A Travellerspoint blog

Chicago to Minneapolis

semi-overcast 23 °C

Day 9 of our three week group tour from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States. Already we'd seen and experienced enough to satisfy us. Even if we'd gone home this day, it would have been amazing. All the same, I didn't really want to leave Chicago. A day and a half is a mere glimpse into that great city. But we had a continent to cross and the bus was leaving either way, so we got on board and resolved to come back again.

Our first destination was Wisconsin Dells. I had no idea what these even were, other than we were going to ride an amphibious duck once we got there. If fact, I didn't really have any idea about this area of America at all. Happily though, the local wildlife had started to raise it's head to the delight of everyone on the bus. We kept our eyes peeled near the road side and further afield for any kind of animal that we wouldn't normally see at home. This is how I came to know the Pronghorn. Despite stories of them scaling fences (or not), I very quickly suspected they don't actually move at all. They just stand there, staring, with their pronghorns. They kept us entertained for just long enough for the prairie dogs to pop up and grab the mantle.

While we were traveling, our tour guide reminded us of the recent devastating and deadly tornadoes that had hit Oklahoma, and were given instructions on how to run and jump in the ditch if one headed in our direction as we scooted across the top of Tornado Ally. We all listened intently but thought it was pretty unlikely to be an issue for us. That self-assurance wasn't helped by looking out the window though.


Our duck ride was mildly entertaining. The scenery certainly wasn't breathtaking, but it was pleasant enough, and a fun change to riding the bus. Again, my daughter elected to sit this one out, not liking boats. Probably a good decision considering we were crashing in and out of water in between sailing along the dells and overlanding through the surrounding forest. The drivers are young fellows with a few set jokes which they still seem to make you laugh and groan, despite presumably repeating them several times a day. Of course, the highlight for me was that we saw deer, a bald eagle, and a woodpecker. A woodpecker!! That's the first one I've ever seen since watching Woody Woodpecker, and I loved him.


We arrived in Minneapolis in the early evening, our sum total of knowledge being that Prince was from here. Our hotel was pretty close to the town centre, so we walked in the couple of blocks to find dinner. Fairly quickly, we felt a different vibe to this place. It didn't have the same spark of Chicago or New York. We noticed the skywalks between buildings to eliminate the need to go outside in the freezing cold winters. In Nicollet Mall, we stopped to have dinner at the Newsroom, which was pretty cool, except that first tried to sit outside to eat. Our presence drew the attention of a few locals who started to hang around and we ended up moving inside, just feeling like people were staring at us. We just didn't really feel a good connection with the city. It wasn't a problem though, as were here to shop at America's biggest shopping mall, so we headed back to the hotel after dinner to get plenty of sleep to hit the ground running tomorrow.

Posted by Gotmybindle 16:57 Archived in USA Tagged usa minneapolis wisconsin cosmos_tours dells across_america Comments (0)

A Day in Chicago

semi-overcast 23 °C

After the excitement of our arrival, we woke up in Chicago ready to take on the town. We'd chosen not to do any of the optional excursions, which covered things like a boat-ride on the river and Sear's Tower. Instead we wanted to explore the city and it's shopping at our own pace. Which I might add, is usually pretty fast. It's very important to get a good breakfast, so we headed down the road to nearby Yokes. After coming to terms with the delicious looking options in the menu, we were amazed at the size of our plates. I ordered what I thought was a large breakfast anyway, only to find it came with a side order of pancakes that was larger than any breakfast main I'd ever seen at home. We shook our heads at the impact that this much food must be having on the health of the nation, then dug in and ate the lot, only just managing not to lick the plate. Bellies full, we made our way directly along Michigan Avenue from our hotel, into the heart of the city. One of the things that impressed me most about Chicago (and there were many) was the amount of city art on display and the fabulous public spaces. We were staying fairly close to this one, mainly funded by comedian and actor Robin Williams. Very haunting, even then.


In the hotel foyer in the morning, we'd seen a few of our fellow travelers, and word on the street was that there had been some ridiculous number of people shot at various incidents in the city over night. So, with that fresh on our minds, when we were in a shop and a heated argument broke out between the retailer and a man who wandered in off the street, our imaginations went into overdrive and our heart rates went sky high. We got out of there as quickly as we could, and were a little bit jumpy for a while. When we came into the vicinity of The Bean, I insisted on stopping there again, to my daughter's slight annoyance. But I couldn't miss the opportunity of seeing it again. It really is the coolest piece of public art you could ever hope to see. It's a reflection of the city and it's people, including a couple of wide-eyed tourists from the antipodes.


If that alone doesn't satisfy your craving for clever sculptures, there's plenty more that will. I also love this one, with two water fountains shooting out of the mouths of images of local people relaxing and smiling. It's hard to cover a lot of ground in Chicago when you keep stumbling upon sites like this.


Once we'd had our fix of art, we made our way to that other bastion of Chicago culture, the wonderful world of shopping that is the Magnificent Mile. Fore-armed with the knowledge that we were soon to visit the biggest shopping mall in America, we managed to be moderately restrained. I have a hankering to own a pair of Louboutin shoes but rarely see them in the flesh. So when we found a pair of black pumps in a mall, I had to try them on. I didn't have $1000 to spend on them, but we did manage to sneak a photo for Facebook and I came away knowing what it will feel like when I own a pair myself (not that comfy, actually). For lunch, we dined at the Corner Bakery Cafe, nicely perched on the riverside. I don't remember the food but I'll always remember the view of the skyscrapers towering over us. Next up, it was time to walk off lunch (and probably still some breakfast) with a stroll through more parks, past fabulous fountains and sculptures, and along Lake Michigan to the Navy Pier.


