December 17, 2011

Jungle Adventures - Sumatra

Head craned upwards, I squinted and strained my eyes to find what Kumbar was pointing at, high up in the canopy. There! A flurry of movement as the ape flung itself from one branch to the next, the acrobat of the jungle. We'd found an elusive white-handed gibbon, bigger than the long-tailed macaques that had been following us on our trek so far, and with thick, powerful arms. As we watched it, the gibbon began to sing: a bright, soprano warble, floating down from the canopy.

We watched it leap from tree to tree for a while, and then, still listening to the warbling, we climbed higher on the path, following a low ridge deeper into the jungle.

We rounded a corner and stopped dead. There, sitting at eye level and working us over with a penetrating gaze, was an orangutan. There was a movement beside her, and we saw a smaller face look out at us, maybe curious. Two orangutans.

This was the goal of our hike. We'd arrived on the Indonesian island of Sumatra the day before and made our way to Bukit Lawang, a village famous among travelers for its orangutan sanctuary.

And here we were, in the jungle, face-to-face with a semi-wild female, rehabilitated after years in captivity.

The pair didn't pay us much attention, and took off through the forest, swinging slowly between trees, stopping to chew a leaf or to break open a termite nest for a mid-morning snack. We followed them down the ridge. What beautiful, graceful creatures!

We came across a single Thomas Leaf Monkey, sitting calmly on a log, sporting the distinctive mohawk - and then the baby orangutan chased him away. Poor guy.

Although the orangutans have been largely rehabilitated and most of them manage to fill their tummies on jungle fruits and leaves and grubs, there is a lingering problem of unsanctioned feedings by the guides during treks. This is bad for two reasons: first, the ape cannot be entirely rehabilitated and second, orangutans are very susceptible to human diseases. They can catch viruses from eating food that's been handled by humans.

I'm happy to say that we didn't see our guide feed any of the wildlife, but we did see another guide handing out bananas to an orangutan who approached and grabbed his bag. To be fair, there isn't really another way to get the bag back - she was well aware that if she held it hostage, she'd get a ransom. But after the episode was over, he continued feeding her and patting her on the back. Not a great way to help these beautiful creatures re-attain their independence.

But overall, the guides we spoke to seemed very aware of and concerned about the delicate situation of our ginger friends. To most of them, having grown up in Bukit Lawang and the neighbouring communities, the apes are part of the community and part of their unique heritage.

We arranged with some other travelers to share a van from Bukit Lawang to an elephant sanctuary at the village of Tangkahan, two hours farther north in the jungle.

This was prime logging territory until a stand-off between loggers and environmentalists convinced the government to name the whole area as protected land. This ever-shrinking jungle tract is home to Sumatran elephants, and without a vast amount of space, like the orangutans, the elephants can't survive. From Tangkahan, rangers still roam the jungle mounted on elephants (all formerly captive) to check for signs of logging and poaching.

For the last few years, the village has also made a name for itself by allowing tourists to pay for elephant trekking through the jungle, again using the formerly captive, domesticated elephants.

We started our day by bathing the elephants - armed with a stiff-bristled scrub brush, we wadded into the water and 'washed' the elephant that was waiting patiently on its side, half submerged in the muddy river... really, it's more of a wet back scratch. The elephant seemed pretty content with the whole thing.

Sumatran elephants are smaller than their African cousins, but still impressively enormous. We rode Augustine, who is twenty-two years old. When a pro rides an elephant, he signals the elephant and it offers a bent leg, which he uses to propel himself up around the beast's thick, leathery neck... we, obviously, are not pros. So we climbed clumsily into our saddle from a raised platform.

How amazing to cruise along on the padded saddle, feeling the elephant's slow, steady stride and the rolling motions of her back as she negotiated little hills and the muddy jungle trail, all while snatching snacks from the sides of the path.

All in all, a pretty incredible week!


November 28, 2011

Under the Sea: Tioman Island Diving

From KL, we grabbed a bus to the coast and then a ferry (the next day, as Malaysian transport rarely lines up properly) to Pulau Tioman, an island in the South China Sea well known as a diving hub. This is where I'd be doing my PADI Open Water Diver certification.

After a full day of scuba theory, cheesy PADI videos, and anticipation, it was finally time to go underwater. I pulled on the wet suit  ignoring the pungent smell of old sweat and salt water. On went the weight-belt, the inflatable vest (called a BCD), the tank, and the breathing regulator, with its four hoses that snaked along my body to poke into various bits of the vest, like the arms of Shiva going in for a feel.

Despite the wet suit, scuba equipment does not as such make one feel svelte.

My classmates, two Danish girls, our instructor, Rosie, and I began shuffling down into the waves, fins in hand. We plopped into the sea, yanked on our fins and face masks, and swam away from shore. And, with the BCD inflated, the cumbersome equipment and I floated easily. Sneaky.

The first time we descended was only into two metres of water to land on the sandy bottom. Despite the many hours of theory and the regulator in my mouth, I forgot to breathe for a good fifteen seconds.

