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Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

We bet you’ve seen Indiana Jones or maybe Tomb Raider if you are from a younger generation.  What is it about exploring ancient ruins that captivates the mind and conjures up a deep sense of adventure?  Some of the world’s most well know ruins can be seen at Angkor Wat. It is the single most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia, but for many travelers the question remains, what’s up with Angkor Wat? Last week we visited this mystical city, and through our pictures and story hope to share its wonder.  (NOTE: there are many photos in this post, therefore it may take some time to load!)

Our favorite view of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng, the famous hill from which sunset and sunrise are watched by tourists each day.

While this temple complex bears the name of its most famous structure, Angkor Wat, it actually contains over 1,000 temple ruins which were the center of the Khmer Empire. It is an awesome place (truly “awe” inspiring, as the word was intended) that all travel lovers should add to their bucket list.

Tickets are required for entry into the Angkor Archaeological Park: 1-day, 3-day or 1-week passes are available. We opted for three days and made it to over 20 of the ruin sites. This amount of time was perfect for us, but if you fancy yourself an amateur archeologist, you may want to go with the 1-week pass.

Day 1

We started our first day early and full of energy and excitement to see Angkor Wat. We had been looking forward to visiting for many years. We found a tuk-tuk to drive us 6km north from Siem Reap to the entry point of the Angkor complex. Despite fellow travelers advising us to hire the tuk-tuk for the entire day, we decided to do things our own way (sound familiar?) and walk between the temples. Our first stop was the granddaddy of them all: Angkor Wat. From there, we set off on a trek through jungle roads and crumbling monuments. When the day was done, we had visited Angkor Wat, Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo and Bayon.

Ta Prohm is commonly referred to as “The Tree Temple” because of the numerous roots that have grown into and around the ancient ruins.

Bayon, the main temple within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom

Bayon is filled with massive stone faces, one of which can be seen in the background here.

Day 2

After a very hot, sweaty and exercise-filled day, we came to our senses and opted to hire a tuk-tuk driver for our second day. It ended up being a great decision. We were able to cover more ground and see some of the further out temples that simply would not be walkable (unless you’re a crazed exercise fanatic that gets off on speed walking marathons).  Our first stop was Phnom Bakheng, a pyramidal temple atop a hill from which you can take in an aerial view of Angkor Wat (as pictured in the very first photo of this post). After viewing Angkor Wat from above, we visited Baphuon, the Royal Palace, Preah Khan, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup.

These detailed faces carved out of stone stretched on for hundreds of feet just outside of the Royal Palace within Angkor Thom.

Preah Khan was one of the largest temples we visited in terms of area and also the least restored. The sheer amount of stone used to construct this building blew our minds.

By the time we reached East Mebon in the late afternoon, we were glad that we had hired a tuk-tuk. We likely would not have made it this far without a vehicle.

Day 3

After two days at the Angkor complex, we took a day off to relax and rest our sore mussels.  At only $5 USD per hour, a massage seemed like a pretty good way to spend the afternoon.  We had no idea what we were in for…we endured one of the roughest and painful, yet most effective massages we have ever experienced. Definitely one of those “hurts so good” moments.  We had planned on returning to the ruins the next day, but Amy awoke to a bout of food poisoning (and all that entails) so we took another day off.

The next day her situation had improved. We hired a tuk-tuk once again and this time set our sights on the temples located even further away from Siem Reap.  As would be expected, the more remote the temple the fewer the tourists. It was nice to escape the crowds as we enjoyed more of these magnificent ruins, including Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei.

Banteay Srei is one of the furthest out temples from the heart of the Angkor complex. It has the most detailed stone carvings of any of the temples we visited, making it well worth the long journey.

While visiting Banteay Samre, we came across a Buddhist Monk preforming a rain prayer over local villagers. Although many of these temples are ancient, some are still used for religious ceremonies.

Beautiful Sanskrit carvings lined the door frames of Preah Ko

The main tower of Bakong was built to represent the mythical Mount Meru, also symbolized by the central structure of Angkor Wat.

Too often during our travels we visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites that have been spoiled rather than preserved by being added to this list; many of the sites feel more like Disneyland than places of great historic and cultural relevance.  This was not the case with Angkor Wat.  Despite the millions of visitors annually, the temple complex retains a great deal of authenticity and truly deserves its reputation as a world wonder.  To put it plainly, no matter who you are, Angkor Wat will not disappoint.

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After nearly a month of traveling Vietnam from north to south, we were eager to depart Saigon and make the journey across the border into Cambodia. Land crossings in this area of the world are notorious for being unorganized and prone to inflated fees, and our crossing fit the bill exactly. We managed to pay less than others on our bus, but were still forced to fork over an “express visa fee” that went straight into immigration officials’ pockets. Gotta love land borders!