We hung out at the Pier for a while, laughing at all the weird and wonderful trinkets on sale in the tourist shops (and bought a few), before heading back to our hotel. Just as we were doing so, we saw a rather large helicopter flying in, accompanied by two other helicopters. I remarked how it must be someone important. Turned out, it was. President Obama had popped back into town, for an appearance at the Hilton, practically nextdoor to where we were staying. We'd left a quiet street in the morning, only to return to blocked off roads, sit-in street protests, police everywhere, and we saw the famous convey as the president's limousine pulled up outside the hotel. We never actually saw the man, but it was excitement enough for us anyway. It was certainly something unexpected! To finish the day off, we walked back around to the point where we'd learned was a great spot to watch the city lights come on at night. Sure enough, as the sun slowly faded, the city started to sparkle right before our eyes. We stayed, merrily snapping away on our cameras, until it was completely dark. Then, we scrambled back to our hotel sticking to paths well lit and filled with people, having had quite enough excitement for one day.


Posted by Gotmybindle 00:29 Archived in USA Tagged shopping chicago usa the_bean cosmos_tours Comments (0)

Dearborn to Chicago via Henry Ford Museum

23 °C

Although I was looking forward to seeing the exhibits in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, I had mixed feelings about the visit. On our long travel days, the tour guide would make the journey go faster by playing us topical videos for places on our itinerary. Before arriving at the museum, we'd watched one on Henry Ford. It confirmed what I already knew, that despite Mr Ford being a highly successful man, he wasn't nice to his employees. Times were tough if you worked in a Ford factory. It was long hours of hard work with not a lot of pay. Worse still was his mate Edison who, while staking his claim in history, tortured animals in the process. It pains me greatly that I often see quotes of inspiration from the latter. But I went in, anyway.

There's lots to see in this Museum. It's well worth a visit, or even a detour to make a visit. As you'd expect, there are enough vehicles to keep a motor enthusiast on a natural high for hours. Not only cars, but a snow-lough train, a diner car, a wiener-mobile, and all sorts of other mind blowing things. And that's just the beginning. The car that got my gold star was the one that JFK rode on that fateful day in Dallas. It's amazing to be able to so close to something so ingrained in our memories.


If you're not into cars, it won't matter a dime. Rightfully so, we had a few hours to take it all in, but still raced from one exhibit to another, amazed at we found on display. The theatre chair that Lincoln was shot in, a round house that never took off, and the coolest museum space ever that capture the decade of your youth. Mine was the 70s, and I have to tell you, I was mighty excited to see a Pet Rock. It was like walking into a memory warp. We could have stayed for along time longer, but it was time to get back on the road. What I loved most about this museum was the ability to become fully immersed in what you were seeing. Before we left, I got the shot I had hoped for, sitting in the very bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.


It was late in the afternoon by the time we reached Chicago. I'd been imagining Chicago to be one of the highlights of the tour. For no other reason than the very name of the city invokes all sorts of images of bad-boy history and high flying lifestyles. And then there's the skyline. Even though it was getting on in the day, true to form, our tour guide wasn't about to let a moment go by wasted. We drove around to the point where you can look back across the lake to the city, and we made a mental note to return there one evening to watch the sun go down and the buildings light up. After that it was the Sears Tower (you're not getting me up there), and a whistle-stop tour of many of the Windy City's outstanding public art displays. I learned about it's existence not very long before via the internet, but when I first saw The Bean, I don't think I was fully prepared for just how awesome it is.


Our final stop was the famous Navy Pier. We wondered around it for a while, taking the atmosphere in, and just generally enjoying the vibe of Chicago. It was nice to know we had a full free day coming up to explore the city. After we got back to the hotel, all that was left was to pop out for some dinner. While a stroll along the street to find somewhere to eat might be ordinary in many places, not so in Chicago. Just as we stepped outside a gigantic thunder and lightening storm took hold complete with torrential downpour, and we squealed and ran and jumped with ever flash of light and deafening boom of thunder, until we reached the safety of our restaurant. Welcome to Chicago.

Posted by Gotmybindle 22:33 Archived in USA Tagged chicago dearborn the_bean henry_ford cosmos_tours Comments (0)

Niagara Falls to Dearborn

23 °C

This morning's included excursion was the obligatory Maid of the Mist boat ride see view Niagara Falls. My daughter doesn't like boats at the best of times, so there was little chance of her joining us in a small boat heading towards thundering falls. The rest of us donned our plastic blue head-to-toe plastic bag raincoats and motored on. They really are a site to behold and while I was probably mesmorised by the share scale and volume of water, I had already been well impressed by Niagara Falls by this stage.


Back on shore, and remarkably dry, we had a bit of time to fill in, so I hung out in the park with squirrels again. This time they were black squirrels. Our tour guide was at pains to stress that we shouldn't approach them, and told stories of their aggression, but they still looked rather cute to me. Niagara Falls done, we piled back on the bus and started the short drive to Niagara on the Lake. It's a pleasant drive along the river with lots of greenery and lovely houses lining the road. Niagara on the Lake is a pretty town. With the weather definitely on the improve, we bought some food for a picnic in the park and watched the world go by.


There turned out to be plenty to see on this drive, including Toronto is the distance across Lake Ontario, signs that pointed to places made famous by the incomparable Eminem "8 Mile" and "Shady Lane", and then the sobering sight of entire neighbourhoods of Detroit's houses burned and abandoned. It's hard to believe that cities can rise and fall even our short lifetimes, but a drive past Detroit leaves it in no doubt.