We did a few dives like this, in the sandy shallows, to practice our buoyancy and learn emergency procedures, and then finally it was time to go on a real dive.

We rolled backwards off the boat and descended into the stunningly turquoise waters of the South China Sea, through schools of bright fish. We stopped just above the reef and swam forward over coral of every shape and colour and size, swarming with fish and covered with plants.

What a strange feeling, to breathe effortlessly in this brilliantly-coloured new world, to look up to see the pale plane of the surface stretched over the water above us, undulating gently in waves that, at ten metres deep, we could no longer feel.

By the end of our nearly two weeks on Tioman, I'd taken seven dives at different locations around island: four for my certification  one to certify me for deep diving and two for fun. We'd seen Hawksbill turtles, stingrays, cuttlefish (a small, colour-changing squid), baracuda, pufferfish, two huge napoleon wrasse and a number of triggerfish, who eyed us suspiciously - not to mention the clouds of colourful fish and the stunning coral we encountered on each dive. Big thanks to Rosie and the ladies at the Tioman Dive Centre for taking excellent care of us!

We didn't do a lot else on Tioman. In the second week, we took a rainy trek across the steep hills to Juara, a quiet town on a stunning beach, where we spent a night before trekking back - no rain on the way back, and we saw some long-tailed macaques playing (fighting?) in the trees on the Juara side.

Despite the encroaching monsoon season, our weather held out pretty well - although its hard to be upset with the weather in a place where even the rainy days are warm and beautiful.


Kuala Lumpur: the Asian Adventure Begins.

Our flight from Rome to Kuala Lumpur via Kuwait City was a long ordeal, but went smoothly. We settled into our Chinatown guesthouse and discovered that, for the first time in six months, we were really and truly jet-lagged. For four nights, we were up until 5 am, rising at 1 or 2 pm and patronizing a conveniently located Seven-Eleven for our 3 am snack runs.

Jet lag SUCKS.

So our four nights in KL turned into six, and even then we didn't do much sightseeing outside of Chinatown and the malls we were scouring for new trekking shoes.

We DID spend an afternoon at the Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine set in an enormous limestone cavern just north of the city. After scaling two hundred-some-odd steps and evading the dirty-looking monkeys perched on the railings, we emerged into the cavern. We spent a half hour exploring the temples and the little shrines tucked into the corners of the cave, followed by a keening, clarinet-esque music and a funky drum-beat courtesy of a pair of musicians in the main temple.

At the base of the cliff are more caves, these with an admission fee, containing sculpted depictions of Hindu stories and more shrines, all painted in bright (sometimes psychedelic  colours. To the side is a reptile sanctuary housing a huge monitor lizard, a turtle and all sorts of creepy and slithery things. Super cool, but not where you'd want to be caught in an earthquake!


November 14, 2011

Southern Italy (or, 'The Cheese Binge')

Our second week in Italy, we spent two nights in the southern town of Sorrento, renowned for its pretty cliff-top views of the Bay of Naples, and for its alarming lack of traffic lights.

We spent a day wandering the ruins of resurrected Pompeii, in the shadow of Vesuvius (which is, by the way, still very much active), hopping across the stepping stones in ancient streets that spent more than a millennium and a half suffocated beneath ten metres of ash. Remarkably, some of the frescoes inside the houses survived.

We had two fantastic meals in Sorrento: gnocchi alla Sorrentina at a cute little restaurant, and take-away pizza on the roof of our hotel, from which we could see the whole bay, as well as the volcano's bare slopes.

From Sorrento, we hopped aboard a train to Rome. I'd worried that I would find the Italian capital to be too flashy, too aggressive - maybe it was because we'd rolled in during the off-season, but I was pleased to find it relaxed, a confident seductress.
La famille Hartholt explores the Colosseum
Now, it was time for a history blitz. We roamed the battered Colosseum, its pock-marked shell covered in opportunistic plants. The underground chambers have been excavated and you can see right into the labyrinth of rooms and passages in which animals and people waited out the final moments of their lives.

We wandered the Palatine, where the red-brick remains of Roman palaces are scattered on the hill overlooking the Circus Maximus racetrack.

We spent a day between St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican museums, both of which are dripping with wealth beyond comprehension. St. Peter's, built on the site where Roman Emperor Nero had Saints Peter and Paul crucified around AD 67, is stunning. The pink marble walls are decorated with lavish amounts of gold leaf, stunning frescoes, and masterful sculptures. The place is so large, so enveloping, that the crowds weren't even a hindrance.
Me and St Peter's - for Gran!

The collections in the museums are also astounding. The Vatican owns heaps and heaps of priceless ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, paintings, Renaissance-era sculptures... and that's before you even discuss the frescoes by Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Raphael, which are in themselves priceless. The sheer volume of the collection rivals the British Museum, and exploring it took the whole afternoon. Obviously the Sistine Chapel, where each new pope is elected, is the star of the show, where Michelangelo's frescoes of muscular men and women show the creation of the universe and of man, but I found Raphael's frescoes to be just as beautiful - maybe more so.

