Istanbul, Jewel on the Bosporus.

I was in Turkey back in the 80s but never really hit any of the major cities. Wandering around the deserts in the East made me want to return. And, after 30 some years, I finally managed to do so.

Obviously, Istanbul was an absolute must-stop destination. So many different travel segments have been done on the city that everybody I know who travels has either already been there or just sighs and says that they’ll get there one day. It’s that amazing o a place. And, it turns out that it’s actually all true!

Getting to Istanbul.

Getting to Istanbul is pretty easy. Most all major airlines fly there. The international airport is pretty new, vast, and requires some walking to navigate. Rolling through customs isn’t tricky, and language skills aren’t required. Everyone speaks enough English for you to get by. Getting from the airport to the city is another matter altogether. The new international airport is like 40 miles west of the city. There is no train service to it, at this point. It does have a bus service of some variety that you can use, but I wasn’t tempting fate. There are several different hotel transfer services that do a brisk business. I utilized one that I found online while still in Crete. I’m pretty sure it was called Kiwi Taxi. They took all of the hassle out of the situation. Probably the most productive $40.00 I spent while I was there. I highly suggest the hotel transfer service. Also keep in mind that the old airport on the eastern side of the Bosporus is still open and active. It is closer, but in a different direction. Check and make sure you understand what direction you are entering the city from. I flew into the new airport and out of the old airport, which caused me some temporary logistical problems.

Stop! Know the details in advance.

A word of caution: check your paperwork. The Near East isn’t Europe. Before i left the USA, I had made a whole spreadsheet with all of the information I needed about each country I thought I would visit. It had common currency, type of electric plugs used, transportation options (whether I was flying in/out or using the train), weather, and oh ya, entry requirements. I left the spreadsheet at the house, so it slipped my mind that I might need a visa to get into Turkey. Ugh! As I was laying on my hotel bed in Crete looking for hotel transfers, I happened to stumble on a website headline announcing visa requirements. Needless to say, that grabbed my attention. Fortunately for this story, it turns out you can get an almost instant eVisa, if you have a digital passport photo, a credit card, and a good internet connection. 2 or 3 hour crisis finally averted. That was, until I clicked on the US State Department website. The state department informed me that it was unwise to travel to Turkey at this time. It was highly suggested that I change my plans and don’t go. If I was to get in trouble in the eastern half of the country, they would not be coming to help me. Yes, you read that right.

Yup. The State department said don’t go. But I’ve already bought the plane tickets and reserved the room. I mean seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen?

Turns out…You can have a fantastic time!

The Old City of Constantinople.

The Sultanahmet neighborhood on the western side of the Bosporus is the area holding most of the old city gems. From a hotel in this area you can explore the must-see tourist items on foot or with a short tram ride.

Things to See and Do.

In a city the size of Istanbul, you are overwhelmed with things to do and see. You can spend every waking hour out in search of the once-in-a-lifetime must-dos, or you can just chill, and enjoy being in Constantinople. I chose the latter. It was definitely a good decision. The following is a list of things that I did while there, and very much enjoyed.

The Hagia Sophia Museum

Hagia Sophia Museum. Brownell. 2019
The Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul. 2019
Script in Hagia Sophia. Brownell. 2019
Islamic script in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. 2019
Christian iconography inside Hagia Sophia. Brownell. 2019
Restored Christian iconography inside Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul.

I confess, the reason I fly to Istanbul was to visit this church/mosque/museum. A defining piece of architecture, the Hagia Sophia is the model upon which every other great church is constructed. It is in remarkably good shape for its age, and actually looks better in real life than it’s depictions in some movies.

Now a museum, most of the masses seem to treat it that way. The go-to destination for day trippers and cruise shippers, the Lines you stand in to enter are exasperatingly long and unfriendly. But, once inside, you’ll be overjoyed that you suffered through the wait. The Hagia Sophia is magnificent! That is not an overstatement. Well maintained over the years and retaining the Islamic influences from its time as a mosque, the building is larger than life. You seem to get swallowed up in it as you look around. In the upper levels, preserved and rediscovered Christian mosaics let you feel its original spectacle. It’s hard to put its age and beauty into words that do it justice.

You won’t regret going to see it.

The Blue Mosque

Blue mosque. Brownell. 2019
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul. 2019

Where the Hagia Sophia has long been a museum, and is treated as such, the Blue Mosque is a living and working religious structure. It should be approached with some reverence.