That night, we stayed in Dearborn at the Pink Palace, a Best Western, I think. We had dinner in the pub with our fellow Kiwis. Although there was nowhere to visit in the area, it was actually really nice just to have a night in a hotel with a good bar where we could all relax. Which wasn't the case for one of our more intrepid tourmates. He called up a friend of a friend who took them into Detroit and ended up having some sort of drama with crashing cars and police, all gansta style. I was pleased just to have a good meal and a quite beer. I couldn't have too many beers though because the hotel was designed like a maze and all the hallways look the same. There was a moment there when I thought I might never make it out.

Posted by Gotmybindle 22:08 Archived in USA Tagged niagara_falls usa detroit dearborn cosmos Comments (0)

Washington to Niagara Falls


They call these tours 6-7-8s. Up at 6am, bags at the door at 7, and on the bus ready for departure by 8. Its remarkably easy to get used to, and the days are packed from start til finish. As we left Washington DC, heading north, we caught a glimpse of the Pentagon, but that was it. That's OK though, because now if I'm ever back again, there will be something new to see.

This was our first long drive of the tour. Long days of travel were broken up beautifully by our guide, either with strategic stops at places of interest or somewhere fun for lunch, or by showing documentaries and movies relevant to our next destination. Despite traveling right across the continent, the long bus rides weren't any sort of inconvenience at all.

Our drive today was through Pennsylvania with a stop in Williamsport for lunch. We all had a pretty good day and the journey was quite enjoyable. Traveling on buses is a great way to get to know people, especially in these tours when everyone is in holiday mode and out to have a good time. On big trips like this, it's often the trip of a lifetime, and always entertaining to have lots of different personalities all having fun together. Small groups and friendships quickly form. Despite the long drive, there was a definite air of expectation because everyone knew we were headed to the mighty Niagara Falls.

When you stand at the top of Niagara Falls and see how much water is going over there every second, it's quite unbelievable. We could see the falls from the bus while waiting to cross the bridge into Canada, but there's nothing like standing next to them to appreciate the size and immense power.

Freakish Niagara Falls

We stayed around the falls for a while, trying to get good photos without getting wet. It's a very picturesque spot and prime territory for a rainbow.

Beautiful Niagara Falls

We walked around the town, checking out the souvenirs and restaurants, before heading a few kilometres out of town to our hotel. Since our driver had used up his driving hours bringing us all the way from Washington, those of who wanted to see the falls at night needed to catch a local bus back into town. This was pretty easy to do and lots went back in. We saw the The falls lit up by different coloured lights and we stayed until after the fireworks display.


The lights were OK, but once you've seen these falls during the daytime, it would have to be pretty spectacular to overshadow that. Well, that was what I thought, until I saw a little face peeking around the fence at me. It was a cute little raccoon and we were so excited! If you've read about my visit to Vienna, you'll know I love animals. One of the main reasons for choosing this trip was because it goes to Yellowstone National Park and I wanted to see some of America's wildlife. At the top of that list, was chipmunk and raccoon. So we were very happy to see a raccoon so early in the trip. As it turns out, it was the only one we saw, and as it jumped off the fence on the side of the falls and scampered away, I dreaded to think of how close it was to the water.

Posted by Gotmybindle 19:51 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Washington DC Highlights


If there's one place to go in the USA to get your fill of history, it's Washington DC. It's bursting at the seams with monuments, cemeteries, memorials, and museums that all have something unique and memorable about them. And as if that wasn't enough, we just happened to be there for Memorial Weekend. Us, and 400,000 bikers rumbling into town on the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle pilgrimage.

Our first stop was Arlington Cemetery. Walking up the road from the car park, you start to understand just how big this place is, and just how many people are buried here. It's actually really shocking and leaves a sour taste in your mouth. How old were most of the young men buried here? The white headstone markers stretch on for so long, that in the end, there are too many to comprehend.

Arlington Cemetery at Memorial Weekend

Further up the track, past the countless graves, lie another few people, who no doubt draw hundreds of thousands here every year. Here lies JFK, his wife, and various brothers. Up above the grave, on a hill overlooking the cemetery, stands the house where JFK stood not long before his death, declaring it to be a place that he could stay forever.

The grave of JFK

After this sobering visit, it was time to see the memorials including the Lincoln Memorial, which we'd seen the night before. You might think seeing the same memorial twice within a few hours would be a little mundane. Not so Lincoln. He sits on his gigantic chair, staring ahead as though seeing into the future, but clearly preserving the past like its captured there in stone. Just climbing the steps gives you a feeling over being somewhere truly special.

Lincoln on his seat

Outside, in the bright sunlight, we chatted with some of the hardy souls who had ridden their motorcycles halfway across the country to be in Washington for the weekend. Most seemed to be veterans and you have to admire their sense of camaraderie, and their dedication to honour those who never made it home from the mess that is war.

Lincoln's view - all very Forrest Gump

Next up, the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials. What I loved about these memorials is that you can't possible feel nothing, or shrug your shoulders at just another monument. The thought that has gone into them is incredible, from needing to be big enough to fit all the names on the walls, to staring back at your own reflection in the Korean memorial, shadowed by the soldiers trudging along behind you.

Korean War Memorial

Iwo Jima

The last stop on our sightseeing tour was the White House, which was something I'd been really looking forward to. It didn't disappoint either. Both the famous building and the crowd gathered outside it, particularly the tent where a woman has been staying and protesting for years. She wasn't there when we were, having been hit by a vehicle recently (.....) but someone was protecting her things. We got the obligatory photo outside the Whitehouse and ticked that one off our list.