All that said, it's hard to know that a state run by a religious organization that preaches charity has untold masses of wealth hoarded within its walls. How many Greek statues would buy food for a starving village, or a whole country? There are some very poor people out there who need the wealth more than the Vatican needs to store it.

Our remaining days in Rome were spent walking the medieval centre, enjoying the fresh air at the delightfully green Villa Borghese, eating all of the pasta and pizza and cheese I could get my hands on, and of course, enjoying each other's company - because at the airport, we left John and Val for another six months. It was fantastic to spend the two weeks with you two - thank you for everything! We miss you!

And finally, leaving Rome for Malaysia, it was time to find some new adventures.



Although I would love to write a pile of posts about our two weeks in Italy, I'm going to try to keep it to one for each week so that I can start getting caught up with myself.

We took a night ferry loaded with large, loud Italian families and jovial, guitar-strumming monks from Split, in Croatia to Ancona in Italy. Despite all our worry over the Schengen Area visas, the Italian border guard barely glanced at our passports. So maybe counting out exactly ninety days wasn't entirely necessary.

We met Dan's parents, Val and John, just up the coast in Rimini, spent a night there sharing stories and catching up, and set off the next morning for Tuscany.

Although it doesn't look all that far on the map, the drive through the mountains to Tuscany's rolling hills took all day. And as it was Sunday, all the shops were closed out in the country. (Who knew you could get so hungry in Italy?!) But finally, we made it to San Gimignano.

We were perched on the side of a valley of grape vines, lit bright in the late afternoon sun. A kilometre off, on the crown of the nearest hill, was the silhouette of a perfectly preserved medieval city, its skyline sprinkled with tall, square towers and ringed by thick stone walls. Although our apartment for the week was nearer to the walls, but it was worth a drive out to the main guesthouse for the view (and the pool and the wifi).

Over the course of the week, in addition to exploring the cobbled streets of San Gimignano, we went on day trips to Pisa where the leaning tower is much larger and at much more of an angle than I'd anticipated, to Cinque Terre, to Siena and to a small winery.

At Cinque Terre, we hiked along the number two trail, down the Via dell'Amoure (Lovers Lane) from Riomaggiore To Manarola, a pretty and very flat stroll along the cliff side and then Dan and I hiked the more rolling stretch from Corniglia to Vernazza, where we met back up with Val and John for drinks and foccacia. The views from the cliffs over the ocean are stunning, and the trail led us through olive groves and gardens that cling to the rocks, steeped in the salty breeze. Unfortunately, even in late September, the trails were busy. About half the walk, we were stuck in an ant trail behind meandering tour groups.

In Siena, the enormous cathedral took my breath away - and at this point, I've seen my share of European churches. The walls, inside and out, are striped white and deep green marble; the floor is rife with biblical depictions in carved marble; the hymnals in the library are two feet tall, their verses painted in vivid colours and gold leaf. Really, really beautiful.

We spent a morning at the Casa Emma, where big, sweet grapes grow up to become Chianti wine, the regional specialty. The tour was informative, and the tasting was a yummy breakfast (also informative. I love having wine explained because I can never decode it myself. Thank you to Carlos!)

And of course, we spent lots of time drinking wine by the guesthouse pool, looking down at the vineyards and up at the town, lots of time eating rich and hearty Tuscan food, and lots of time chatting and playing cards. Because that's what is best about Italy: wine, food and family.


November 8, 2011

The Dalmatian Islands

On leaving Dubrovnik, we spent eight days lounging about on the Dalmatian Islands, off the mainland coast of Croatia near Split. The ferries were easy to arrange and reasonably priced - although annoyingly, we had to go all the way back to Split to hop from island to island.

Bol - You can see the beach extending into the ocean.
We halved our week between two islands: Brac, the nearest to the mainland, where we settled into the touristy-cute town of Bol, and Vis, farther into the Adriatic, undeveloped until Croatia's departure from the Yugoslavian Federation twenty years ago.

As with most visitors to Bol, we spent a lot of our visit on the gorgeous Zlatni Rat beach, known in English as the 'Golden Horn.' The beach spikes out into the sea towards neighbouring Hvar Island, thus forming the horn, both sides dotted with big beach umbrellas and covered with tanned bodies. (Except for me... Dan told me that while he was swimming, I was easy to pick out back on the shore. It didn't help that most of the tourists seemed to be either Italians or Croatians on holiday in the September 'slow' season.)

So for three days, we lay snuggled into the grey pebbles of the beach and swam in the unbelievably clear Adriatic. Our little apartment had a kitchen, so we could cook for the first time in several months, but we did go out for a meal of salted, fried sardines. Which are served with all the bones - thankfully no head. Crunch, crunch, nom nom nom.

After a brief return to Split, we grabbed the two hour ferry to Vis Island, the farthest and least developed of the mid-Dalmatian Islands. We stayed in Komiza, across the island - a pretty little town, set in a wide-mouthed bay, where every house has tourist apartments and restaurants line the harbour, but where even the moderate crowds of Bol had dissipated  to leave us with space to breathe.