After forking over some extra cash, we had  Cambodian visas in our passports

Once across the border, however, all the tension faded away. Cambodia is home to large, flat expanses of sparsely populated countryside, which can really make you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. Even as we approached the capital city of Phnom Penh, it became clear that Cambodians take life a little bit slower than their Vietnamese neighbors. Buddhist monks stroll through the streets, the sound of car horns is much less prevalent and the locals seem to have smiles permanently glued to their faces.

A monk catching a ride down a Phnom Penh street

For many travelers, Phnom Penh is merely a stop-over on the way to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. For us, spending a few days in the capital allowed us to learn more about the country’s unstable and tragic political history in the last century. We decided to make an early start one morning and set off for an all-day power tour of the city. Our first stop was the Royal Palace.  There are no official bus routes in Phnom Penh; we hopped aboard a tuk-tuk to get there. These motor carriages serve as the city’s public transit system.

Cruising in a tuk-tuk

We took our time exploring the Royal Palace and admiring the colorful layered roofs and traditional Khmer architecture. The well-manicured grounds and stunning buildings offer a glimpse back into the early 20th century, before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Throne Hall in the Royal Palace

Courtyard of the Silver Pagoda

Following the palace we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back along the river to see where the city of Phnom Penh gets its name. The city existed for centuries before becoming the capital and the story goes that an old lady named Penh found four Buddha statues floating on a log during a massive flood. She had a temple built upon the tallest hill in the area to house the Buddhas. “Phnom” means hill in Khmer, and since the temple was constructed under the orders of Penh, the city became known as Phnom Penh, or Penh’s hill.

Wat Phnom

After a brief stop at the Central Market, we hoped on a tuk-tuk toward Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Formerly S-21 prison, and a primary school before that, the Khmer Rouge used this complex to detain, torture and execute Cambodians during their horrific reign in the 1970s.

One of the four buildings that make up S-21 Prison, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Sadly, one of Phnom Penh’s major tourist draws is an area outside the city known as “The Killing Fields.”  This area contains the largest mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era. Despite frequent offers from tuk-tuk drivers to take us there, we made a conscious choice not to visit.

By the end of the day, we felt that we had received a pretty good crash course in recent Cambodian history. We had come to Phnom Penh with a brief background after reading First They Killed my Father, but touring the city made what we had learned that much more impactful. As though in line with our somber afternoon, a wall of rain poured down from the skies that evening.

The next day we awoke to a sunny morning and prepared to explore a brighter time in Cambodia’s history, the age of the Angkor people. Despite the seven hour ride ahead of us, we happily boarded our bus and took off for Siem Reap.

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While sometimes it may seem that we are obsessed with food, eating isn’t the only thing we do when traveling. We swear. Yes, Part I of this blog series was all about food, but we actually did a lot of non-food related sightseeing in Tokyo as well. In between meals, our favorite way to explore a city is to simply walk around and see where the day takes us. Many travelers we meet spend all day zipping around in taxis, trying to see everything. That’s not our style. Sometimes we take off in the morning with a specific destination in mind, but more often than not we just head out with a map in our pocket and wing it.

Our first few hours in Tokyo began as a quest towards the Sensō-ji Temple Complex, which we heard is the temple to visit if you time in Tokyo is short. It was a nice temple, but surrounded by hordes of tourists and neighbored by a small amusement park. It definitely was not the highlight of our trek through the Asakusa neighborhood.

Offerings at a Buddhist altar within the Sensō-ji Temple Complex

The Pagoda of Sensō-ji

Incense smoke engulfing Sensō-ji Temple

Along the way to Sensō-ji we caught our first glimpse of the brand new Tokyo Skytree. This building is all the rage in Japan at the moment; you can’t possibly walk one block without seeing a corny Skytree souvenir stand. The Skytree opened in May 2012 and is now the tallest structure in the country and the second tallest in the world. People sign up months in advance to go the top. We of course had not planned that far in advance, but had a photo shoot along the Sumida River.

The Skytree is so tall that it didn’t fit in the frame.

The Skytree in its evening-ware

When we had finished admiring the Skytree, we didn’t really know what to do next. So we just picked a direction and started walking. Fortunately, our choice was a good one, and we stumbled upon a fascinating shopping district. We are not talking about a cutesy outdoor mall with clothing boutiques. You see, we have come to realize that most cities in the world have entire streets, sometimes even whole neighborhoods dedicated to selling a specific grouping of products or services. We don’t know how so many competitors manage to survive in such a small geographic space, but somehow they do. Often we find ourselves walking down the street saying something along the lines of, “Oh, this must be the diapers and toilet paper section of Hanoi” or “Here is the power tools block in Istanbul” or “Man, this wedding invitation street runs half way across Prague.” Well, this particular shopping area of Tokyo was solely dedicated to selling kitchen gadgets and restaurant supplies.