The White House

After our morning tour, we had the afternoon free at Washington Mall to discover the Smithsonian. It would take a week, I'm sure, to make your way around all of the museums on offer. We chose two, the Natural History Museum, and the Space Museum. We fought our way through the crowds at the Natural History Museum to see the Hope Diamond, but it was the Space Museum that really fueled my imagination. Wandering around amongst rockets and hubbles and space capsules and lunar landers, it was truly awesome. Just knowing that what we were seeing had been to space and back was very cool. I really wanted to touch one but I didn't like my chances of getting away with it. Still, even without touching, I was like a little kid, so excited. Put the Space Museum on your list of things to do if you're heading Washington DC way.

The Space Museum at the Smithsonian

When we finally got back to our hotel, by now much more educated than when left, there was still enough time in the day to head into Alexandria's King Street for dinner. Once again, we were struck by the sheer number of motorcycles lining the streets. After a very enjoyable dinner with our Kiwi tour mates, we walked back along the riverside to our hotel, blissfully exhausted.

Rolling Thunder Motorcycles in Alexandria

Posted by Gotmybindle 18:31 Archived in USA Tagged the memorial vietnam white house war lincoln washington dc korean Comments (0)

New York to Washington


Having spent just a couple of days in New York, I was already infatuated with the place, and disappointed to leave. Fortunately, this was tempered a little by the excitement of getting the long road-trip underway. We all gathered, like the good little group we were, in the foyer, ready to hit the highway. Then came news that our bus had broken down. Anyone would have been forgiven for seeing this as a bad omen, but we took it as a chance to have one more wander around the streets of New York, and by the time we got back our very capable and experienced tour guide had waved down a passing mechanic, slipped him some cash, our bus was fixed, and we were ready to go.

The tour proper started with our guide Mary laying down some of the ground rules, and assuring us that during her many years of tour guiding, there had never been a disaster. Just as she said that, a car pulled out in front of us, our driver slammed on the breaks, and our tour guide screamed. I face planted the seat in front of me and by now was suitably impressed that if it was an adventure I was after, I was damned well going to get one, private tour bus, or not. Before we left, my daughter and I had agreed that we would have turn about in the window seat. New day, swap seat. It worked really well, and day about we either had the window seat to sit back and gaze out at the great American landscape, or the aisle seat with a good view out the front window and a chance to chat with our fellow travelers seated across the aisle.

I actually got quite attached to that damn bus

Our first destination after New York was Philadelphia. The grand total of our knowledge of Philadelphia is summed up in the theme song from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. We arrived to a grey sky and bitterly cold weather. Most of our group headed straight for the excellent information centre once we'd braved the elements and trapsed around the lawns in front of Independence House. I, on the other hand, was determined to have at least a little look around. We trotted off down what appeared to be the main road and came across George Washington's original post office and other suitably historic buildings.

Independence House

The other must-do was to have a Philly cheese-steak. Yuck. It was disgusting. Granted, my choice of eatery was a shopping mall, complete with plastic plates, and there are most likely much more delicious ones to be found elsewhere, but I wasn't about to try a second one to find out. After that less than satisfying lunch, we joined the throngs in the Information Centre but not before sneaking a peek at the cracked Liberty Bell on display. The Information Centre has people dressed as they would have been all that time ago, and doing various chores of the day like tailoring.

Tinker, tailor

Despite the weather, I found the historic center of Philadelphia to be quite quaint and interesting. After just a couple of hours, we were back on the bus and bound for Washington DC. Our hotel was located in Alexandria, which gave us the opportunity to see some of the nice buildings in that area.

Alexandria - new houses with an old look

Once we'd had a rest and a general look around, we heading into Washington to have dinner at Tony Joe's and take a night tour to see some of the monuments lit up. This included the World War II monument, Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and a side trip to the Kennedy Centre where we also got to see the infamous Watergate Building.

Jefferson Memorial at night

The bust of JFK in the Kennedy Centre

The Watergate building in the background

By the time we got back to our hotel in Alexandria it was late, and we were starting to get a sense of just how much we would see on this trip. Already we'd seen and learned an incredible amount and looking back now, we really had no idea how much we would end up seeing.

Posted by Gotmybindle 17:19 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Discovering Iconic New York


Day 2 of our trip was officially Day 1 of our tour. After breakfast, we met our group in the lobby. It turned out we'd be spending the next three weeks traveling with about 25 Aussie couples (and a few Brits), ages ranging from 40s to 80s, and one Kiwi couple with a daughter about the same age as mine.

Our first outing together was a sightseeing trip to all the must-see places in New York. It was a good way to get around as much as we could in the limited amount of time we had. Our local tour guide was excellent, and told lots of interesting stories about the places we drove past, or hopped off the bus to admire a little closer. On our whirlwind tour, we visited the Rockafella Centre, 5th Avenue, saw the Today Show filming, The Empire State Building, Soho, Greenwich Village, the famous Law Courts, Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty (from a distance), Wall Street, and the Freedom Tour.

Empire State Building

Rockafella Centre

When we reached the Freedom Tower, we hopped off the bus because I wanted to see the World Trade Center Memorial Pools. Fortunately, we didn't need to queue, and after making our way through some airport-strength security checks, we found ourselves confronted with one of the most moving settings imaginable. Where there once stood two ridiculously tall office towers, there are now two deep pools, the bases of the buildings. Around each pool are the names of all those who died, grouped into fire ladder, flight, or company. Over the side of each pool, water flows in a continuous waterfall, drowning out the sounds of the city, leaving you in stunned silence with a jumble of calmness, anguish, and disbelief running through your veins.

World Trade Center Memorial Pool


We probably only spent 40 minutes there, in the shadow of the looming, new Freedom Tower, but it was long enough to appreciate the scale of what had happened and the legacy it left behind.

After lunch, in the sunshine, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. From the other side, we had a fabulous view of the famous skyline. We sat admiring that for some time before heading back across.