Our landlady, on finding that our Croat was very limited, decided it was best to speak to us in Italian... also very limited. Lots and lots of nodding and gesturing.

We spent four days on the rocky beach outside our window, where the fishies developed a strange affection for Dan, following him in clouds as he swam; we rented a two-person sea kayak for a day on the water, and we spent a day hiking out to the end of the bay (past a garbage dump... yum). But mostly, we lounged in happy laziness and swam.


November 7, 2011


We arrived in Dubrovnik on a Monday evening coach and after some minor directional problems, hauled ourselves and our backpacks up a few billion steps to our hostel, near the top of the hill. We sat for an hour in the terrace garden - grape vines hanging overhead, lime and pomegranate trees around us, and then explored the old city.

Dubrovnik’s old town literally sparkles like the ‘Jewel of the Adriatic’ it's claimed to be. It’s made of marble - entirely made of marble. The streets, the walls, the towers, gleam white under the moon and the streetlights. The streets are the cleanest I think I have ever seen - it looks like the whole city is swept and polished every night. The whole place felt like a fairy tale as we wandered the little alleyways and strolled the main boulevard, perusing menus we knew were too expensive for our budget.

(Tragically, it’s spoiled by the tourists. And I know that I am being entirely hypocritical because I AM a tourist, but it’s a well-known fact that tourists dislike other tourists. Especially ones who stand dead-centre on a busy street, gawking and taking photos and blocking those of us who are strolling along. I know it's pretty. Stand on the side of the street please. Rant over.)

As Dubrovnik is a must-see on the itineraries of everyone from cruise-shippers to backpackers to holiday-makers, it’s busy busy busy, all the time. I’m glad we saw it, but two nights was certainly enough.

So, having seen the city on the first night, and having no desire to visit museums, what do we do in Dubrovnik?

Along the side of the tall, looming wall, away from the little harbour, there’s a swimming spot with a couple sets of stone steps, rocks to leap off of and space to sit in the sun. So we picked up a two-litre bottle of beer (yes that is a thing) as we walked through the city that afternoon , and with a couple swigs inside us, we jumped from the jagged rocks into the salty Adriatic. We splashed around, hauled ourselves back up the slippery, algae-covered steps, retired to our beer bottle and repeated the whole thing when the sun became too intense.

Not a bad life, drinking beer and swimming under a magnificent city wall. There were other people there, but it wasn't nearly as crowded as the inside of the walls.

Eventually, many litres later, we decided it was time to be good tourists, so we abandoned the swimming hole, grabbed some pizza to sober up, and bought tickets to walk the walls. It’s better than it might sound - it makes for several kilometres of walking, the walls are kept in fantastic condition, and the views over the city both inside and outside the wall, and of the sea as the sun was setting, were beautiful.

And if you just looked at the sea, you couldn't even see the crowds.


War Tour: Sarajevo

High upon a mountain overlooking Sarajevo, our tour guide stepped gingerly off of the wide pathway and began to climb up a slope, eight cameras dangling from his arm and slung across his torso. Our group, ten travelers in all, waited at the bottom, awestruck by this risky move. We watched his careful foot placement, on tree roots and exposed rock - less likely to be hiding a landmine. Although he had climbed this hill many times, there was always still a very serious chance that a false step would set off one of the millions of mines scattered all over this mountain.

When he reached the ruins of a Serbian bunker at the top, Jasmin snapped a picture with each of our cameras. He'd found two mines a few weeks back, unearthed them carefully, and he wanted to show us what they look like. In a month or two, a mine expert he knows will come and diffuse them.

Jasmin fought in the siege of Sarajevo, which began nearly twenty years ago when the Serbian army surrounded the capital of the fledgling Bosnia and Herzegovina nation. For nearly four years, the front line wavered within a few hundred yards of its original position on the hilltop, encircling the city. The Sarajevans were unable to break the Serbian noose, while the Serbs unable to break the wills of the Sarajevans who fought on empty stomachs and smuggled weapons to evade the promise of genocide.

We walked around the mountain were Jasmin fought, a mere four kilometres from his home, where he lived with his wife and five-month-old son and where today, he runs a hostel. We saw the former observatory, now a pair of destroyed buildings covered in shell-marks and broken glass, where his thigh was ripped open by shrapnel. We found shell clips, rusting in the dirt below old bunkers, and the shelled-out cable car station, where a whole mortar shell is still embedded high up in the wall.

He showed us the hollow where he spent many nights in a tent, and then walks us uphill, a hundred yards on a thin dirt path, across no-man's land to the Serbian line.

"Don't step off the path," says his son, now a grown man, before we begin, "it was cleared by a professional. There are thousands of mines around us - do not step off the path."