We spent hours exploring this part of town. We know it sounds strange and you are probably thinking, “They went all the way to Tokyo to visit a Williams-Sonoma?” After reading-up on it when we got back to our hostel, we learned this area of town is called Kappabashi, and Kappabashi is a crazy place. In this neighborhood, you will find entire shops that sell only plastic food for restaurant window displays. Others manufacture and sell hundreds of the most incredible chef’s knifes we’ve ever seen. There are stores that sell only antique items, while their neighbor specializes in the most cutting edge culinary equipment.

Even though it looks real, these are actually made of plastic. All of which can be purchased at Kappabashi

Amazed and over stimulated from our thorough exploration of Kappabashi, we journeyed off to find some…yes, you guessed it…food. Lucky for us, we happened upon a parade that led us straight to a festival where tasty street food was being served. After a few minutes on this street, we noticed that all of the men were wearing waist length robes, many of which exposed areas where the sun doesn’t shine. We still aren’t sure what the festival was all about, but snapped a short video of it that you can watch here or by clicking on the image below.

On our second day in Tokyo, we took a tip from our hostel and hopped on the subway towards the Imperial Palace. We were forewarned that many tourists do not find the palace interesting since you cannot enter the gates, but we went anyway. Determined to get a good view over the palace walls, we began to circumnavigate it in hopes of finding a good vantage point, but after 30 minutes it just didn’t seem possible. That’s when we pulled out a wild card and went with a move that has worked well for us in the past. Other budget travelers will want to write this one down as many places (the Skytree for instance) charge a pretty penny for a nice view. We hate paying for views. We located a tall hotel that bordered the palace, walked confidently into the lobby, found the elevator and pushed the button for “club level.” Once at the top, we put on our best smiles and talked our way into the club member lounge on the top floor of the Imperial Palace Hotel. There we found the view we were looking for!

Excited to be seeing it from the top

View down on the Imperial Palace and Gardens

Next, we hopped on a subway and got off at a random stop called Shibuya. This is where we found the stereotypical Tokyo that we were looking for: crowded streets, flashing lights, crazy fashion, and surprises around every corner. Respect and honor may mean a lot in Japan, but they still have their seedy parts of town.

One of the calmest and least bright streets in Shibuya

Shibuya is home to many adult activities – case in point, love hotels. 3 hours seems like enough for a “rest,” don’t you think?

Our visit to Tokyo was full of unexpected twists, and our departure was no different. A typhoon rolled into town on our last night there, which not only made for a soaking and umbrella-breaking journey to dinner that night, but also a deviation from our original flight plan. We can’t say that we were upset about the detour (the airlines can’t control the weather after all), but after 24 hours of travel and one unplanned night in a sketchy hotel in Guangzhou, we were happy to arrive in Hanoi.

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One of the first things that any traveler will notice about Kyoto is that there appears to be a temple or shrine on nearly every block. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Kyoto’s reputation as the home of traditional Japanese culture is well deserved. Once the Imperial Capital of Japan, Kyoto is now a modern city where the traditions of the past live on. In the midst of crowded, multiple-story malls, you will find a number of women shopping in traditional Japanese Kimonos, and when you exit the mall, you are likely to find monks worshiping at a temple just around the corner.

Kimonos are a common sight in Kyoto.

We spent our week in Kyoto visiting only a handful of the many temples and shrines, but the ones we did visit were magnificent. From the moment we set foot in Japan, we were truly humbled by the kindness and respect that people show one another. Even those who have never traveled abroad would feel safe and welcome in Japan. Nonetheless, it was helpful to have a Japanese-speaking guide to get an insider’s perspective on the culture of Japan. Our friend, Patricia, who lives and works in the Shiga Prefecture, met us in town one day to show us around to Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple) and Fushimi Inari Shrine. It made the experience that much more authentic.

Enjoying a tasty tempura and noodle lunch in Kyoto with Patricia. Thanks for a fun day!

Kyoto’s Golden Temple

The temple is coated in gold leaf, similar to the dome on the capital building in Denver.

The gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine wound on and on for miles. Each one varies in size and bears the name of the individual or group that purchased it.

The foremost structure at Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Before walking through the network of orange gates at Fushimi Inari, Patricia convinced us to dress up in traditional garb at a kimono vendor’s stall. We had no intention of purchasing kimonos, but after we got all decked out, the thought crossed our minds. While they would have been fun Halloween costumes, we eventually realized that they would have collected dust 99% of the time.

Dress up time

Another highlight of our visit to Kyoto was our trip to Arashiyama. We learned about this neighborhood of town from our hostel’s “things to do” board. At a first glance, it seemed like nothing more than something to do on a rainy day; however, it turned out to be one of our favorite places in Kyoto. The paths that make their way through the area are canopied by a forest of bamboo.

Seemingly endless grove of bamboo trees.