It’s located almost directly across the open green space fro Hagia Sophia. You seriously have trouble missing it. However, it is surrounded by a low wall, so finding an entrance can take a minute.

Catching the mosque in-between the calls to prayer is your best and most-favored option. There is an entry fee into the building and the line doesn’t really seem to disappear. Externally, the building and courtyard are fantastic. Internally most mosques are pretty austere, so I skipped the line and surcharges. The courtyard was extravagant, so if you want to enter and check out the rest, don’t let that steer you clear.

The Basilica Cistern

Author inside the basilica cistern, Istanbul. Brownell. 2019
Author inside the basilica cistern, Istanbul. 2019

Yup, Dan Brown made another spot into a must-see travel destination. I walked in the footsteps of Robert Langdon yet again!

The cistern’s located just up the street from the Hagia Sophia. It has pretty standard hours and an entry fee that says they know you’re going to pay it to go in.

As a tourist attraction it doesn’t disappoint. The walk through the cistern is quite enjoyable. It’s a little hard to get good pictures in the low-light conditions, but you’ll take a bunch anyway, just as I did. If you track it down, Medusa’s head is right where it’s supposed to be.

Keep in mind, the Basilica Cistern get piles of traffic. Most of the entrants are guided tour day-trippers. The line can get huge! Try to go first-thing when they open. It helps to see it in a more peaceful manner.

The Grand Bazar

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul. Brownell. 2019
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul. 2019

The grand bazaar is another one of those must-do Istanbul locations. It’s definitely worth your time, but leave your street bazaar ideas from Middle Eastern countries at home. This isn’t that kind of place. Obviously built up over time, the bazaar is much more a covered shopping area these days. It’s still kitschy-cool. I bought some t-shirts. Go, take the walk, have a good time. You’ll have a shopping story when you return home.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Brownell. 2019
Entrance to the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. 2019

The Topkapi Palace is a staple on every top-ten list and a major chunk of The Sultanahmet neighborhood. Just like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Palace draws large crowds of tourists. Get there as early as possible.

Note number one, the audio guides will run out. They did the day I was there, literally the guy behind me got the last one they had. If you don’t want to have to wait around for somebody to return one, get there early.

Note number two, the entry price is NOT all-inclusive. You will pay extra for the harem access. Also the tower, which is a major visual draw inside the palace courtyard, is accessed through the extra charge harem area. Also, it was closed while I was there. Ugh!!

Other than those notes, GO THERE! This place is awesome. It’s no wonder that the Ottomans were an empire after seeing this place. The gardens are excellent. The inner courtyard is spectacular! The outer walls and the inner buildings are in immaculate shape, and are surprisingly airy considering their design and location. I’m not sure I can say enough good things about it. Seriously. Go there!

Bosporus River Cruise

Bosporus lighthouse. Brownell. 2019
A lighthouse in the Bosporus, as seen from the river cruise ship. 2019

Everyone should spend a couple quality hours sailing on the Bosporus. There are numerous options at numerous prices, but the majority of people leave from the ferry terminals on the north side of the Golden Horn, directly next to the bridge. There are several operators, all of which are about the same price wise, offering pretty much the same route. The boats are open-top ferry boats, holding a hundred or two each.

Some major sites are announced on the boats loudspeakers as you pass. The remainder of the trip is yours to look and wonder.

General note: since everyone on the boat wants to take pictures of the various sights, there is always congestion at the rails. Camera wielding tourists switch from one side to another as the boat goes up and down the predetermined route. If you not snapping pictures, there are plenty of seats in the middle to enjoy. The man selling tea will find you there.

Taking in the Joys.

I remember sitting in this rooftop hotel bar drinking a beer and looking out over the Blue Mosque. All the time this was happening I was pondering the idea that I was actually in Constantinople! A place so deep with history that you actually have to decide what you want to explore before hand or you’ll get lost in it all. You have to enjoy the experiences you have. If you don’t, why are you traveling? I intentionally don’t overbook my exploring, just so I know I have time to soak up some of the joy that comes my way. Sometimes, even from a rooftop bar.

Thoughts.

I am sooooooooooooooo happy that I went to Constantinople! Okay fine, Istanbul. It turned out to be a great experience, with amazing sites that I’ve been wanting to see for decades. If you use a little common sense and preplanning, you can have an excellent time. Just make sure you look at the logistics in advance. And, don’t forget about the visa! Now, get out there! Explore someplace new! Have a new experience … after the airports open back up post-corona virus.