New York from the Brooklyn Bridge

Just as we left the bridge, the rain started. After a brief argument about whether we should catch the metro (I wanted to but lost, keep that in mind) we went in search of a world renowned yellow cab. After walking a block or so, the rain became a torrential downpour. Not just any old downpour, a flooding, television news making, several inches in an hour, type downpour. We huddled in a doorway, stuck on a ledge, a wall of water bucketing down in front of us. Every now and then a yellow cab would pass, already taken. After about an hour we started discussing our survival strategy, until were rescued when a doorman at a nearby hotel took pity on us and ran out into the deluge to flag down a cab. Safely in the car, we started the long, very slow, somewhat expensive drive back to 10th Avenue.

The only real dampener of getting caught in the rain was that we no longer had time to get back to 5th Avenue for shopping. Still, with that opportunity missed, I have a reason to return to New York. Like anyone ever needed a reason to return.

Posted by Gotmybindle 16:22 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Istanbul's Ancient History

semi-overcast 26 °C

I had quite a bit of the day free before my flight, so I checked out reasonably early, stored my luggage and jumped on a tram across the river to visit the Dolmabahce Palace. There was no queue when I arrived, but the full tour price was quite steep, so I opted just to see the Harem. I'm more interested in how people lived, rather than where they conducted state affairs, so it suited me to take the shorter tour.

Dolmabahce Palace

Guided tours are compulsory, and as this one lasted only 25 minutes, we were pretty much running from room to room. However, the decor was quite stunning, and it was interesting to see the Sultan's rooms and rooms of the royal women.

I must have arrived at the right time, as when I came out of the palace, the queue to get in was huge.


I decided to walk back to the other side of the river, rather than catch the tram, as I thought I had plenty of time. Walking across the bridge was risky business, behind all the fishermen who were flicking back their hooks and lines to cast them out into the river. I managed to avoid ending up as fish bait, and eventually made it to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. From what Lonely Planet said, it didn't sound like a must-see, but when I got there I found it was gigantic and there was so much to see. Unfortunately, I never got time to get around all of it, but there were certainly some interesting exhibits dating back to 3000 BC.


There were countless sarcophaguses, including the Alexander Sarchophagus, so named because it has a picture of Alexander the Great in battle on the side.


Alexander the Great and the Alexander Sarcophagus

Undies or togs?

I could have spent many more hours there, but had to get back to my hotel to get changed for the flight.

And so ends my adventure. It's been awesome, and I now know a lot more about how much I am capable of, and how people make the world go round. I wouldn't change a thing about where I went and what I did. Thanks for all the comments and encouragement, I've loved keeping this blog.

All that's left now is the long flight home. I intend to spend it planning my next adventure.

Posted by Gotmybindle 05:14 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul Comments (2)

Sightseeing in Istanbul

sunny 33 °C

Well, no one can accuse me of not making the most of my last full day of my adventure. As soon as I'd had breakfast, I was out the door and on the trail of two of Istanbul's most famous landmarks. My first stop was Aya Sofya where there was already a long queue waiting to get in. It's very near the Blue Mosque, but quite the opposite in that the Blue Mosque's beauty is on the outside, while Aya Sofya doesn't appear to be all that amazing from its exterior.


According to Lonely Planet, upon entering the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum (built in 567), people are often stunned into silence. I imagine that to be true, as it really is quite spectacular. As I've found in many beautiful buildings on this trip, its very hard to capture such grandeur on camera.


After walking around for a while, I made my way up the stone ramp to the upper level. The view to the ground floor was great, but I was most impressed with the graffiti left by the vikings in the 9th century. I knew that they plundered and pillaged, but graffiti too.....did they have no boundaries? It's graffiti in marble though, so they certainly were tough.


From Aya Sofya, I walked across the road to the Basilica Cistern, a former water reservoir under the city, built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532. It was forgotten about for centuries, then neglected for a few more, and now it's entrance is hidden away in a little nondescript building. However, once inside and beneath ground level, it's a world of its own. There's a wooden walkway through dozens of massive columns, dimly lit by red and orange lights. Water drips from the roof, and the remaining water in the reservoir is quite shallow, but home to some very hardy fish. Atmospheric music adds to the intrigue, and in one corner two of the columns sit on Madusa heads. The columns apparently come from the ruins of buildings, so they're all different, but all no doubt ancient.

Rows of columns supporting the roof of the cistern


Next, I bought a ticket for the hop-on hop-off bus. Out of the ones I've done on this trip, Istanbul's probably gives the least value for money. For a start, it doesn't seem to stop at most of the hop-on hop-off points. Maybe you're just supposed to jump when it slows down. And, given the nature of Istanbul's traffic, it's a bit like bumper-car racing, but I did manage to see a good deal of the city. The first trip I did crossed the Bopherus, and by the time I'd reached the other side, I was in Asia.

Asia from the bridge over Bospherus

Istanbul is such an amazing city, up close, and from a distance.


On the bus, I sat with a Kiwi woman who was with her husband and teenage son on their way to the Ukraine to look into a business opportunity. Once I'd done the full circuit on the bus, I walked around the old town for an hour or so. It's incredible how much there is to see here in such a small area, including the Hippodrome which includes the Obelisk of Theodosius, a granite monument, carved in Egypt in 1450 BC.


After I'd filled in an hour or so, I jumped on the buses other circuit which goes up around the golden horn. There were a few opportunities to get off and go up a cable car, or visit a the world's biggest miniature world (!), but I stayed on the bus until we reached the wharf and then hopped off to see if I could find a cruise up the Bospherus. Where they sold the bus tickets, they told me it was as much as 40 euro for a cruise. However, at the wharf, they were only a fraction of that price, and the cruise lasted almost 2 hours.

