival in istanbul. if the apartment is anything like the roomorama reservation process was, this is going to be a great trip.

we'll report back!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"of course i have zucchiniballs"

wait, what?

"... um, i'll just have the stuffed tomatoes."

gibenice (slovenian dessert), maribor, slovenia
let's talk food for a moment. we've been traveling now for almost three and a half months and something that happens every day and about which we've said very little, oddly, is eating. there was a great quote in a new york times article recently which in turn quoted someone regarding farmers in the balkans, "what you in the u.s. call 'organic' we call food."

word of the day... fresh. here on crete, we've learned to identify that when only 50% of the listed menu is available, that means it's fresh and in season. what's in season right now? white beans. and tomatoes. and cucumbers. however, we still giggle when we see "greek salad" listed. you'd think it would just say "salad."

gulasch, zander fillet salad, vienna, austria
we've been eating well, very well. currywurst and doner kebab in berlin. chantrelles and goulash in vienna. cold fruit soup, langos and pureed chestnuts in budapest. pumpkin soup in graz. gibenice in maribor, slovenia (and mike and paula's garden vegetables and roasted pork, aka "the magic animal."). cevapi in ljubljana. fresh fish, olive oil, figs and homemade wine on brac. ice cream in dubrovnik. more cevapi in mostar. stuffed vegetables in sarajevo. bean soup and baked veal in zagreb. venison salad in munich. feta and tomatoes and lamb and fresh bread and cheese on crete...

crete food plate, selakano, crete, greece

thank god we walk everywhere, otherwise we'd be worthy additions to the goodyear blimp fleet. and thank god we're in the habit of making our own breakfast and lunches, otherwise we'd be broke! but if there's one cost while traveling that we've learned not to stress about, it's good food. worth every single penny. every single time. happily, you do not need to visit a fancy (or costly) restaurant to get this amazing food.

what's stunning about this photo to the left is that all the food, the stuffed cabbage rolls, white beans in tomato sauce, dakos (seasoned and diced tomatoes, feta cheese and herbs on top of brown bread), fresh baked bread, greek salad and slow-stewed pork, all came from the tiny kitchen of a woman who owns a taverna WAY up the hillside in the selakano valley on crete. if it wasn't for our new friend yiannis we'd never know this place existed. hell, even if you just happened on the village you still wouldn't have known it was a place to eat, let alone know that it would turn out to be some of the best food you've ever eaten. everything fresh. and everything grown (or fermented :)) on the land around it. and here she is... bless her.

taverna lady and her deceiving kitchen of magic, selakano, crete, greece

Thursday, October 20, 2011

it's all greek to us

yesterday we embarked on a drive from kissamos in the upper northwest corner of crete to mirtos, in the lower southeast corner of crete. the map had a big, thick red line that seemed pretty clear. HAH! we consider ourselves somewhat comfortable with directions and maps but during yesterday's drive i vaguely remember laughing off the comment from the rental car dude when he said "oh, and don't trust any maps, they're all wrong."

countless times we had to stop, turn around, re-read that last road sign (some in greek alphabet which i'm happy to report we're starting to learn) and a couple of times we had to stop and actually ask for help. for me, this hurts deep down inside. for michelle, it's more like "duh, they know and you don't." i love that woman.

the way to mirtos, crete

here's just a portion of the google map directions. it's here for comedic value because it holds no authority, really, on these roads. bear in mind, this represents maybe a tenth of the distance we were traveling. if following every one of these turns on your mobile device or printed page you'd never be watching the road, and the point of this post is YOU BETTER BE WATCHING THE ROAD!

this is in no way a complaint. no way, no how. the scenery, the light, the mountains, the sea and, most importantly, the kindness of the strangers who we asked for help with directions, added up to just one more wonderful journey on this incredible island.

at one turn you look out over mountain sides of olive trees. at another turn you look on miles of vineyards. at another turn are old women dressed in mourning black moving sheep across the road.

royal apartments, ancient knossos, crete

over the course of six hours we traveled from a beautiful studio apartment above kastelli kissamos (thanks arianne!) to one of the oldest known settlements, ancient knossos. this is the controversially reconstructed palace and town complex of the minoans, dating as far back as 3000 BC. controversial because the man that unearthed it also took it upon himself to reconstruct some of the fallen ruins to represent his idea of what it looked like. that story alone is fascinating. we wandered for quite a while inconspicuously (we hope) behind an english speaking tour guide taking in any information we could overhear.