And yet, as we walked, all around us lay gorgeous forest, green and untouched, spilling down the mountainside to the valley where Sarajevo stretches out, red roofs lining the shallow, bubbling river. We saw the grafittied remains of the bobsled track that was used for the 1984 Olympic Games, its concrete expanse winding down the mountain (still used today for extreme rollerblading competitions, although chunks of it were torn off to become barricades).

It is so hard to believe that something so beautiful still contains so much danger. Landmines in Bosnia are harder to find, and thus more expensive to remove, than in most other areas in the world. The thick forest, now dense with twenty years of undisturbed growth, obscures the explosives. And as in the business of mine removal, complications mean an increased chance of death, these mines will probably be here for a while yet.

Walking around the streets of Sarajevo, there are pockmarks in the pavement, sunshine-shaped indents left by falling shells and flying shrapnel. There isn't enough money in Bosnia right now to fix every damaged building, so the reminders are everywhere.

At the outskirts of the city is the Tunnel Museum, the preserved end of the tunnel into Sarajevo through which food, arms, electricity and soldiers crept for years for the salvation of the city. Here, there is a shell embedded into the cement less than two metres from the entrance.

How does a person survive such a destructive siege? When we asked Jasmin how he'd found the strength to climb the hill day after day, the answer was easy: he looked at his son. When your family, your home, and your life are threatened, sometimes there's no other answer.


October 15, 2011


On the journey from Istanbul to Croatia, we spent six nights in Bulgaria. Two in the capital city of Sofia, and four in Veliko Tarnovo, the former capital, perched among the mountains in the northwest.

Sofia still looks like a post-Communist city. Over-sized concrete buildings are easy to spot just outside the centre, and over-sized concrete monuments scattered through the city's vast parks proclaim everlasting friendship with Russia.

But, the centre of the city is a tangle of construction sites that will help modernize the city - overseen by the symbol of a revitalized capital, an enormous golden statue of ‘Sofia’ herself. The women who stride in stilettos over the uneven mess of a sidewalk are confident that they, and Sofia, are cultured and European.

We did a free walking tour to get to know the city - saw the historic Bulgarian Orthodox churches, the smattering of Roman ruins (more of which are surfacing as plans for a metro are carried out), the government buildings that date to the era between Ottoman rule and Communist. And then, best of all, we spent a few hours drinking beers in the park with our twenty-two year old tour guide, comparing the worlds in which we grew up.

It's basically a playground.
Our second day in Sofia we walked out to the Military Museum. The inside section is mostly uniforms from the war fought against the Ottomans for Bulgarian independence, poorly marked and dull. But outside, before you even pay to get in, you can roam a lawn cluttered with tanks and big guns and fighter planes, all rusting away quietly (some painted red so it's harder to tell) at this little out-of-the-way museum. Once you've paid your one Euro, the inside lawn contains everything from WW1 trucks to a missile launcher and advanced radar.


That evening we discovered one of Bulgaria's hidden charms: food. This is a very fertile country. The richness of its farmlands is evident in the plump, juicy tomatoes and the creamy deliciousness of the local yogurt and cheese. The markets are full to bursting with vibrantly coloured produce. That the land and the expertise of the farmers was wasted throughout the Communist era, and that the people in Sofia so often did without fresh food, is incomprehensible.

And, as Bulgarian produce is glorious and varied, so follow suit the restaurants. Their menus are books. There are pages of salads - they take their salads very seriously here, even though the diet is largely meat based. Pizza has been adopted and re-imagined (pickles is a very normal topping) and the traditional meat-and-potatoes style meals are amaaaaaazing.

I'm beginning to drool just writing about it all.

Leaving Sofia, we grabbed a three hour bus into the mountains to Veliko Tarnovo, a small student town perched on the edge of a gorge. We’d planned two nights and ended up staying for four, enjoying the people and the food and the stunning scenery.

One afternoon, after the heat had dissipated, we climbed up the closest ridge in the hopes of hiking to a nearby monastery, which, like many in the area in the mid-nineteenth century, was a haven for rebel soldiers fighting the Ottomans. But, as we reached the top of the ridge and started down the path, we heard gunshots. A shooting range was throwing clay pigeons down the path right in front of us... hike cancelled!

So instead, we sat on a bench at the top and looked over the gorge, cutting away dramatically beneath us, falling to the wide, rushing river that winds like a snake through the town, houses cascading down the three hills. Veliko Tarnovo is beautiful.

We spent a day shopping for warm-weather clothes and shoes (unsuccessfully) and then a day out with a hostel-organized day trip of the region. We saw another monastery (no shooting range this time!), a historically preserved town (think Fanshawe Pioneer or Upper Canada Village) full of traditional crafts, and we drove all over the rolling, forested mountains and the wide valleys, inhabited by tiny, insular villages and by small, impermanent gypsy camps.

Finally, we visited a Russian-built monument that served as a conference centre - a massive, concrete-domed bowl at the side of which was attached a thin, five-story tower, adorned with a huge red star.