Waiting to set sail

I really enjoyed it, the boat was nice (apart from when a passenger accidently foot-tripped a waiter carrying a tray of drinks), the views were wonderful, and I even had a cup of tea Turkish-style i.e., in a little glass with sugar cubes, and no milk. I couldn't hear the commentary, so I just had to guess what things were (ancient mosque, wealthy person's house, etc).

Sailing up the Bospherus

Back on dry land, I poked my head into the Egyptian Bazaar which was more like what I imagined the Grand Bazaar should have been like. By now, everyone was starting to shut up shop, and I was getting hungry, so I caught the tram back to my hotel.

Since it was my last night of my trip, I treated myself to dinner in the hotel's rooftop restaurant. It was lovely with the silhouette of the Blue Mosque on one side and the sea sparkling all around with the lights of the hundreds of boats and ships.


And then, just to top off a perfect day, the sunset painted everything pink.


So I had my celebratory meal for making it to my last night of the journey in one piece, but it's not over yet. I have almost a full day available tomorrow before I need to be at the airport. And, even though I'm sad that its coming to an end, I have no doubt that Turkey awaits my return. This is definitely a country that I need to come back to.


Posted by Gotmybindle 12:43 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul bospherus aya_sofya Comments (3)

Istanbul Bizarre

sunny 33 °C

I want to dislike Istanbul. It has all the things that would normally make me hate a place. The traffic is bedlam, the streets are chaotic, and there is so much happening at once, that it takes twice as long as normal to get anywhere. I'm constantly shouted at to dine somewhere or buy something. Men spit on the streets, and skinny, bedraggled cats have replaced the stray dogs of Eastern Europe. Yet, I find myself really liking Istanbul. Its a cliche, but it makes me feel alive. Like I'm part of something big, a special guest at the world's grandest outdoor market. Granted, there are a few people here who could learn to accept "no", but generally, I find the men touting business to be good humoured, good natured, and genuinely interested in their next potential customer.

My day started with a short walk from my hotel to the iconic Blue Mosque. As I approached the door, a man approached me. "Where are you from?" he asked. When I told him New Zealand, he said "oh, Kia ora bro!". After some time of convincing him I didn't need a carpet, I managed to escape and enter the Blue Mosque (complete with shawl over shoulders and shoes in a bag). It was certainly impressive, but I confess to liking the outside more than then inside.


Next, I intended to see the other magnificent mosque nearby, Aya Sofia, but somehow found myself on the doorstep of Topkapi Palace, so checked that out first. As it turns out Aya Sofia was closed today, giving me plenty of time to wander around the palace. I armed myself with an audio guide and off I went. The palace itself, isn't anything amazing, but the treasures and relics on display are fabulous. Although each room was very crowded and I had to move along fairly quickly, I won't forget the scores of emeralds, rubies, and diamonds in a hurry. There were swords and thrones and various other things all decorated with the sparking gems and gold. However, my favourite display was definitely the relics where I got to see the stick Moses used to part the sea, bits of skulls and bones belonging to the prophets, and beard hairs from Mohammed himself. Fascinating!

By now I was swept up in the excitement of it all, so bought the extra ticket to enter the harem. Only a small section is open to the public, including the "queen mothers" living area, the eunuchs courtyard, the concubines courtyard, the golden mile (an area so named because the Sultan used to scatter golden coins as he walked through it), and the sultan's living area.

Inside Topkapi Harem

It was definitely interesting, and later I found an exhibition of the harem which explained a lot about the life of the girls, women, family members, eunuchs, and sultans that lived there. And obviously, when you have 112 kids, you need a big bed.


From the balconies of the palace courtyards, I also got my first chance to see where Europe meets Asia. One view, two continents.


After a full morning of sightseeing, I found a traditional Turkish restaurant where I could lie back on big cushions and enjoy some lunch. Then I decided to brave the Grand Bazaar. It was actually far less crowded and crazy than I expected. Of course, people kept firing questions at me, trying to get me into a conversation, and thus induce me to part with my money. One man got off to a bad start when he bellowed out that he had good discounts for Australians. Lucky them.

At one stage, I entered a stall where the Turkish owner had popped out for some more tea. When he came back, I was behind his counter. "Can I help you with anything?" I asked him. "Where are you from?" to which replied quick as a wink, "China". So I said "Ni hao", which induced him to kiss my hand and tell me how lovely I was, so I had to run away. Quickly.

Further on, a young guy said "this is my friend (insert Turkish name). What's your name?". I just kept walking, determined not to get dragged into a conversation. "Is it Helena?" he called out. I shook my head and kept walking, feeling quite smug that he'd never guess. "Juanita?" he yelled out. They're bloody good, I'll give them that much. I soon got used to people calling out "hello Kiwi". But I managed to get out after a few hours without buying anything. A lot of it is jewelry and I wouldn't know about the quality or the price of it. Plus, I have a couple of days to go back yet.

Tonight I went for a swim in the hotel pool, and then lay out on a rooftop terrace deck chair, admiring Istanbul's amazing skyline and listening to the sound of prayers ringing out from the mosques.


Posted by Gotmybindle 12:31 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul gran_bazaar Comments (5)

Bulgaria to Turkey

sunny 27 °C

I made it to Istanbul, the last stop on my journey. It's feels like a big achievement, especially since it was quite an effort today to get here. The day started out with breakfast downstairs in my hotel, in their alfresco restaurant. I guess since the whole area shuts down over winter, they only need an outdoor restaurant.


I wish we had enough warm weather outside of winter to do this at home. It makes such a difference to the culture here, everyone sitting around in the evenings, eating and socialising. It's worth mentioning too, that this was my first hotel with a soft bed!

