Monday, April 3, 2017

Post SAS – Part 2 - Beyond Italy - One year late!

We had been hoping to catch the train around the top of the Italian Adriatic Coast and cross over into Slovenia on our way to Croatia but it turned out that was much more difficult than we expected.  Another issue was the continuing bad weather in Croatia.  Since we were going there to do outdoorsy things like hiking in national parks, it seemed like it might be best to find an alternative. 

So we looked for a) reasonably priced flights out of Venice, b) in the next 36 hours, c) to a destination with a good weather forecast.  Even with all the low cost airlines in Europe, it was a pretty tall order but we ended up finding a flight to Athens and then on to Santorini.  A few quick hours perusing AirBNB and we even had places to stay in both locations. 

Athens was spectacular.  It’s been a few tough years for Greece with their economic meltdown and refugee issues.  However, the Greeks seem to have taken it all in stride and the streets where we stayed were full of people all day long and deep into the night. Through a fortuitous exchange with one of the restaurant owners we even ended up with a great tour guide to show us around the Parthenon and Acropolis.  

We stayed only a few blocks from the site of the new Acropolis museum so we were in a primo location to walk to everything and we spend a couple of great days wandering around Athens, visiting all the major sites, including those above plus the original Olympic stadium (The Panathenaic Stadium). Having come so recently from Rome, it was incredible to see even earlier buildings still standing, and the degree of restoration that is taking place. The Greeks are in the process of literally rebuilding the Parthenon, including the roof and friezes. We heard the political side of that, since the Greeks are also trying to reclaim their heritage from the British Museum and other European powers that looted their ruins in relatively recent times.  After a few days of history, walking and food in Athens, we moved on to Santorini.

Santorini was a quick flight and suddenly we found ourselves out of the urban center of Athens into the whitewashed hills of Santorini.  We had a great place, just outside of Oia looking straight West at the sunset.  

We enjoyed a relaxing few days on Oia, doing hikes and hitting the beach during our day trip to the ruins on Santorini.  Santorini’s ruins are quite special in that they are the result of the destruction of an entire area due to a massive volcano.  There is a lot of speculation that the ruins are in fact the remnants of Atlantis.  It was fascinating to visit and see what is left, including hot and cold water plumbing from 3,600 years ago.  

We had successfully waited out the worst of the weather on the continent and we finally were able to head towards Croatia.  One remaining hurdle – no discount airlines flew between Greece and Croatia so we were forced to arrange our plans and make our way to Budapest, Hungary first.  

Our initial thought was to rent a car and drive between countries but the rental agencies conspired to make that impossible so we settled on just getting to Budapest and figuring it out from there.  Per usual, the  “flexible” approach we take to our planning served us well. Budapest was the unexpected highlight of the trip.  The city itself is full of life, with bustling restaurants, interesting history, great architecture and a beautiful river separating Buda from Pest.  We only had a few days there before we had to make our way to Croatia but it was enough to encourage us to vow to return to Hungary someday to explore it more completely. 

Even after agreeing to exorbitant one-way rental fees (which were still cheaper than all of us flying), we couldn’t convince a car rental company to let us take a car into Croatia and ended up taking a pleasant train ride to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. And so, rather than zipping past the outskirts of Zagreb in our rental car, we altered our plans to spend a few days there, checking it out.  While not as vibrant or interesting as Budapest (sorry to any Croatians reading this), we did have a pleasant stay in Zagreb, walking its friendly streets and taking in its history.  One of our most fascinating stops was the Zagreb museum, a tiny museum where they house one exhibit at a time.  The exhibit on display asked the question of whether 1945 was a good year or bad year for Croatia, as it was “freed” from the yoke of Nazi oppression, only to fall under the influence of the Soviet Union as part of the new Yugoslavia.  From our North American perspective it seemed like an odd question to ask – how could it be bad to be freed from the Nazi’s?  However the end of the Nazi regime, instead of ushering in a period of autonomous government for the Croats, resulted in Tito’s rule over Yugoslavia for the next 35 years leading into the bloody Balkans War.

We finally rented our car in Zagreb and started our tour around Croatia.  First stop was the very beautiful Plitvik National Park, complete with more waterfalls than we had ever seen in one place before.  

The weather that had send us scrambling to Greece proved to be a benefit now.  Rain was still coming down, and the park was inundated with water, closing off some of the trails but also providing more than enough water for the many and varied falls to be in spectacular form.  We spent a few days wandering around and reconnecting with nature after spending much of the last several months in large cities. 

With an eye on the clock and our return to the US in another week or so, we headed south from there, briefly crossing Bosnia & Herzegovina to reach Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic” along the Dalmatian Coast.  The walled city of Dubrovnik has a long and ancient history and was, at one point, the wealthiest city in the world, accordingly to its residents.  We learned tons of interesting things about the ancient history of the city and even went on the “Game of Thrones” tour, since many of the scenes from the TV show are filmed in Dubrovnik.   