These days, it’s called the UFO, because that’s what it looks like. It was abandoned after the Communist party fell and its lavish insides were plundered - marble flooring ripped up, the copper roof stripped, the spray-on red velvet ceilings torn out. It’s technically still locked, but armed with headlamps, we climbed through a window and explored its dark and dusty corners.

Upstairs, in the round conference room, all that remains of the former glory are the coloured-glass murals on the walls, depicting Party members and heroes, content workers and Socialist glory.

We went down to the basement, where mushrooms grow in the damp piles of rubble and someone has spray-painted creepy messages ('Zombies round here') - more thrill than history. No hidden creepers down there, I was watching.

The place has remained as it is, because it would seem that the government doesn't really know what to do with it. So it sits abandoned, red star broken but gleaming, sometimes visited by curious tourists but mostly by wild horses seeking shelter from the mountain winds.

I was entirely unprepared to leave the Veliko Tarnovo, for no good reason at all. I hadn't done enough laundry or researched our rapidly approaching weeks in Croatia, and I was still doddling along with my blog.

But really, I was reluctant to leave Veliko Tarnovo because it meant leaving Bulgaria, and this beautiful backwater with its fascinating past and its delicious food has stolen my heart.

We boarded a mid-morning bus to Sofia and wound our way up over the tall ridges, peering over secretive valleys that have hidden rebel soldiers and gypsies alike over the centuries. I'll miss this fertile land with its fantastic food and hidden-gem monuments and monasteries.

After a few hours in Sofia (just enough to trade our lev for dinar), we were on our way towards Serbia.

We'd decided to skip Belgrade and just cut straight across the south of Serbia from Sofia to Sarajevo, with a night's rest in the Serbian city of Nis. We were reluctant at first because there isn't much information on Serbia's bus system online, but with a conformation from our chosen hostel that a bus does run from Nis to Sarajevo (one at 6 am and one after 9 pm if you are googling this) we decided it would be easier than Belgrade.

Our only impressions of Serbia come from the uncomfortable buses, the funny and helpful owner of the Happy Hostel in Nis, and a massive dinner of rich, smokey meat and thick bread. So although I've heard many stories about the mistreatment of Americans (and Canadians) in Serbia - mostly in Belgrade - we experienced only kind hospitality.

The trip from Nis to Sarajevo was long - ten hours - but beautiful, all mountains and emerald rivers, endless gorgeous scenery.


Sun and Ruins - Fethiye and Pamukkale

We're flat out on the wide stones of Turkey's Oludeniz beach, on the Western Mediterranean shore. The sun beats down, still hot in the late afternoon. Above us, paragliders swirl in the thermals, spinning up and then float down to land up the beach behind us. The fishy-salt smell of the ocean blows over us, the waves, white-foamed in the brilliant azure water, smash again and again against the cove.

Eventually we overheat and speed-limp across the scalding stones to plunge into the ocean, just cool enough to refresh us, but so salty that I surface with teary eyes every time I put my head under water.

When we get out, I consider: should I reapply the waterproof SPF 50 sunscreen on my face when it's already four o'clock?

Yes. Yes I should. Ginger kids burn fast. And I'm not alone with my pale skin - this corner of the coast is practically one big British resort town.

That evening, on our way back to our hotel in Fethiye, we stopped at one of the many tour boats in the harbour to arrange a Twelve Islands tour. Fortunately for us, Ramadan meant a lull in domestic tourism, so an eight hour boat trip with swimming stops and provided lunch was running at twenty-five lira - thirteen bucks. Yes please!

So we spent a whole day lounging aboard the Princes Serap with about fifty other people - not bad on a boat with two levels and 150 person capacity. Drinks are expensive on-board, and outside drinks are forbidden (we were able to sneak some water on), but even with the drink tab, the day was cheap.
We swam in five little coves, some with other tour boats, some alone, and the Captain lent us his diving mask for free so that we could explore underwater.

The next day, we grabbed a dolmus from Fethiye to the Saklikkent Gorge, where we spent the afternoon wading along the polished, white canyon floor.

Dolmuses are driver-owner minibuses but the fares and routes are predetermined by the regional authorities. So a driver will linger as long as he can before leaving to get as many fares as he can, and then troll slowly along the route, honking at prospective customers because more people means more money.

So it takes a while to get anywhere.

Dolmuses are decorated with everything the drivers can think of: evil eye pendants and stickers, Turkish flags (Turks are a very patriotic bunch), photos and business cards taped to the windows. In one, we saw a shag dashboard cover. It was magnificent.

We moved north a few days later to the little town of Pamukkale, which sits at the foot of two impressive attractions.

Visible from across the wide valley are travertines, a shiny, white hill that to our Canadian eyes looked strangely like snow. Rather, the hill is a series of calcium terraces deposited by thermal springs. The mineral-rich water runs down the hillside, forming pools and painting a thick crust as it flows.
There's no shoes allowed for the hike up the hill, just bare feet on the little ridges and in the slimy calcium mud that builds up in the pools.