After I checked out, I headed down the road to the bus stop, to catch the local bus to Burgas city to get my connection to Istanbul. A guy from France whose mum is from Bulgaria was on the same bus, so we chatted for the hour long journey. He was off to see the ancient treasure on display in Burgas, which sounds like something I would have liked to see. However, I only had an hour before my bus arrived. It was a lovely luxury coach, and I soon settled back in my reclining seat to enjoy the "6 hour" ride to Turkey's capital. Then I got hit by the tired stick, and couldn't keep my eyes open. I kept nodding off, but the roads were so bad that I was jolted awake every few minutes. It wasn't my most pleasant journey so far. After a couple of hours, we reached the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. As I suspected might happen, as soon as we were in Turkey, the roads were smooth and fast. Unlike crossing the border, which was quite an experience.

First we had to hand over our passports to the bus hostess, who took them off to show someone. Then the customs person got on and looked at each of us against the photo in the passport. Then we got our passports back with a stamp in them for exiting Bulgaria. Next, we all got off the bus and took our passports to an office where we were given a stamp to enter Turkey. After this, we had to collect our luggage from the bus and take it through a checkpoint. Once we and our luggage were back on the bus, we had one more stop, where customs got on again and checked the entry stamps in our passports. All of this took about an hour, and then we were back on the road again and heading for Istanbul.

Heading into Turkey from Bulgaria

If Romania was green, and Bulgaria mountainous, then the little corner of Turkey I saw today stuck me as being golden. As well as the continuing fields of sunflowers, there were acres of fields of barley or wheat, all golden and waving in the wind. I was also surprised by how many mosques there are, with the minarets towering across the skylines of every place we drove thorugh.


When we reached the outskirts of Istanbul, I got to see my second sea of the day. Having left the Black Sea in the morning, by early evening, I caught my first glimpse of the Sea of Marmara.


Although it was true that we reached Istanbul in 6 hours, it took another good hour and a half to navigate through the city traffic and reach the bus station. The sun was setting now, and I was faced with having to break my golden rule of never arriving anywhere new at night time. However, there was still enough light left in the day for me to find the metro station and then transfer to a tram which took me to a stop very close to my hotel. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to make it to my hotel, and get rid of the huge bulls-eye on my back - my backpack.

My room came with a complimentary arrival cocktail in the bar, so I headed down there to enjoy that, and watch England play Italy in the quarter final of Euro 2012. The temperature dipped to 25 degrees here tonight, that's the coolest temperature I have experienced in weeks, night or day.

Posted by Gotmybindle 14:30 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul burgas Comments (3)

A Holiday on the Black Sea Coast

sunny 31 °C

It's so pretty here in the evening. It's pretty during the day too, but in the evening, in this calm warm weather, it's particularly beautiful.


I love waking up in the morning and pulling back the curtain to see the sparking blue water right outside my window. The Black Sea is anything but black here. With all my sightseeing around Nesebar done, I decided not to make the trip to Sozopol further down the coast for more sightseeing, but just to relax here instead. So, after breakfast, I jumped on the local bus for the short ride around to Sunny Beach. I had seen a few signs yesterday outside bars advertising the All Blacks game against Ireland, so I thought that would be fun way to start the day.

It was quite special listening to the national anthem and watching the haka, from a beachside bar on the Black Sea Coast in Bulgaria. I even had a morning beer to celebrate. There were a couple of Irish people watching too, and when the All Blacks started to romp away with the game, one of them commented that it was no surprise as rugby is all there is in New Zealand. At that point, I had to interject. There's not only rugby. We have sheep, and hobbits too.

When the game was over, I had some lunch to counter the morning beer, and then made my way to a hotel swimming pool I had seen yesterday that's open to the public. It was 5 leva for a deck chair and use of the pool for the day, so I picked a chair beside the main pool and settled back for a relaxing day. After about 5 minutes of relaxing, I had a swim. The water was so warm.


I've seen quite a few men mixing their undies with their togs. I want to tell them if they can't see the beach, they're in their undies, but they may not draw that line here. I suspect I come from a much more conservative society, but I have seen a few things that surprise me. Not least of all today, when there was a young girl about 9 or 10, in a G-string bikini. I wanted to cover her up with my towel. And the poses they make for photos - even little 5 year olds with one hand behind their head, pulling their skirt up with the other. It's probably not even considered provocative here, but it's not something I am used to seeing and I have to keep a poker face at times.

After a few hours in and beside the pool, I ordered a spearmint mocktail, but since it was happy hour I had to have two. I notice that happy hour at the bars in Sunny Beach go from 9am til Midnight (or longer), so it really is a cheerful place.

Before I started to shrivel up like a raisin in the water and sun, I caught the bus back to Nesebar. I had some research to do on line to make sure I know where I am going tomorrow and how to get there, and then went for a final stroll around the peninsula.


The Black Sea Coast is another place I'd heard not to bother visiting. And again, I've loved it. Yes, it's commercial and everything's aimed at the crowds of tourists, but if I hadn't come here, I would never have known about this other side of Bulgaria. I would have left thinking that Bulgaria is all mountains, old cities, and villages. Now I know there is a little harbour in Nesebar, that sparkles all day in the sun, and all night with the bright lights from the resorts along the coast.


Posted by Gotmybindle 11:02 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria nesebar black_sea_coast sunny_beach Comments (1)

Sunny Beach, Bulgaria

sunny 33 °C

I have definitely gone from traveling mode to holiday mode. Mind you, it's pretty hard not to slow down in a place like this. I had to drag myself away from my balcony view to go out for dinner last night.


Earlier in the day, I'd seen a restaurant on the other side of the peninsula with a terrace over the sea, so I headed over there. It was lovely, watching the waves roll in, and imagining what it must have been like here when it was a Greek trading port.