The trees towered so high that they drooped over the path to create a natural canopy.

Last but not least…the food. A post on The Chamborres Expedition is not a post without writing about the cuisine of a city. We took a suggestion from a friend and sought out a grocery store located in the basement of a department store. We know that doesn’t sound like an exciting culinary adventure, but trust us, some of the best and most affordable sushi in the world can be found in such places. We scoped out our dinner selection early one morning, but lucked out by returning after 6:00PM when much of the sashimi was marked down 20 and 30 percent. No one wants day old sushi.

Sushi, anyone?

Everything in Japan is an art form, even the desserts. We were continually impressed by the presentation of products in the artisan sweet shops. The colors, textures and designs are a treat to the eye.  Having only known the deliciousness of mochi from home, we were amazed by the taste and freshness of the ones in Kyoto. At over 150 yen/piece, they are not cheap, but they are an incredibly delicate and subtle way to end a meal.

Hand-made mochi at Nishiki Market

Funky see-through mochi

Yesterday, we overheard another traveler saying, “I am so happy, it was something I have always wanted to do.” That is exactly how we felt when we arrived in Kyoto. We have always wanted to visit Japan, and exploring Kyoto was the perfect way to start our visit. It allowed us to see the temples of old, experience the food of today, and get a glimpse of the trends of tomorrow that awaited us in Tokyo.

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What can we really say about The Great Wall? It was as incredibly breathtaking as we had imagined; we couldn’t have dreamt it to be any better. The part that we visited, between Jinshanling and Simatai, is one of the furthest from Beijing, meaning that it is undisturbed by the masses of tourists that flock to the closer sections, and it also retains its authenticity since it has not yet been fully restored. Here are a few photos of our visit; we took hundreds and will spare you by only sharing a few of our favorites.

Miles and miles of wall stretched out in both directions as we began our hike from Jinshanling to Simatai.

As we hiked, the views kept getting better and better.

This section of The Wall contains 22 watch towers, each with their own unique style.

We were by no means the only people on The Wall that day, however, at times it felt as though we were out there on our own.

Smiles come easy when you’re on The Great Wall.

Great Wall aside, hiking through this lush green mountain range was spectacular in and of itself.

Many of the towers along the way offered commanding views of The Wall’s snake-like figure rolling from peak to peak.

We found ourselves snapping a photo nearly every minute; we had to constantly remind ourselves to take breaks from our cameras and soak up the present moment.

This steep section of the Simatai wall is currently closed and expected to reopen in October 2012.

We loved encountering rustic stretches of The Wall that have yet to be restored. At times it felt like the stones might crumble away.

It is impossible to measure the length of The Great Wall in its entirety, but estimates put it at more than 5,000 miles long.  To give you an idea of its vastness, that is longer than I-90, the longest interstate in the USA, which runs from Seattle to Boston.

Some of the best views came towards the end of our hike as we climbed steeply to the East Simatai Gate. Our glutes were killing us the next day!

7km. 22 towers. 100s of photos. 1 great day!

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Hong Kong is one of those places that will increase your heart rate within minutes of arriving. It is a bustling city with skyscrapers, neon lights and crowds of people at every turn; it even holds the record for the most densely populated place on earth. One of its neighborhoods, Mongkok, houses more than 130,000 people in one square kilometer! What many people don’t realize is that Hong Kong is more than a city; the region also boasts hundreds of islands and large expanses of sparsely populated coastal jungles.

The Hong Kong skyline lit up during the nightly light show. Image: hksalad.com

Not only are Hong Kong’s diverse landscapes intriguing, but its socio-political situation also leaves you wanting to learn more. Long held by the British and returned to Chinese control in 1997, the city is still in its infancy as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Its western style is prevalent, while its Chinese roots are unavoidable. During our week visit, we often found ourselves teetering between two different continents. Although technically part of China, Hong Kong feels like its own small country. It has its own immigration and customs controls, currency and flag. At the moment, only Hong Kong and Macau are designated as SARs in China, but the model is seen as a possible solution for future reunification of contested islands, such as Taiwan.

Hong Kong’s mainland neighbor, Shenzhen, provides an interesting parallel to Hong Kong. Shenzhen was China’s first experiment with Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which are pockets of “capitalism,” for lack of a better word, within this Communist country. In just under 60 years, Shenzhen went from a small fishing town to a bustling, skyscraper-laden mega-city of over 10 million in the greater metro area. We stopped in Shenzhen for a few days before entering Hong Kong; it was an interesting place to visit to gain a brief education on how Deng Xiaoping’s policies reformed China and how Shenzhen shaped the future of the nation’s SEZs.

View from the St. Regis Hotel in the Kingkey 100, Shenzhen’s tallest building at 441.8 metres. It is currently the world’s 10th tallest building!