At the top of the hill is the partially preserved ruin of Hieropolis, built as a health resort when the Romans found the mineral springs. The steep theatre has been partially reconstructed, the necropolis is in impressive shape, and you can pay to use the baths near the white cliffs. We visited at sunset, when there aren't many people, so we wandered the site without the crowds, examining columns and fountains and tombs until the night-time call to prayer rolled over the hills and it was too dark to see properly.

But just one ancient city is never enough, so the next day we packed into a hired car and drove two hours into the dry hills to see Aphrodisias.

The Temple of Aphrodite, to whom the city is dedicated, stands partially reconstructed, and a few of the other major buildings have been excavated and somewhat restored - a hilltop theatre, the massive house of an evidently important man and the baths are in decent shape. The city gate stands tall and glorious in the middle of a field. But just to the north, the stadium reigns king of the ruins.

It's set into a hillside so that you approach from the top of the seating - you pass a line of trees and the enormous oval stretches suddenly before you. It could hold thousands and thousands of people and is in remarkably great shape. The rows of stone seats are warped and crunched, but some are still usable. The ground-level, where I can imagine chariots racing before a roaring crowd, has been excavated and re-established.

Best of all, because Aphrodisias is so far from any major towns, there were only a few small tour groups and a few independent travelers around. We sat alone in the carved seats of the two-thousand-year-old stadium, contemplating chariots, awed by the enormity of it.

We ran into difficulty leaving Pamukkale. Whereas earlier in the week, Ramadan had proved to be a cost-saver, now it was ruining our plans to head up the coast. Ramadan had given way to Beyram, the festival celebrating the end of the fasting. Which is when everyone in Turkey goes on holiday, and the buses are booked.

So we ended up heading right back to Istanbul, because the night bus wasn't full. We spent two days doing nothing but wandering the crowded streets and eating kebab, and then loaded onto another night bus, destined now for the Bulgarian border and the Balkans.


October 8, 2011

Cave Dwellings

Capadoccia is out of the way. It's in the centre of Turkey, hours from any other touristy destination - but it's incredibly popular as a window into an ancient lifestyle and a unique landscape.

We rolled into Göreme, the region's most popular town, on a Sunday morning, tired from a restless snooze on the night bus from Istanbul. We made our way through the little crowd of hotel owners offering lodging, and down a street full of restaurants and souvenir shops and ATV rental agencies to find our hotel.

Soft, white stone is the defining feature of the whole region. There are two major draws: the natural rock formations created by erosion, and the homes and churches that were carved out of the same stone by the Byzantine Greek population beginning in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

We were staying in a 'cave' hotel, which means that some of the rooms on offer have been carved out of soft volcanic rock to make a unique and atmospheric little room. It's a cute change of pace.

Göreme itself grew up around a collection of carved-out Byzantine churches that forms the Göreme Open Air Museum, which was our first stop while we waited to check into our cave room.

There are a number of individual churches and chapels as well as a monastery in the complex, all long-abandoned but well-preserved. They're each carved out of the cliff side and filled with artwork.

In some, the predominant art is primitive red ochre: lines and geometric shapes drawn in decorative patterns. But in others, there are full-colour frescoes of biblical stories and figures. The faces of the figures were largely smashed off in the following centuries, but in many of the churches, the colours are still clear and the designs are easy to interpret.

At the end of the string of churches is one nicknamed the 'Dark Church,' because no natural light enters the chamber, thus preserving the original, vivid colours of the frescoes, to incredible effect. From floor to ceiling and front to back, the church is covered in paintings, angular figures with black-outlined noses, wrapped in colourful robes set into a deep blue background. Here, too, many of the eyes have been gauged out, or the faces have been smashed off by rocks - some of the paintings are eerie in their facelessness, bright colour abruptly giving way to dull gray rock - but the room is beautiful and quiet.

That evening, we went for a short hike east from Göreme through the Rose Valley, a fertile little stretch of grape vines and dry shrubs and trees. On the way, we found many more abandoned cave houses, carved inside big conical formations and into ridges that swirl gently upwards like rosebuds.

At the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Turkey and Greece held a population exchange. The Capadoccia region was populated primarily by ethnic Greeks, some of whom were still living in the traditional carved-out homes, but few Turks came here to replace them. We wandered through a few of the homes - it's so hard to know if these were in use at the time of the population exchange, or of they'd already been abandoned for centuries. The empty, dusty shells defy all attempts to pinpoint a timeline. In places, we saw where the rock has given out and houses have collapsed, or half a room has tumbled two stories to the ground, exposing a perfect cross-section of this bizarre, ancient lifestyle.

We sat on a ridge above the Rose Valley and watched the sun sink over the horizon before making our way home along a ATV trail.

Th next day, we took an organized day trip - nice to get a full sampling of the region and let someone else do the planning, although being shuttled around in a convoy of mini-buses on identical tours is at most a once-in-a-while activity for me.