after being historically enlightened we continued onward up and over the mountains that split the island north from south. holy olive pit! arrestingly beautiful views, tight hairpin bends, villages climbing up the hillsides, sheep and goats just hanging around in the middle of the road, and we end up in the small village of mirtos with a stated population of 600 people. i think we can count maybe 50 so far, though.

this area of crete is commonly referred to as the southernmost point of europe. whatever, we came because it's also commonly referred to as the sunniest and warmest place on crete and we're still chasing the waning days of summer. yeah, it's autumn, but that's just on the calendar. and, upon arrival, we find this...

mirtos, crete

lots of greek protests right now, including a fuel distribution strike. we have a rental car and some day we need to get back to the north side of the island. most gas stations down here are either out of gas already or closed completely. wonder what's gonna happen. we'll report back.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

the things you see

"the things you see." uttered by a friend, maureen m., when our conversation was stopped mid-sentence many years ago at an outdoor cafe while a completely skinned, uncooked hog on a spit was paraded by two men past our table and into the restaurant next door. we've repeated that phrase nearly every day while traveling.

we've been on the road now for 100 days and if there's any wisdom we can pass on, it would be this: save your plastic bags. seriously. trust us on this. michelle's got a pretty serious collecting, collating and storage routine down now that we're never wanting for proper storage of anything we carry, and when you move around a lot like we do, it becomes quite the priority.

our cretan throne, 3rd century b.c., fallasarna, crete
you're welcome.

we've learned a few things, taken some notes and made up our minds about things we never really thought were that important, like plastic bags. who knew?

so, a little 100 day wrap up:

1. the world is full of fantastic people, or at least the small part of the world we've seen so far.

2. people of dubrovnik are exempt from statement number 1. especially the old folks at the green market. such a stunningly beautiful place this old city is and such a stunning contrast are the manners of its citizens. we're tourists, we get that, and we really try our hardest to be unintrusive and, at the very least, (see #7) learn a few words to ease communication and, we hope, offer some sort of message that we're trying. *sigh* in spite of this statement, you should absolutely visit dubrovnik.

3. there are a LOT of different toilet designs in the world, some of which take a few minutes of concentration to figure out, including the push button on the bottom of the tank which is hung on the wall over a cretan commode. we both looked around for a good minute or so until we looked up. it was the only thing left in the bathroom that we hadn't pushed.

3a. the same goes for showers of the world. some you pull, some you push, some are completely inoperable once you've lathered up and a slipperiness factor has been introduced and you're reduced to "hhhooooonnneeeyyy..."

birthday, mirce, brac island, croatia

4. we love our keen hiking shoes. couldn't imagine a better pair of shoes to cover all of our bases. these things have brought us across old european cities, over the green hills of the austrian countryside, the rocky hills of south crete and a couple of pretty fine restaurants.

5. don't underestimate the power of a leatherman. we've used ours to cut cheese, to fix a shower head, to cut off a toenail, to open beer and wine bottles, to pop out a sim card... if the airlines ever take it from us, we may break down and cry.

6. a map and a metro pass is your ticket to happiness. european cities have got it down when it comes to public transportation. we've seen way more of a place than we could in the u.s. with the purchase of a few dollars worth of tram passes and a free tourist map. berlin, budapest, vienna, zagreb all come quickly to mind but you could drop in there any european city or town.

kissamos, crete, greece
7. regardless of the language where you find yourself, communication really does come down to a few common words and some body language. we haven't traveled so far away from home but almost everyone speaks english to some degree. even if they don't, if you can say "thank you," "good morning," "nice hair" or "the bill, please," whether or not you can even remotely understand the reply, you'll be half way home.

8. ask the person next to you, "so where are you from?" most of the time we get an unintelligible reply in some language we don't understand but sometimes we hit a goldmine and make an immediate friend. meet a fellow traveler who has been on the road and you share an instant bond. everyone wants to share experiences and recommendations and after however many days they've been surrounded by languages they don't understand, or are too tired to try to find meaning in those words, a little common english goes a long way.

9. don't judge a new place by first impression, let it come to you. we've learned this in a couple locations where after only a day or two our opinions were completely changed. it's amazing just how quickly some new place becomes familiar. that vague unsettled feeling when you first arrive, particularly after a long or arduous transit day of some sort, quickly fades away with a night's sleep and a wander around town. or a quick conversation with a local, however cobbled together.

