Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring Break - Istanbul 2

Today I went to the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, and Galata Tower. The cistern was worth every penny, or lira. It's literally this sixth-century structure beneath the streets of Istanbul supported by endless rows of columns. I have no idea how it's still standing. Kudos to Roman architecture. There's only a few feet of water in the cistern, but it covers a large area, and someone put fish in the water. It reminded me of a cave with the dim, red lights; the sound of water dripping; and the dampness.

The Blue Mosque was beautiful and free. For the record, there is a Blue Mosque in Cairo, the Mosque of Aqsunqur. Take my word for it and don't go to the one in Cairo. You'll be disappointed; although, the minbar is lovely. The view from Galata Tower was nice, but it's nothing special. It was also very crowded. I think that I enjoyed the walk over the Golden Horn more than actually going up in the tower. (This is still on the European side.) I bought some freshly squeezed orange juice for 1 lira, and when I say freshly squeezed, I mean that they squeeze the juice out of an orange in front of you--just like they do in Cairo.

Later on, I went to the Grand Bazaar to scope out prices and potential gifts. Istanbul's bazaar is much nicer than the Khan El Khalili. It's inside with a floor instead of outside with dirt and trash. However, everything is more expensive in Istanbul. That evening I demanded a rematch in chess. I was determined to redeem myself. Well, I lost miserably several times. Many times. My hopes and dreams (and my ego) were crushed. For whatever reason, it later turned into drunken chess, which is an interesting combination.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spring Break - Istanbul 1

Between April 3rd and 4th, I spent about 24 hours traveling on trains. On the Bosphorus Express, my sleeping compartment was next to one occupied by two very large, foul-smelling, intoxicated Turks. It was highly entertaining--at first. I watched one of them try and fail to fit a large empty liquor bottle out a small window. I could hear them sing and slur along to the same three folksy songs. Then, they passed out and started snoring, which was annoying, but I eventually fell asleep. At Kapikule, or the Bulgarian-Turkish border, we physically left the train to get our passports stamped. The men were not only still inebriated, but also belligerently so. They got into a heated argument with the man stamping passports and the border police. For whatever reason, they actually let them back on the train without the proper papers and they started all over again with the drinking and loud music--mind you, this is at 3:00am.The train was more or less on time, so I was in a rush to get ready before the train reached its destination. Honestly, I was banking on the train being at least an hour late. Drew and I made it to the hostel several hours before we could actually check in, so we dropped off our bags and walked; even though, all we really wanted to do was shower and rest. After four hours of meandering, we made it back to the hostel, cleaned up, and if I'm remembering correctly, we played chess in the hostel's restaurant. We stopped after I lost a couple of times. Yes, I actually lost at chess. It's a tragedy, I tell you.In the afternoon, we went to Topkapi Palace. Don't waste your money on this place. Instead, buy a pretzel and walk around the parks right outside of Topkapi. They're filled with tulips, and it doesn't cost you a thing to enjoy them. Unlike Cairo, Istanbul has plenty of public parks. If there was a nice public park in Cairo, it would be full of trash, beggars, and cat shit in less than a day. It's a shame.

Spring Break - Brasov

It was a miracle that the train only arrived forty minutes late in Brasov. All of the other trains that I took arrived at least an hour late to their destinations. It was dreary outside, but I didn't mind too much because I took a taxi to the hostel. My map wasn't very good, so we got lost on some very narrow cobblestone streets, but that was no big deal because I was distracted by the misty mountains in the distance. The first two hostels that I stayed at were small and very nicely furnished, but this hostel was a typical youth hostel with several floors and lots of young adults. The hostel actually gave me vouchers for a free beer each night, but Drew caught a cold, so we just got water instead. After the rain cleared up in the afternoon, I walked around Old Brasov and went to the Black and White Towers, the Black Church, the city walls, and the main square. I also took a cable car up Tampa Mountain, which overlooks the city.

Just so you know, I've been listening to various French artists while I type: Coeur de Pirate, Jena Lee, and Christophe Maé. Songs make learning vocabulary so much easier.