The Wonders of Crete.

Okay, to start with this post probably should have been called the wonders of Heraklion, but Heraklion is in Crete so, there you go! Considering I had a singular vision of what Crete would be before I left, I’m super happy that I went. Crete (or the Heraklion area) is worth your travel time.

Getting my butt to Crete!

When I was planning my trip around the islands I wanted to use the ferry to go everywhere. That turned out to be way to time consuming for the time I had blocked out. I ended up flying into Santorini, but I caught the ferry from there south to Crete. Negotiating the ferry ticketing and dock area was super easy. Like hang out and drink some beers before you leave easy. The ferry from Santorini to Crete was a straight shot and lasted a couple hours.

The ferry system has well maintained vessels with plenty of amenities to occupy your time while you travel.

Understanding what time you’re actually getting into town!

Picking the one time available for the high-speed ferry on the day I wanted to leave for Crete, I didn’t really stop to ponder what time the ferry would get into the port of Heraklion. In retrospect, it might have been wise to do so beforehand.

I walked off the ferry ramp onto a poorly light and empty landing area. We were the last ferry of the day and everyone who worked there had basically gone home for the night. And, I do mean almost everybody. The guy that raised and lowered the ramp was still there, and a guy with a traffic wand directing the cars out of the area. That was about it. There was nobody at the taxi stand. There was no one at the bus stop. Everyone walking off the ferry, like I was, just disappeared out into the city darkness.

At first, a walk across a foreign city in the dark didn’t seem appealing. But with no taxis kicking around, it was a necessity. To my happiness, the walk was quiet and uneventful. I made my way from the port across town to my hotel in about 20 minutes, unbothered by the city’s nighttime traffic. Even the sketchy side streets were quiet, the people I encountered off on their own affairs.

Things to do in Heraklion.

The city is a primary entryway onto Crete, and a modern city. Even considering the city’s ancient roots, it feels much more a modern entity. But, getting out and walking around will put you in touch with it’s many pleasant wonders. Following are the things that I found interesting during my 3 days of wanderings.

The Palace of Knossos.

Palace of Knossos. Brownell. 2019
The author at the Palace of Knossos, outside Heraklion, Crete. 2019

The majority of day tripping cruise ship people know Crete for one thing. To be honest, the Palace of Knossos was the primary reason that I ventured to the island.

The Palace complex lies outside the city of Heraklion. It’s easy to get to, heavily trafficked, and impressive. Since I plan to cover it in the next post, I’ll give you a picture and move on for now.

Enjoying the street scenes in the old town.

Heraklion, Crete. Brownell. 2019
Street art on one of Heraklion’s many small side streets. 2019

The area of the city sweeping uphill from the old port is the old part of Heraklion. As with many “old towns” the area is a congestion of small streets and shops. The whole area is interspersed with statues, churches, and historical buildings. Wandering the side streets you’ll find quiet cafes and bars separated by street art and other interesting sights. Walking the many small side streets is definitely time well spent.

The old port.

The old port, Heraklion, Crete. Brownell. 2019
The old port of Heraklion with its defensive fortress guarding the entrance. 2019

One of the gems of Heraklion is the area around the old port and harbor. A collection of structures in various states of disrepair that ages from the Greeks all the way up to the Middle Ages. Old Roman dry docks on land show the old waterline of the harbor. The outer edge and breakwater give a sense for its size in antiquity.

The defensive fortress sitting about halfway out along the breakwater harkens back to the days when things weren’t as calm as they are today. The fortress’s canons have an unobstructed line of fire out into the waters of the Aegean.

The fortress is well worth both the walk out to it, and the price of admission (which is cheap enough). There are nice exhibits and a documentary film to go along with commanding views.

The Archeological Museum.

Archeological Museum, Crete. Brownell. 2019
Statuary on display at the Archeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete. 2019

As expected of anywhere in Greece, Heraklion has a well appointed archeological museum. The institution hosts a large and varied collection of objects from both Crete and surrounding islands.

Being located north of the old town area, the museum is a quick bus ride up the hill. Make your way there early, as those that don’t go to Knossos go to the museum. It can fill up quickly after mid-morning. On the way out of the museum take a little time and hang out in the museum atrium. The light breeze from the hilltop and the shade of the trees is refreshing.

The Historical Museum of Crete.

