Archive for the ‘Destinations’ Category

View from the "Star Flyer" at Oktoberfest

A week before arriving in Munich, we were on a train to Budapest with four guys traveling together from Ireland. We got to talking about our next destinations, and we found out that, like us, they were making their way towards Munich. They told us that they couldn’t wait to get there, because Oktoberfest was going to be so much fun. We cocked our heads at each other. Oktoberfest? But wasn’t it still September? Yep, they said, Oktoberfest starts in September. In fact, it was starting only two nights before we were set to arrive. Wow! The legendary festival of beer had set itself squarely in our path. What great news! We’d had no idea that our visit to Munich would coincide with Oktoberfest. Happy days!


Please pass the salt

sunny salzburg

After dousing ourselves in Viennese culture we took a wee jaunt over to Salzburg for another look at Austria. Upon arriving, I quickly discovered that Salzburg was home to the Von Trappe family. Sound of Music tours have become very popular, where you visit various filming locations. Mark was really excited about the tour. But with only a day in town I felt like doing something else. We agreed to go our own ways for the day. Mark was free to galavant on the Sound of Music tour, while I explored Salzburg solo.


Culture in Austria

State Opera House

With two nights in Budapest behind us, we crossed into Austria by train and arrived in Vienna. We only had one night to spend there, so we decided to dive right into Vienna’s cultural side. We made our way downtown to the Straatsoper (State Opera House) and bought tickets to that evening’s performance of “Onegin”, a ballet with music written by Tchaikovsky. We were pleasantly surprised that we could attend the show without breaking the bank: an hour before the doors opened, “standing room” tickets went on sale on a first come, first served basis. We bought tickets in the ground level standing area, which was meant to be the best one, and it cost us a whopping 4 euros each. Not bad to see an opera in a setting like that!


Hungary like a wolfe

It's raining in Budapest

Part of our new laissez-faire outlook on travel includes not booking accommodation in advance. When we arrived in Budapest our first goal was to find somewhere to stay. The city is divided by the Danube river into two main areas, Buda and Pest. We decided to try and stay in Pest but this was slightly easier said than done. We’d forgotten what it was like to wander unknown cities with large and heavy backpacks on. We’d also lost all concept of time and days of the week and didn’t realize it was the weekend. Hostels get busy during the weekend and in September, the kids have not yet gone back to school. After walking for what felt like ages and being turned away by a couple hostels with no vacancy we eventually found a great place to sleep and drop our bags. I started to remember why we actually planned ahead when we were in Europe this time last year. It’s less stress when you have a destination where you can settle and orient yourself.



many trains stations along the homestretch

We are on the homestretch now. Our path is very quickly taking us back to Canada for our due date of October 9th. This is no small task as there are still thousands of kilometres to cover overland. It’s a beeline with a few stops en-route to keep us sane, or make us go crazy — we’re not sure which yet.

Our next destination after Istanbul was Budapest. To get to Budapest we had to take a train. We had two options: via Bucharest or via Belgrade. Both were 32 hour journeys with a transfer and two nights sleeping on trains. Initially we had wanted to go via Bucharest and spend a day there, but we decided to change our plans and skip Bucharest so we could spend an extra day in Budapest. In the end we chose the route that went via Belgrade for the simple fact that it was cheaper. We stocked up on snacks and drinks and prepared ourselves for what was to be our longest train journey yet.


A tale of two buildings

Istanbul's Blue Mosque

The overnight bus to Istanbul was long and uncomfortable, but as we pulled into the multi-level bus station — where there were at least four hundred million other buses, I swear — and the sun climbed into the sky, we peered from under our sleepy eyelids into the sprawling city around us with excitement. Istanbul’s reputation as a magical city where east meets west preceded it, and as we made our way through the streets to our hostel, we truly felt as though we’d arrived back in Europe. Many of Meg’s reflections on Turkey in this post hold especially true in Istanbul, so I won’t dwell on them too much here. Rather, I want to write specifically about two famous buildings in Istanbul that were the highlights of our visit: the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sophia.


Strange landscapes in Cappadocia

The fairytale landscape of Cappadocia

We left Aleppo at 5:00 a.m. to begin our marathon trip to the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Three buses, one border, and 14.5 hours later, we arrived in the town of Gor√∂me just as the sun sank below the horizon. We were truly feeling the time crunch now — with only 16 days left to go before our ship sails for home from Southampton in the UK, we’d decided to visit Cappadocia instead of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. I guess we’ll save that for next time! The Cappadocia region was just too much of a draw for us. The pictures looked otherworldly, and it sounded more than anything like a very relaxing destination. Cappadocia is famous for it’s rock-tower landscape, which really has to be seen to be believed. Hundreds of spires of stone stand defiantly against the sky in every direction, and many of them are carved out with old cave dwellings or rock churches. We checked and re-checked our schedule, and decided we could afford two nights in Gor√∂me. We checked into Flintstone’s Hostel, which (like many of the hotels and hostels in the town) had several of it’s rooms built into caves. Our cosy cave had a window, which was nice, but more importantly it had a large, comfortable, clean bed. We collapsed into it and didn’t move again until morning.



President in mosaics

Aleppo is Syria’s second centre, and like Damascus it also claims to be world’s oldest continually-inhabited city. With the city’s modernization and congested street traffic, it’s kind of hard to believe. But the signs are there. Although nothing much to look at from the outside, the hostel we stayed at must have been over 300 years old — and it was located in the new town! A short walk away was the ancient citadel (12th century AD) and the Great Mosque (Al-Jamaa Zacharia) from the 7th century AD. Most other traces that date back a few more thousand years are now long gone. To me, Damascus felt more ancient, with ancient Roman ruins scattered throughout the city. But that’s just my opinion — I’ll leave the experts to argue over which claim is more correct.


Roman Ruins in Syria


With the yellow van laid up in Homs for servicing, the three of us took a bus to Palmyra to visit the ruins there while waiting for news from the garage. Luckily for us, Homs happens to be kind of a central hub in Syria, and our plans to visit Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra would have taken us through there anyways. It was even on the way back and up to Aleppo. Besides, if you have to wait anyways, what better way to kill some time than by visiting a famous, enormous, and ancient collection of Roman ruins?


Krak des Chevaliers

Krak des Chevaliers

While in Jordan, we visited the ruins of two old Crusader Castles: Shobak Castle and Karak Castle. While both were fascinating in their own right, they were only appetizers before the main course in Syria: Krak des Chevaliers. This is the best preserved Crusader military castle in the world, and it dates back to just after 1000 AD. Crouching agressively on the top of a 650 metre hill in western Syria, it commands a stunning panoramic view of the countryside in all directions. The location is at the only historical crossroads between Antakya in Turkey and Beirut in Lebanon, and was a position of strategic importance during the Crusades. We only had time to make a stopover at the castle on our way to Palmyra, but it was worth the detour.


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