One of the most interesting sites was the museum, in a fortress perched way atop a hill outside of the city.  There we learned of the hardships that befell Dubrovnik during the Balkans War in the 90’s.  There were detailed exhibits showing the conflict as it progressed and highlighting the role that the siege of Dubrovnik had in turning world opinion against the Serbs as they commenced shelling the UNESCO World Heritage site.  It was certainly a turning point in the history of the conflict and pulled the world along to intervene in the conflict.   Today, Dubrovnik is a very vibrant, crowded and fun city to visit.  With a few more days here (and in Croatia in general) we would certainly have explored the islands and other interesting sites in the area. 

Our final, brief stop in Croatia was in Split.  We basically made our way there to hop a plane to really begin our journey home but managed to spend a day and a half in this charming seaside city.  With a total population of a little over 4 million, no city in Croatia is all that large and Split was a perfect size to explore.  Diocletian’s Palace and the beautiful waterfront area are the highlights of Split and we hope to return sometime to finish our exploration of the city and the many, many islands just off its coast. 

Boarding the flight in Split was the first time that it felt like we were heading home, probably because all of our travel from this point on would be West and closer to Colorado.  Our next stop on the journey home was none other than Amsterdam. For all the travel that Christy has done, she had never spent any time in The Netherlands. We found an apartment on one of the narrow streets of Amsterdam and proceeded to spend our next few days wandering the city, mostly on foot. We made the required visit to the Anne Frank House and spent some time just wandering the streets and canal around the vibrant city center. 

And of course, there was our bicycle tour, which included a trip through the Red Light District. Since there is so much pedestrian traffic through the area, it was the one part of the tour that we had to walk our bikes for.  Or maybe it was for safety’s sake, in case you couldn’t keep your eyes on the road while riding your bike through that district.  

The boys did see some new things and we had a conversation about what the women in the windows were doing and the fact that many were Eastern European rather than Dutch. It certainly is one way to start a conversation about human trafficking. A final Dutch highlight was problem-solving our way out of one of the Escape Room games that have become so popular around Europe. 

It turns out that the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic these days is to take Icelandair. One of their destinations is Denver and they throw in a “free” layover in Reykjavik on the way. We say “free” because stopping in Iceland is anything but free! But nonetheless, it is a super convenient way to check out a new place and it breaks up the trip back across the ocean. Iceland felt a bit like someone had taken Yellowstone, pulled it out of the middle of North America and plopped it down in the North Atlantic.  Everywhere we went, there were bubbling mud pits, geysers or sulphuric hot springs. 

We only had a few days there so we didn’t get to do the large ring around the entire island and instead settled for the small ring, staying closer in to Reyjavik but still being amazed at the sites we saw. We made the requisite visit to the Blue Lagoon (not the mediocre movie from the 80’s), the geothermal hot springs and restaurant where you slather yourself with volcanic mud and heal all your ills. 

Other highlights were one of the most spectacular waterfalls we have even seen and desolate lakes, completely deserted except for us. We also visited the volcano museum and saw pictures of the incredible eruption that put a complete stop to European air travel for 6 days in 2010 and impacted weather worldwide. While our Iceland layover was a relatively brief 3 days, next time we will spend more time there, complete the larger loop and get out to see some whales. 

Finally, after 4 months and 9 days on the road, we returned home to Boulder on May 14th.  We arrived tired but satisfied that we had spend the last four months learning worthwhile things and getting a greater understanding of our world around us, and more importantly, its inhabitants. We had circumnavigated the Earth by ship, bus, train, plane and car (thankfully, no camels) and had been to 20 countries on four continents. We had been in countries with well-established governments, countries emerging from years of authoritarian rule and countries falling into chaos. We had been among the poorest of the poor, and in places where the wealthiest go to play, and everywhere along the way we found friendly people trying to live their lives, make the best of their circumstances and provide the very best they could for their families. Regardless of the circumstances we found in the places we visited, the common denominator was happy people. To be sure, in every country we travelled (including our own) there were people in difficult circumstances and people in misery, but the most common threads between all of these places were people striving and happy to be living their lives. 

Athens, Greece - Panatheic Stadium

Athens - Parthenon

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, Greece

Budapest, Hungary
Dracula's Dungeon, Budapest, Hungary

Plitvik Park, Croatia
Dubrovnik, Croatia - Food!

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia - Game of Thrones

Dubrovnik, Croatia
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Post SAS – Part I - Italy - Finally!

After 105 days on Semester at Sea, we said good-bye to our shipboard home and friends in Southampton, England.  It was difficult to say goodbye to all our friends and our special home aboard the World Explorer.  It was time to go back to reality...but not quite yet.  We decided to take another month and spend some time in Europe, visiting places we had never been before.

We had the very good fortune of meeting many people on the ship during our 105 days at sea. The Mayes family, Rick and Jennifer, and their three kids, Tim, Ben and Allie became good friends. We first met them on a field trip at our initial stop in Hawaii and enjoyed spending time with them both on and off the ship for the rest of the voyage. Their boys and ours are about the same age and their daughter Allie was a ship favorite. Christy, Luke and I (and Milton) attended Rick’s class on Comparative Politics once we discovered it after South Africa. It wasn’t a course he teaches at his home institution but he was an excellent lecturer and it was a great class. 