10. take a break. take a vacation from your vacation. learn to identify those moments of information overload, when looking at or visiting something with profound historical or cultural significance and all you can think about is taking a nap... go take a nap. don't "power through." trust us on that one, too.

today, we've been invited by our new friend arianne to a "chestnut festival" in elos, on crete. we're hoping for the crowning of a chestnut queen! "the things you see."

midpoint of an incredible hike, lisos, crete

Saturday, October 8, 2011

a slice of sarajevo

would it kill them to put a train station in the middle of a city? or, perhaps, surround it with something nice?

remember in 'get shorty,' when the cab driver turned to the
mafia dude and said about los angeles, "they say it's the
smog that gives us such wonderful sunsets."
welcome to sarajevo, bosnia 
pulling into sarajevo from mostar, having just shared a compartment with a chain-smoking bosnian blowhard who got into a shouting match with a woman who joined us late in the ride, what we saw did not instill comfort or joy. this place is polluted. train stations are often located on the outskirts of town and this one is surrounded by tall apartment blocks sticking up into the smog. we would learn later from a friend we made that packs of wild dogs roam these streets and have lately begun attacking the residents of "new sarajevo," this sprawl of communist era apartment buildings in the west end of the valley.

we were shaking from the shared nicotine of the train compartment but thankfully met with a free ride from our inn in town. i don't think i could have held the map steady enough to figure out how to get there, anyway.

sarajevo rests in a long narrow valley and sure, it's crowded and yes there is a ton of pollution, but having spent a couple of weeks in croatia we were starting to realize that bosnians are a lot nicer to outsiders. in fact, they actually smile and, for the most part, even ask "how are you? what do you think about our country? where are you from?" and, what some from our homeland would consider considerate behavior in a restaurant, "would you like to see a menu?"

off the top of your head, what do you think about when you hear "sarajevo?" if you're like us, it's olympics (1984), the bosnian war (1992 - 1995) and the assassination of franz ferdinand (1914), popularly referred to as the start of WWI.

turkish quarter, sarajevo, bosnia
like mostar, where we had visited before sarajevo, this was a major ottoman city for a few hundred years that luxuriated under the favor of the sultans who valued sarajevo for its logistical advantage along the trade routes and its beautiful setting at the end of a green valley cut by a river. you can't swing a hookah in this town without hitting a several-hundred year old mosque or the ruins of an old caravansary. the old coppersmith alleys are still intact at the east end of town, the turkish quarter, and we were happy to still find coppersmiths actually making the wares they were selling, unlike a lot of old-town areas where everything is made in bulk somewhere else and sold as "authentic."

you can track the history by the architecture. starting from the east end of the valley that butts up against the mountains is the turkish quarter. small, squat buildings creating a warren of lanes and alleys that you can wander for hours drinking coffee, eating baklava, smoking a hookah, watching coppersmiths. then, moving west the austro-hungarians set up shop and started building a tiny little vienna, then the communists moved in further west and over the 40 years of tito rule spread further down the valley to "new sarajevo," those enormous, grimy apartment blocks that go on forever.

is that a vegetable? need that stuffed? no problem.
sarajevo, bosnia
the food, my god the food!

thankfully, we were heading back toward the land of hummus and falafel and, apologies to my brother, may have had the best falafel we have ever eaten. this place is littered with "restoran nationals" that focus on, you guessed it, national dishes of bosnia. the photo to the right is a perfect representation. you can walk into one of these places, point at things (good if your serbo-croatian isn't up to par) and for somewhere around $5 get a beautiful plate of stuffed anything. usually stuffed with minced up meat and onion but also lots of rice with spices, too. and cevapi stands for days. easily hundreds of them within any given square mile.

srebrenica, site of one of the worst massacres in modern war time.
graffiti (just a small sample) in sarajevo, bosnia

wanting to really understand where we were we did something we rarely do when we travel. we hired a guide for a few hours to walk us around and answer our questions. like a few places we'd visited before, the effects of the war are still very much on display around town. we met up with neno, a local, post-grad political science student who lived through the siege of sarajevo and was home-schooled in the basement while the serbian army was set up in the hills above town randomly shelling its citizens. we were trying really, really hard to understand the balkans, particularly the wars of the 90s. clearly, it takes more than a few weeks here to even come close to understanding territorial, religious, political and tribal considerations that date back hundreds and hundreds of years.