Politics aside, Hong Kong is a playground for travelers from all walks of life (although budget backpackers be warned, it is not a cheap destination). Both the cuisine and shopping run the gamut from the finest international establishments to the most budget options around. As long as you can handle the heat and humidity, outdoors enthusiasts could spend weeks in Hong Kong jumping from island to island.

Random fact: Hong Kong is composed of 263 islands.

We made our home base on Hong Kong Island in the area known as Causeway Bay. Although one of the more expensive hostels we’ve stayed at thus far, the view from our room on the 14th floor could not be beat! The building boarders Victoria Park, one of the largest green spaces on Hong Kong Island, and the views spanned all the way across the harbor to Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong.

Looking out on Victoria Park from Parkview Hostel.

Since many HongKongese work in Causeway Bay, it is home to some of the best and most affordable local lunch spots in town. You can eat until your stomach is bursting at one of Hong Kong’s famous dim sum restaurants, or choose from a variety places that serve up everything from Cantonese cuisine to hot Szechuan dishes. The prosperity of the city has made it a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. If there is a particular type of cuisine that you are looking for, it can certainly be found in Hong Kong.

Shrimp wonton noodle soup can be found from most hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Causeway Bay. A tasty and cheap meal for only 20-25HKD.

Get our dim sum on with some BBQ pork buns.

Before arriving in Hong Kong, one of our friends suggested that we absolutely not miss the Peak Tram. He was spot on with this recommendation. The tram itself feels like riding a roller coaster up the side of a mountain, and once at the top, the views of Hong Kong are incredible. We quickly skipped through the horde of tourists at the top and headed straight towards the network of trails that meander through the hills. The canopy of trees and ferns are not only beautiful, but help to lower the temperature which is a welcomed change from the heat beating down on the concrete jungle below.

View from the top of the Peak Tram. It must be breathtaking on a perfectly clear day.

We like to think of ourselves as smart and seasoned travelers, but from time to time, we do fall into a tourist trap. Although it pains us to admit it, one such incidence happened in Hong Kong. We had heard about a Big Buddha on the island of Lantau, and having not been in Asia for more than a few weeks, it sounded pretty cool. So, we hopped on the metro, and then a bus, and after about two hours, we had arrived. To our disappointment, said “Big Buddha” was situated in the middle of a fake village, all of which had only been built in the 1990s. The town even included a 7-11; Slurpee while you see the Buddha, anyone? To make matters worse, the statue (albeit big) was nearly completely hidden by a thick mist. We will include a photo for you all to see; this way we won’t feel like our trek to Lantau was a complete waste of an afternoon.

The Big-But-Hard-to-See-Buddha

No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a little beach time. After all, how can you visit an archipelago of islands in the South China Sea without getting a little R&R? To get away from the city, we took a ferry to the Island of Cheung Chau. Mainly a fishing harbor, the island also offers some fantastic beaches and hiking. Our time at the beach was, well, time at the beach…plenty of sun, sand, and cold beer.

Putting in our time at the beach on Cheung Chau.

In the afternoon, we set out for a hike around the exterior of the island. The views were great and the ocean breeze was so refreshing after baking in the sun.

Walking along Cheung Chau’s Mini Great Wall.

We hadn’t expected too much excitement, just a leisurely hike, but all that changed when found ourselves face to face with a four foot Chinese Cobra. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, as the snake made a wise choice and quickly fled up the mountain, but just seeing a snake like that is enough for a hefty shot of adrenaline.

Taking our own photo wasn’t a high priority at the time, so we borrowed this one. Image: http://www.flickr.com (robferblue)

Exotic yet familiar, Hong Kong is truly one of those places that you have to see to believe. It has so many moving parts, but somehow everything still seems to gel. If the travel bug inside of you is yearning for the excitement that the Far East offers, but you are a little unsure about taking the plunge, Hong Kong is the place for you.

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For the second post of our Istanbul Photo Series, we are highlighting the mosques of the city. Although Turkey is secular by law, the presence of Islam is clear. The skyline is filled with domes and minarets of the numerous mosques, and the calls to prayer can be heard in all corners of the city. Yet, at the same time, locals are very much embracing Western culture, European fashion and a hopping nightlife. It is a city with many dualities. In some countries, mosques cannot be visited by non-Muslims; however, in Istanbul, mosques are a top tourist destination.   (NOTE: there are many photos in this post, therefore it may take some time to load)

THE BLUE MOSQUE

We arrived in Istanbul just as a fair was being set up in front of the famous Blue Mosque. Turkey’s strong sense of national pride can be seen by the flags hanging from windows, poles and bridges all over the city.

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art was one of our favorite stops in Istanbul. The exhibits were magnificent, and the view of the Blue Mosque was icing on the cake.

The inside of the Blue Mosque is jaw-dropping. The mosque gets its name from the haze of blue light that emanates from the painted blue tiles which touch nearly every surface in the building.