The meal was not bad, but I got majorly ripped off with how they charged me. In fact, the waiter was so embarrassed he said I didn't have to tip him, and gave me a discount. That's when you know you've been had. As I made my way home, I was muttering and cursing about how much the day had cost me in lost items and over-charged meals, when I literally stumbled over a free show in the ruins of an ancient church. It was mainly groups of young people, performing traditional Bulgarian songs and dances, but there were some adults as well, and a few modern songs. It was brilliant to see such a variety of songs and dances, and all the fabulous costumes. I sat there late into the night watching the show, and when I thought about how much I would have paid to see that, I guess everything evens out in the end.


This morning, I made the most of not having to get up early and be anywhere. When I did get organised, I packed my little day pack, and set off to walk to the other side of the bay from Nesebar. Half way around is Sunny Beach. It's the package tour destination for sun loving Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and Brits. I didn't hear a lot of English, so I don't think the Brits have arrived for the season yet. Still, the beaches were packed all the way around.


Mostly, there are umbrellas set up by hotels that tourists pay to lie under. Having a deck chair doubles the price. However, there are some areas called "free" where you can set up your own umbrella. Generally, the dress code seems to be as little as possible. The more body you have, the less you wear. A few areas are total nudity, and I have some impressions burned on my brain that will take a long time to get rid of. I became quite good at pretending not to notice, as I walked through scores of naked people. Naked old people, to be honest. My advice is, when you're walking along a nude beach, don't look up towards the deck chairs.

Every now and then, there'd be a middle aged bloke, standing there in all his glory, blocking my path. But I pressed on, and after two hours of walking along the beach at a steady pace, I reached the other side. I think the best way to describe Sunny Beach is a cross between Bali and Surfers Paradise on steroids.


On the way back, I walked along the back of the hotels to see what the town is like. Basically, it's full of restaurants, English pubs, souvenir shops, pumping nightclubs, touts, sex shops, and families. It was fun to see, and I caught the bus back later on for dinner, but I'm happy to be staying in picturesque, quiet little Nesebar. Well, quiet except for the busking Bulgarian bagpiper, and men on loudspeakers trying to entice people into their water taxis. But it's definitely picturesque.


Posted by Gotmybindle 10:17 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria nesebar black_sea_coast sunny_beach Comments (0)

The Ups and Downs Enroute to the Black Sea Coast

sunny 30 °C

It wasn't my best day, but I think I've landed in heaven. I left Plovdiv early this morning by bus, and for almost the entire 5 hour journey, we traveled through massive fields of sunflowers. Some were in full bloom, while others are not too far away. There must have been millions of them, which I kept trying to photograph, while everyone else on the bus seemed oblivious. I guess it's a familiar sight here. Who knew Bulgaria grew so many sunflowers?


Not long after the bus pulled away from the station, I realised I had lost my handy fold-away water bottle that I have carried with me throughout the journey. I can get another one, so it's not the end of the world, but I did mourn its loss for a while, until the sunflowers cheered me up. My first destination was Burgas, from where I needed to get a connection to Nesebar. Initially, everything went well. The bus was modern, the music was Bulgarian (as opposed to the usual Celine Dion), and we stopped somewhere long enough to get lunch. When we got to Burgas, I thought we'd go to the bus station, but after stopping at a couple of road side stops then continuing on, the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes, looked around, shouted "Burgas" and promptly dumped me, my bindle, and another guy on a grass verge of a busy road. Thank god, the guy dumped with me goes to uni in Scotland and spoke good English. Otherwise, I would have been completely screwed. We walked to a bus station nearby, at which time I realised I had lost my hoodie that I have faithfully tied around my waist every day. It must have fallen off in the scramble to get off and get my backpack. I later tried to retrace my steps, but it was gone. Some lucky Bulgarian has a brand new Katmandu hoodie. But haha them, I hadn't washed it yet, and I've been very sweaty.

The guy with me started to tease me that I had started out with 3 bags, and only managed to keep hold of one. It didn't help when I went to get on another bus with him in Burgas and dropped 10 leva on the ground. I tried to tell him that I have been all over Romania and Bulgaria without any problems, but he looked rather doubtful. So, once we worked out where we were, we took a local bus to another bus station and from there he caught a bus to the airport, and I boarded one bound for Nesebar. Before we said goodbye, he went with me to buy my ticket to Istanbul, so he was a really nice guy to go to so much trouble for me.

When I finally arrived in Nesebar, I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of the place. I'm staying in the old town, which is out on a rocky island in the Black Sea, connected to the mainland by a modern causeway. It is drop-dead gorgeous, no doubt helped by the stunning weather. The bus station in Burgas said 42 degrees, but it's probably more like 32. I checked into my hotel, and then had to drag myself away from my little balcony overlooking the harbour.


Nesebar is filled with four things - the ruins of ancient churches:


souvenir shops and Eastern European tourists


and restaurants so pleasantly situated that you just want to dine at each of them.


Once I'd calmed down about my balcony view, I went for a little walk around the old town. It's so picturesque that I started getting all creative with my camera.


Everywhere I looked was another beautiful seaview shot.


When I knelt down to take a photo of a seagull, I realised I had become totally intoxicated by the place. I have seagulls at home that I never photograph. Having explored the old town, I walked across the causeway to the new town, which gave me a good view back to where I will be staying for the next few days.

Nesebar Old Town

I think I've reached the end of the line. If anyone at home or at work needs me, they will have to come over and drag me back. For now, "waiter, one more litre of beer" (for $1.80).


Posted by Gotmybindle 07:59 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria nesebar black_sea_coast Comments (2)

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