The shocking part about being in Europe was that everyone looked like us.  After our time in Asia and Africa, we were used to being the minority and being able to find each other easily in a crowd.  Now, everywhere we looked we saw people who looked familiar and who often spoke English.  We have talked before about the difference between vacation and travel.  Now we need to split it into three categories – vacationing, simply taking a break from life on the beach; touring, trying to visit all the main sites and; traveling, experiencing destinations in a more intimate way, likely in places not geared towards easy exploration.  Europe for us was a transition from being travelers to being tourists.  One of our family philosophies is that there is little growth in comfort and little comfort in growth.  Semester at Sea was definitely more in the growth zone and our travel through Europe was a move towards the comfort zone. 

In Rome we rented the first of many apartments through AirBNB.  It was so comforting to be in a home and have a kitchen, laundry, multiple bedrooms –and space!  We took advantage of our big deck to have appetizers and wine with the Mayes Family and we made dinner at home one night.  After not cooking for 3 months, it did not all go as planned, but none-the-less, it was great to eat a dinner at home. 

The Mayes were awesome travel companions as we walked everywhere around Rome for three days.  We ate more pizza than should be legal, drank a lot of espresso, and hit all of the main historical sites in Rome.   Highlights were, of course, the Coliseum, the old Forum, the Trivi Fountain and the Pantheon.  We put miles on our feet and even had to make a repeat visit to the Pantheon to check it out again! 

On our last day with the Mayes before they headed off to Barcelona and we went south to Sorrento, we walked (of course) over to the Vatican to finish up our tour of the big sites.  With Allie in tow, the Vatican was going to be daunting for the Mayes, so we adopted Ben for the day and he joined us as our tour was herded through the Vatican.  The two biggest surprises were the sheer size of the St Peter’s Basilica and whole Vatican City and the small size of the Sistine Chapel.  Somehow we expected the Sistine Chapel to be large, considering it houses Michelangelo’s masterpiece ceiling and all the Cardinals when they meet to select a new Pope.  In reality it was a fairly small room, especially compared to the size of many other parts of the City. We loved the map rooms with their historical perspective of new lands and the detail in the buildings around the Vatican, especially the sheer scale and ornateness of St Peter’s.

During our time in Rome, we tried to figure out what the heck we were going to do next.  We were certain that we wanted to make it to Croatia at some point but beyond that we really didn’t know what we wanted to do or where we wanted to go.  So we started to use the weather forecast as our compass and set our course to where the weather was reasonable. Turns out indicated the next stop should be Sorrento, as the weather to the North (Croatia, Austria, Czech Republic) was pretty wretched. 

We cobbled together a quick trip to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, finding a place to stay on AirBNB and figuring that we would play it by ear once our train got us there.  Along the way, we made a pit stop in Pompeii because we had all learned about it in school and were reminded of it by the hit song in 2013.  The Italians have excavated most of an entire city that was buried under fifteen feet of ash and pumice from Mount Vesuvius’ massive eruption in 79AD.  It was stunning how large and well preserved the city was considering it was buried almost two millennia ago. 

The Amalfi Coast is all about the pretty little coastal towns that stretch down the seaside.  Our AirBNB host was also a travel agent and arranged a driver to take us down the coast.  We were happy to have a driver who was familiar with the road as it is a tiny little coastal road, clearly not designed for the large, 48-passenger tour buses that regularly crowd the road.  Although we weren’t exactly in the prime season for Amalfi or travel in Europe, this was our first indication that there is no such thing as “off-season” in Europe.  We were amazed at the massive number of tourists crowding all of the places we visited – it seems every square and restaurant was busy.  We can only imagine what July and August must look like when the area is much busier, according to the locals.  Despite our 100 days at sea, we still appreciated all of the ocean vistas that appeared along the coast. 

Sorrento was an interesting town, with a newer part up on the hill and a spectacular old town down by the shore and the harbor.  We had several good meals there and took in our share of delicious Italian wine.  And we continued our quest to try as many ice cream places as we could find.  We could have spent more time exploring old Sorrento but it was time to move so we consulted the weather compass and figured our next move should be North to Venice.  Despite a middling weather forecast, we figured that Venice was a quick hop over to Slovenia and from there to Croatia.  We were learning that, while there are lots of low cost airlines in Europe, some places are actually pretty hard to get to. 

Venice was our last stop in Italy and we lucked into another great place on AirBNB.  When you look at a map of Venice, in the northwest corner there is a little green spot that looks like a park.  Turns out that green spot if is a tennis court and the place we booked is owned by the family that owns the little compound there, including the court, two rentals and their house. 

We learned a ton about Venice in our short rainy stay there.  The crazy narrow little streets, interspersed with canals and arched bridges (409 of them connecting 117 islands) were enchanting.  It was surprising to learn of the dominance of Venice in world commerce from the mid-15th century onwards.  But when we saw the spectacular cathedrals and the Doge’s Palace it seemed to prove the claims.  We were planning to do the trademark tourist activity in Venice but the fairly constant rain meant we were unable to get in a gondola ride around the canals.   The bonus of having a few rainy days was it allowed us to plan out the next few weeks.   That’s a story for our next post though.

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