As one of the city’s main attractions, the Blue Mosque remains lit-up throughout the night, making it an awe-inspiring structure 24 hours a day.

The construction of the Blue Mosque was inspired by Istanbul’s main attraction, the Hagia Sophia. The Sultan Ahmed built the mosque just a few hundred meters away to try and trump the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia. The result was two unbelievable places of worship in the same block. This photo of the Blue Mosque was taken from the second floor of the Hagia Sophia.

THE HAGIA SOPHIA

The Hagia Sophia is one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World, and now we know why. It is hard to believe that this magnificent structure was constructed between 532-537 A.D.

As you enter the Hagia, symbols of the various religions that it has served can be seen. First constructed as a Cathedral, it was later converted to a mosque, and today is a museum.

The sheer size of the Hagia is impressive. The central dome is supported by 40 ribs, each of which has a window at its base allowing natural light to flood inside.

The juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam can be seen by the tile mosaic of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in the background of the Minbar.

THE LITTLE HAGIA SOPHIA

We found visiting the Little Hagia Sophia much more enjoyable than its well-known counterpart simply due to the lack of crowds. It is named as such because it is thought to have served as a model for the Hagia Sophia.

Behind the Minbar, you can see the apse of the former church that this mosque used to be, the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

The restoration and maintenance in the Little Hagia can be seen in this ornate painting in the central dome.

YENI CAMI (THE NEW MOSQUE)

Only in Istanbul would the “new” mosque refer to a mosque built over 400 years ago.

SÜLEYMANIYE MOSQUE

This is the ablution area where Muslims wash their hands, feet, face and forearms before entering the mosque to pray.

The sunny day on which we visited Süleymaniye made for a vibrant contrast between the blue sky and stone white minarets.

Many of the historic sites we visited had been restored using preservation techniques. In this mosque, however, the interior was scrapped away and completely redone. Controversy aside, it gave us a feel of what the mosque may have looked like when it was initially constructed.

The Süleymaniye Mosque sits atop a hill that provides beautiful views of the city, Golden Horn and Bosphorus River. This photo was taken from the Galata Bridge, where fishermen line up to catch fish each day.

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Pamukkale literally means “cotton castle” in Turkish. Take a look at this picture and you’ll see why.

These naturally formed travertines are the result of thousands of years’ worth of calcium deposits left behind from mineral water running down the hillside. Once upon a time, Pamukkale may have been considered one of the most magical places on earth. For centuries, local Turks, and eventually tourists too, flocked here to bathe in these incredible pools filled with steaming hot water from the earth below.

How we envisioned Pamukkale….we were wrong. Image: trkaplicas.blogspot.com

Sadly, but not surprisingly, this cotton castle has been nearly loved to death. The overuse and poor preservation of the pools nearly led to their complete destruction. In the last decade, great efforts have been made to restore the travertines to their original state, but it will take many years for the constructive power of nature to complete the work.

Travertines in the early morning light

If it weren’t for the dawn arrival of our overnight bus from Cappadocia, we may have been greatly disappointed. All of the travel agencies around Turkey show you pictures of the “old” Pamukkale and conveniently forget to mention that all but a few pools are now closed for restoration. Luckily for us, we were granted entrance to the park at quarter ‘til 7 before most of the staff had even arrived. We were the first visitors in the gate and had the place completely to ourselves, except for a few stray dogs that followed in our footsteps. We began to explore some fantastic pools as we climbed our way up the travertines.

Our canine friends

Then, when we had nearly reached the top, we heard someone honking a horn and blowing a whistle.  We looked up to see a very displeased security guard waiving us off the hill. Turns out that the area we were climbing in was off limits. They normally have a guard stationed at the bottom instructing you not to climb, but we had arrived so early that he hadn’t reached his post yet. Whoops!

Mike on a quest to find the hottest pool.

Almost to the top, just before we got busted.

After making our way back to the bottom, we followed a narrow path along some man-made pools. The view of the mountains across the valley was spectacular, but the pools themselves were frankly nothing special. At the end of the trail, however, we ran into another spectacular sight: the ruins of ancient Hierapolis. During Roman times, people found the hot springs of Pamukkale to be so fantastic that it inspired the settlement of Hierapolis, which sits just above the travertine pools where the water springs to the surface.

Smoking hot travertines

We spent the remainder of our day hiking around and exploring the ruins of what must have been an enormous and wondrous city. The remnants of Hierapolis spread across a great deal of land and contained some very well restored buildings and monuments. Some of our favorite ruins are pictured below. Pamukkale is best known for the travertines, but for us Hierapolis was the highlight.

The Martyrium of St. Philip

The Theater

Main road leading into Hierapolis

All in all, our morning of accidental trespassing and archeological exploration was a great time. While we would not recommend going out of your way to visit Pamukkale (that is, until the restoration work is complete), if you happen to be traveling between Cappadocia and Ephesus, it is certainly worth stopping for half of a day.