Anyway, the following day I went to Peles Castle and then Bran Castle with a small group consiting of Drew and I, a German, an Australian, and our Romanian driver, who was fluent in English, German, and Romanian. The German man was the most eccentric character that I've ever met, and this blog wouldn't be complete without him. He revealed that he had gone to jail because his wife accused him of sexually assaulting their daughter. Afterwards, he worked with scrap metal in Romania. He found a lot of antique weapons, and he learned how to make replicas. This is how he made a living. He was from East Germany, and as we drove to the castles, he commented "Oh, the Communist factories--see how they crumble!" He mentioned that Communism destroyed a Czech company that made good shoes, which he somehow found and bought in Africa years later. He made a few insulting comments about Romanians and how they work as street vendors and perform menial tasks in Germany to make a living. He also kept pointing out Dacias, old Romanian cars. Somehow the topic of gypsies came up, and he seemed very interested. When we drove by their homes, our driver said "Look--a gypsy child" as if the kid was an attraction in the zoo. The German described Americans as extremely friendly and helpful as a result of his visit to the States. It was nice to hear that. Anyway, he must have been at least 65, and on three occasions he took off running, yes, running! First, he ran to relieve himself; then, he ran to buy a sandwich; finally, he ran to relocate two mating toads to a safe area. That about covers our German acquaintance.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spring Break - Budapest 3

It was rainy on our last day in Budapest, but it cleared up later. I wanted to take a tour of Parliament, but all of the tours were sold out for the entire day, so that didn't happen. Next time, Insha'Allah. I went to St. Stephen's Basilica and went up to the cupola. I wasn't a fan of the never-ending spiral staircase, but the view was completely worth it. B3da keda, I walked along Andrássy út again. Since I couldn't get the student rate at the House of Terror, I skipped it and walked around District V. some more. That evening we took the tram back to Keleti Station to take the train to Brasov.

Spring Break - Budapest 2

The next morning we had breakfast, which consisted of tea, coffee, milk, orange juice, pepperoni, salami, cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, and a couple different kinds of cheese. It was interesting, but I liked it. Afterwards, I strolled down Andrássy út to Heroes Square, City Park, and Széchenyi Baths, and I had lunch on the lawn in front of the baths. It was so nice to lie in the grass. For the record, I actually looked up whether or not I should use the word "lay" or "lie." It's somewhat complicated. It was also nice to see people walking their dogs. I somewhat creepily tried to catch up to a woman who was walking a German shepherd puppy so that I could pet him, but it didn't work out. The best thing that I saw in the park was a man laying in the grass beside his lover with his head on her chest. Seriously, it was amazing to see some love and affection after being in Cairo for so long.

Next, I walked towards the National Museum because Drew was looking for an antique map to buy for his parents. Unfortunately, all of the maps in the bookstores around the museum were way too expensive, so he didn't get one. The hostel owner had recommended checking out District V. behind Parliament, so I explored that and scoped out prices and times for boat rides on the Danube. After five hours of walking around Budapest, I felt myself readjusting to crosswalks, traffic signals, police cars, and ambulances i.e. normalcy.

There was a little restaurant below the hostel, so I grabbed some gyros and baklava there and relaxed before heading back out for the boat ride. I forgot to take Drew's walking pace into account, and we ended up running along the Danube to catch the boat, but it all worked out in the end. The boat ride was just okay. I was more entertained by the alternating descriptions of various buildings along the river in English and German. For dinner, I went to this swanky pub called Kiado Kocsma. I really liked it! Plus, I got to eat and drink in the loft. Drew learned that a liter of beer comes in a huge mug, if you can even call it that.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Spring Break - Budapest 1

Budapest was absolutely incredible! I loved it! This is where I stayed. For the second time, I ended up in a beautiful hostel; the room was massive and had a nice view of Saint Istvan Street. Here's a quick run-down of what I did. The first day I walked across the Danube to the Buda side of the city. I went up to the Fisherman's Bastion and Matthias Church. The church was under construction, so we didn't go inside, but the view was incredible. Random note, but there was a Marzipan Museum in that area too.

Next we walked to the Royal Palace, and on the way there, I played hopscotch with Drew because someone had drawn a court on the pavement. An elderly woman walked by and laughed kindly at him because he was doing it wrong. We meandered around the palace and enjoyed the view before we tackled Gellert Hill. It just wasn't meant to be because we kept walking into dead ends trying to get down from the palace's hill, but we were finally successful. Keep in mind that Cairo is very flat, so hiking up that hill was not easy for me; although, I shouldn't complain because one group of AUC students climbed Mount Kilimanjaro over spring break. If that doesn't impress you, I know a few guys that went to Georgia and Kurdistan.

In addition to the panoramic view and the snogging couples on top of Gellert Hill, there was the Citadella, some fortification from the 19th century, but I didn't check it out. At that point, I was exhausted from walking for hours. Afterwards, I went back to the Pest side towards the National Museum and found a little restaurant for dinner called Nelson's Café. Yes, it's silly, but I have to acknowledge that I legally bought my first girly drink, a pina colada, there. It's somewhat ironic, but I never really drank until I lived in Cairo, a conservative, Muslim country. Go figure.