šargijas (i think), and carpets. sarajevo, bosnia
every day still there are news articles about serbs, croats and bosniaks disagreeing about something. yet, with this as a daily background, and set against a national unemployment rate of around 40% (you read that correctly), this place feels vibrant. unlike the croatian vibe of resentment or aloofness or "people don't understand our plight," it seems bosnians are just getting on with being alive and, seemingly, happy that others are interested in knowing the hell is going on. a huge generalization, i know, but on the surface that's what we found.

it's because of that feeling of hopefulness that we just sank further and further into feeling comfortable here. each day we ate something new, drank bosnian coffee (according to several people differs from turkish coffee by the number of times it's brought to a boil before removing from heat), found a local brewery and drank good beer, hiked up to the top of the ridge and looked from east to west down the valley (do something about the car emissions!), chatted with as many waiters, shopkeepers and our bed & breakfast hosts as we could. we've left each place on this trip, without exception, feeling sad that we were leaving so soon. that's a good trend!

sarajevo rocks!

side note: we've had several wonderful conversations with other guests at hotels, one of which left us considering adding baku, azerbaijan of all places, to our itinerary down the road. love having our directions steered by chance meetings. we'll report back.

Monday, October 3, 2011

our bosnian surprise

"bosnian coffee," mostar, bosnia
i confidently said goodbye, shut the door and offered a hearty "good night!" in bosnian to our driver. bear in mind, this was 11:00am.

with a combined use of english, bosnian and german michelle and i managed to get a taxi ride out to blagaj, a small, very old town about six miles down the valley from mostar, where we were staying. oh, and a return pick up arranged for hours later. the driver lived in germany for a few years and he and i managed to communicate using all three languages. by the end of the drive the driver and i were throwing out all the words we knew and i was proud to leave him with a smile.

herceg fortress, our destination, blagaj, bosnia

out. in. the. middle. of. nowhere. blagaj, bosnia. wow, just beautiful, scrubby and hot, with limestone formations poking out of the dirt and no one around. approaching town we could see a fortress on the mountain looming over town: our destination. i pointed to it and the driver, with a slightly worried face, said "nur laufen." only walking, no cars. for a moment he thought we wanted him to drive us all the way up.

after an hour climb up the backside of a small mountain and we were staring down on blagaj with a fair part of herzegovina splayed out before us. after the illyrians and then after the romans, this was duke stjepan herceg's fortress. the name source of "herzegovina," the southern territory of "bosnia and herzegovina." we found ourselves clambering through and over a 14th century fortress all by ourselves. there's been a settlement up here since the 3rd-4th century along with human remains found in the valley that date back more than 12,000 years. there was no admission fee, no safety, no nothing even resembling an american fear of injury liability anywhere. just us and an old ruin on a hill. great hike.

from the top of a 500 year old minaret, mostar, bosnia

bolivar, mostar, bosnia
lesson learned: never judge a town by its bus station. we learned that in mostar. dropped off at the edge of town in front of a run-down communist era structure, assaulted (gently, of course) as we were literally stepping off the bus by women selling us a room for the night and then some begging roma mothers with their infants held at their hips and dressed in dirty clothes. roma, a problem we would try very hard to understand but about which we would receive very different opinions. we trucked through town to our hotel in the heat of the day, sometimes shadowed by bullet-torn shells of old, blown out buildings never repaired from the war. our bus into town drove right down bolivar, the dividing line between croats and serbs during the war. we were kind of asking ourselves "we came here by choice?" yet we left four days later thinking "why are we leaving so soon?"

don't know about the rest of you but pretty much all we knew about bosnia was of the balkan wars in the 90s. what we didn't know was how charming, how deeply historical and subtlety inviting this country could be. we stayed in mostar first (followed later by four days in sarajevo), in the southern part of the country. small, old, ottoman. mosques and churches, minarets and spires. bosnian coffee and turkish delight all set in the a beautiful valley cut but by the neretva river. you're in europe, but you're not. if you kept to the very center of the city, which is easy to do, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in the 16th or 17th century. well, apart from the occasional beer distributor umbrella shading a cafe here and there.

we're back in croatia, grumpy waiters be damned, and camping out in zagreb, the capital. we came through here on the train to the coast a few weeks ago, spent a lovely couple of hours in the park, and decided to return if we could. over the last few weeks, many people commented "oh, have you been to zagreb? no? you really should." so we did. got a GREAT apartment in the middle of the city and, for the moment, we're living like a couple of 'poor ol' big dogs.' we'll report back.