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When we woke up the morning after our hectic first night in Dubrovnik, we were ready to turn a new page and enjoy ourselves.

View of Dubrovnik’s old town from Fort Lovrijenac.

We started off by having lunch at a great vegetarian restaurant in the old town called Nishta. In central and eastern Europe, there is no lack of meat and potatoes, so stumbling upon a creative vegetarian restaurant was very refreshing. We loved this place so much that we ended up eating there three times during our short stay in Dubrovnik. By the way, we received no compensation for writing this, we just loved it that much. After a satisfying lunch, we were off to explore the town.

One of the many tasty dishes we enjoyed at Nishta Vegetarian Restaurant.

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most picturesque old towns in Croatia, Dubrovnik has become a tourist hotspot. Even though we were there in the off-season, the town was still crawling with visitors; not our ideal way to travel, but worth it, considering the sheer magnificence of this place.

Even though the wall walk is only 2km, it took us nearly 3 hours! We were stopping constantly to snap photos and enjoy the view.

Many European cities that we have visited claim to have amazing castle districts; however, Dubrovnik is truly the definition of a town within a castle. The wall completely encircles the old town, with only four gates with which to enter and exit. The best way to soak up the spectacular views is to take the “wall walk.” Tickets cost 70 KN (about 12 USD) and allow you to walk along the entire exterior wall of the city and visit the nearby fort. The walk is about 2km long and provides a 360 degree perspective on the city, sea and nearby islands.

View from the wall towards Lokrum Island.

One of the things that amazed us was the massive amount of stone and man power that went into constructing not only the wall, but all of the streets and buildings located inside of the city wall. Everything is made of stone.

During the 1991-92 Siege of Dubrovnik, the castle walls proved to be more resistant against modern weaponry than newly constructed buildings.

Another feature to note is that most of the city’s buildings are situated on steep hills, so exploring the town is quite literally breathtaking. After our first day we were exhausted, so we headed back to our hostel for a home cooked meal. The kitchen was located on the ground floor, and we couldn’t help but chuckle as we heard other tourists panting and gasping “I need a break” as they walked by our door.

The end of the 60+ stairs leading up to our guesthouse.

On one of our days in Dubrovnik, we decided to take a ferry to the nearby island of Lokrum. Being only a 15 minute ride makes Lokrum easily accessible as a half-day or full-day trip from Dubrovnik.

Heading out for a day of hiking on Lokrum Island.

Lokrum is a great place to take in views of Dubrovnik and sunbathe as well if the weather is right. We brought lunch with us and hiked around the edge of the island to find the perfect picnic spot. This proved a little more difficult than we had imagined due to the infestation of peacocks on the island. Peacocks were introduced from the Canary Islands and the population has since spread out of control. These birds will not leave you alone once they figure out that you have food in your pack.

They look beautiful, but they are really just over-sized pigeons.

It rained on and off on our last day; for Amy, as a native Oregonian, rain is always a welcome sound and smell. In between the clouds, we stopped for a glass of bubbly at a bar that is situated on the rocks which form part of the castle wall. Definitely a splurge from our usual backpacker budget, but champagne always tastes better with a view.

The view that justified the cost.

The only sign we could find for this place read “Cold Drinks” – we think that name sums it up pretty well.

Excluding our hostel mishap that we shared in Part II of this series, we absolutely loved the Dalmatian Coast. While Croatia has been growing in popularity among tourists in recent years, it still seems to be somewhat under the radar, but surely won’t be for long. The islands, beaches and cliffs that make up the Dalmatian Coast are a sight to see, and the Croatian people are so welcoming that you immediately feel at home in their country. We will definitely be back.

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Until a few weeks ago, we had envisioned Budapest as one city, but the fact is  there are many sides to this spectacular place.  From a literal perspective, there are two sides, Buda and Pest, sitting opposite each other along the Danube River. They officially became one city in 1873 and today are joined by a series of bridges and rail lines that make up the greater city of Budapest. However, beyond the two banks of the river, lie the many different faces of Budapest, and this is what makes it such a great place to visit; there is something for everyone.

Budapest for the History Buff

Like many other capital cities in Europe, Budapest features a historic castle quarter. Located on the Buda side of the river, Castle Hill is the place to go for the best views of the city, and it is home to several museums and monuments including, not only Buda Castle, but numerous churches, the National Széchenyi Library and Sándor Palace, the official residence of Hungary’s President.

Check out this spectacular diamond tiled roof of the Matthias Church on the Buda side

View of the Hungarian Parliament Building as seen from Fisherman’s Bastion

After exploring the castle district, take a ride on Budapest’s underground metro system, the oldest subway system in continental Europe. Many of the stations have classy tile work and a very historic feel to them. Lastly, don’t miss the Hungarian National Museum which houses great exhibits about the nation’s history and current archeological excavations.