We admired the fairy chimney formations in Göreme from a viewpoint above the town, then drove an hour across Capadoccia to an underground city, carved out two thousand years ago and used for centuries in emergencies. When war struck the region, which was often given its position on the trade route to Asia, the entire population of each town would move into their respective underground labyrinths of tunnels for safety. They could stay for a year or more if necessary and subsequent generations tunneled deeper. This city was twelve floors deep: we squeezed down the long, short stairways to the eighth floor, deep in the cold earth.

We went on a short hike through a forested, shady canyon (so rare in this dry, dusty place!) and ate lunch at a riverside restaurant, then climbed through an ancient monastery carved into the side of a towering, rocky hill.

Our final day, we were booked into a night bus to the Mediterranean coast, so we decided to spend the day hiking to exhaust ourselves. We walked back through the Rose Valley, this time making our way past the grape vines to the adjacent Red Valley. By chance, Dan noticed an opening above us in the rock wall - through it, we could see St. John's cross carved into a ceiling. We found a dusty path hiding in the shrubs and scrambled up to find a church, certainly Byzantine and so certainly old, one room decorated with faded frescoes, all to ourselves.

We ate lunch in the cool inside of the church, examining the paintings and the carvings. Once, this place was covered in polished, gleaming white stone and in bright frescoes. Amazing.

We left the valley church and walked along the sweltering, shadeless highway to the Love Valley, famous for its tall, thin 'mushroom' formations... most of which look extremely phallic. (It is the Love Valley, after all.)

The rest of our hike took us through the aptly named White Valley and after a lot of backtracking, back to Göreme for a much-needed shower before loading onto the bus for the night.


October 1, 2011


The voice cuts through the oppressive late-summer heat, warbling out of the megaphones, insistent. In the fading light, it reaches through the tight, winding streets of Galata with their slinking, suspicious street cats, and floats over the houses and join the other voices from the other minarets, calling out to the people of Istanbul.

This is the call to prayer, and it's sung five times a day from the mosques - startling when you're standing directly below a minaret, but it's a nice reminder to slow down in a bustling, modern city.

We got to Istanbul mid-way through the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It's too big a city - and too big a tourist destination - to slow down much during the day, but the difference was evident every night when the local population spilled into the streets and the restaurants to socialize and break their fasts, and two-thirds of the stores were open until midnight.

But the tourist trade continued on uninhibited, so we were able to delve into Istanbul's goldmine of Byzantine and Ottoman-era landmarks with no problems at all.

In the overwhelming heat (we were sadly conditioned to Britain's cool weather) our first stop was the underground Basilica Cistern.

The Cistern - no bodies these days.
It was built in the sixth century as a massive city reservoir  70 metres by 140 metres and and 20 metres tall, walled with stone and thankfully cool. still propped up by its original carved-stone columns. It was forgotten somehow for a millennium, and rediscovered in the twentieth century. In the meantime it had been a receptacle for both garbage and pesky bodies.

Within a couple days, we'd payed a visit to the two biggest religious buildings in the city - first, the Blue Mosque and then the Aya Sofia cathedral.

The Blue Mosque, from the courtyard.

The Mosque was built in the sixteenth century. The domes rise gracefully, each reaching higher to the enormous central dome, surrounded by six slender minarets. Inside, hundreds of windows and stained glass flood the mosque with daylight, illuminating the blue wall tiles for which it was named. Underfoot is a thick, red carpet, on the walls hang gold-painted verses from the Koran. The whole structure is held up by four massive 'elephant foot' pillars.

The Aya Sofia is a thousand years older. Built in the sixth century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it was for centuries considered to be the greatest church in Christendom - not a small claim. After the fall of Constantinople, it was converted to a mosque, and after Turkey gained independence, it was turned into a museum.

Aya Sofia's interior, taken from the balcony

The interior of the church, essentially just one room, is the largest we'd seen in our travels - the dome arcs high over the spacious cathedral. In an impressive feat of Byzantine engineering, it is self-supported, so the sheer size has all the more impact in the absence of pillars.

The room is now a graying yellow, but in its prime, the expanse of the ceiling would have been covered in gold mosaic tiles, shimmering in the candlelight. Elaborate mosaics were created and altered right up until the building's conversion to Islam, when they were largely plastered over - biblical scenes and saints,as well as portraits of the rulers of Constantinople. Now, a selection have been recovered and partially restored.

We spent a hungover day on a Bosphorus tour - down by the piers, a horde of hopeful tour operators make their case for their boats - "Bossss-phorusbosphorusbosphrus two hours. Two hours. Good price. Sir? Hello, yes please!"

Down the straight are the upscale communities of Istanbul, Ottoman palaces and sleepy little fishing villages, all settled into the hilly sides and blue coves of the Bosphorus.

Our boat went all the way north to the mouth of the Black Sea, where we had lunch in a little tourist village before sailing back to Istanbul.

Our final day, we explored Topkapi Palace, the seat of Ottoman power for centuries. The palace buildings line the sides of four peaceful, lush courtyards, where the business of ruling an empire and family life existed in harmony.

At the end of the day, we said goodbye to the street cat family on the corner and hopped on our first night bus