Budapest for the Foodie

Eastern European food is generally not anything to write home about; but, we had high expectations for Budapest. The bar was set high by one of our favorite restaurants from home, a Hungarian spot in Denver called Budapest Bistro. We were not disappointed. Hungarian food takes the basic meat and starch components that are used in so many Eastern European countries and jazzes it up with paprika. This spice doesn’t add heat, but flavor. Some of our favorites included: chicken paprikash, rabbit in red wine sauce and garlic seasoned goose leg.

Chicken paprikash with spaetzle…this picture does not do it justice, we were more concerned with eating it at the time than getting a good shot

In addition to the traditional Hungarian restaurants that cover the streets of Buda and Pest, you should also check out the Central Market Hall (Nagy Vasarcsarnok). At a first glance, this market looks like any other in Europe with produce, meat and seafood stands, but upstairs there are several food counters where you can graze to your heart’s content. We particularly loved the stuffed cabbage rolls.

Nagycsarnok in Budapest – Home of many delicious Hungarian food stands

Budapest for the Party Fiend

If you don’t look closely, you may miss one of the most interesting parts of Budapest’s nightlife: ruin bars. Tucked into warehouses and dilapidated buildings, these bars are often unmarked and therefore easy to miss. Stop by during the day for a relaxing coffee or beer, or visit on a Friday and Saturday night to experience the liveliest atmosphere in town. Ruin bars are eclectically decorated, including anything from rusted old cars that have been converted into seating to toilets that are being used as planting boxes. They feature many types of entertainment from DJs to dancers to interactive art pieces.

Funky decor in Szimpla’s outdoor patio

Random and fun interactive art piece in Szimpla Ruin Bar. This basic circuit board controls a crazy assortment of lights, bells, whistles and music.

Hidden seating area at a Budapest ruin bar

If you want to read a detailed summary of ruin bars in Budapest, check out this post.

Budapest for some R&R

Likely brought into popularity when the Turks invaded Hungary, gyógyfürdő (thermal baths) are a traditional part of Hungarian life. These facilities usually include indoor and outdoor pools whose temperatures vary based on the minerals of which they are composed. Definitely set aside at least one full-day for relaxing in a fürdő during your visit to Budapest. We loved our visit to Széchenyi Fürdő, one of Europe’s largest thermal baths situated in the center of City Park. You can purchase tickets which provide access to various services, ranging from the use of the basic thermal baths for about 3,000 HUF to pool access with a private cabin, including massages and spa treatments for upwards of 9,000 HUF.

Outdoor thermal baths at Széchenyi Fürdő. These get up to 38 degrees Celsius – the biggest hot tub we’ve ever seen!

Locals playing chess in the thermal baths. They must be prune proof.

One of the indoor thermal baths at Széchenyi Fürdő

If public baths aren’t your style, no need to worry; head over to Margaret Island (Margitsziget). This island park sits right in the middle of the Danube River and can easily be reached by foot or by public transportation. The park is just over 5 kilometers around and has countless areas for picnicking and sunbathing. There are also tennis courts and trails for biking and running, if working out is your idea of relaxation. A small petting zoo, water park, ice cream stands and cafes make it a family friendly destination.

Budapest for the Arts Lover

If arts and theater are your thing, be sure to visit Budapest during the Budapesti Tavaszi Fesztivál (Spring Festival) which happens each year in March. We happened to be in town this week, and although we didn’t take advantage of its offerings, you can be guaranteed so see a wide variety of operas, shows, and live musical acts at venues across the city. During the rest of the year, the city houses several art museums, including the Hungarian National Gallery which includes a feature on famous artists from Budapest.

Frescoes at the Hungarian National Museum

As for our personal experience in Budapest…fantastic! Even before we arrived things were going our way. The night before we left Vienna, we saw a sign at the reception desk of our hostel that said “free ticket to Budapest.” Although it seemed too good to be true, we asked for more details. As it turned out, a fellow traveler had purchased a round-trip ticket and wasn’t going to be using the return. So, rather than trying to sell it, they asked the hostel to try and find someone who could use it. Funny how things like that work out; we were actually planning on doing the exact same thing with our round-trip tickets from the Czech Republic.

Free train ticket to Vienna thanks to a kind stranger!

But anyway, back to Budapest, it has been one of our favorite destinations thus far. Despite the fact that neither of us speaks a word of Hungarian, we felt at home. Before arriving, we had heard some bad things about Budapest being a “sketchy” city with lots of people out to scam tourists; so we had our guard up a bit when we arrived. As it turns out, everyone we encountered was friendly, helpful, and honest. Add the delicious food, sights, and activities, and you have all the makings of a wonderful city. If you are planning a trip to Eastern Europe DO NOT miss Budapest.

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