Iconography. History of Crete Museum. Brownell. 2019
One of several wonderful pieces of iconography on display at the little museum. 2019

A block or so from the waterfront you’ll find a small unassuming building that looks more like someone’s house than a museum. With a boutique gift shop area and ticket counter inside the front door, the museum turns into a multilevel story of Heraklion’s past years. A series of close hallways and tight stairways guide you up three stories. The collection is small, but also eclectic, and worth the time it will take to navigate the building.

A consideration on how to spend your time.

Old fort, Heraklion, Crete. Brownell. 2019
The author exploring the fortress at the old harbor in Heraklion, Crete. 2019

As with any touristy adventure, how you spend your time was probably considered in advance. Time can be a limited commodity for a great many people, and sites need to be seen.

I always find it better to not do this! Being an itinerary-driving traveler does an injustice to most of the places you go. I like to plan little, and wander a great deal. All of Greece is excellent for my type of tourism. There is so much to see and experience that isn’t included in any of the guidebooks. Wandering side streets and lingering in street side bars adds as much to a satisfying experience as staring at statues in museums does. That’s strictly my opinion (obviously), but I find most stories that people have about travel after returning home, don’t involve standing in crowds at a museum. Just slow down and chill a little bit. You’ll like the experience it provides.

Thoughts.

Great weather, great people, and a deep historical culture to explore, Heraklion is definitely worth the time and effort it takes to get there.

I had an excellent time just hanging out, without an agenda. Drinking a little beer and eating gyros. Hahahahaha

It really is a good island, and it lived up to all the pre-travel hype. I suggest you go!

Now get out there, after the Corona virus leaves us alone, go explore an island or two!

Santorini, more than just a cruise ship stop.

I suppose most people think of Santorini as a Greek Island covered by whitewashed houses. That’s what most all the travel pictures show. That’s pretty much what I thought of it before I ventured there.

It turns out that the island of Santorini, potential home of the lost city of Atlantis, ancient volcanic caldera responsible for the demise of the Minoan civilization, historic holder of volcanic covered cities, or fancy blue-capped whitewashed buildings is something else; it’s a major cruise ship stop! I mean an Aegean primary cruise ship stop. Multiple cruise ships at a time tie up inside the calm waters of the caldera, and unleash thousands of day-tripping t-shirt shopper on the island one tender boat at a time.

If this last bit is all you know of the island, that’s actually really sad. The island, apart from the irritating throng of cruisers, is a lazy, sleepy place. Small towns cling precariously to volcanic slopes, each having its own vibe. The people are quite enjoyable and welcoming. And the entertainments are easy enough to find. After the tenders take all the cruise people away, the island turns into a quiet and fantastical Greek Island, exactly as one would expect it to.

Santorini south shore. Brownell. 2019
Seaside restaurant by the bus stop on the southern end of Santorini. The water laps right up to your seats.

Getting to the island.

Getting to the island is easy! You can chose either water or air options. The island is serviced by the cruise ship industry, and by a host of ferry lines. The ferries and cruise ships have different ports, at different parts of the island, but are easy enough to get to by taxi.

Santorini also has an airport. It’s a short flight from several points around the Aegean. I flew in from Athens on a short flight, first thing in the morning. The airport is a sparse affair, and is serviced by taxis and a local bus service. (Don’t depend on the island’s bus service, especially if you have a bunch of luggage.)

Sunrise over Athens. Brownell. 2019
Standing on the tarmac by our plane at the Athens airport. Headed for Santorini.

Santorini airport. Brownell. 2019
Santorini airport. Waiting on a local bus.

The Cruise Ship Business.

Okay, I beat up the cruise ship people at the beginning. If you are not part of the environment they can seem like a plague of locusts. The reality is probably something different.

The cruise ships tie up inside the caldera, below the steep cliffs of Fira, it’s the center of the populated part of the island. An expedient gondola service lifts people from the cruise ship dock up to the edge of Fira town. The gondola also provides a great view of the island’s inside edge. Just go when it’s quiet.

Fira is a tight-woven warren of shops attempting to separate day-tripper’s from their money. And, their good at it! Most people make their way through the streets of shops down to the central bus station. Once there, they either go north to the blue domed churches or south to the ruins and beaches. Many will rent scooters or all terrain vehicles from one of the countless rental shops. (Make sure you have an International Drivers License with you if you plan on renting.) the scooter people zip around recklessly for about half the day, and then return to their ship.

The cruise ship timing is well established on the island. If you work around the swell of people from the ships, you can move around basically unbothered.

Santorini caldera. Brownell. 2019
Cruise ships anchored inside the Santorini caldera.

Working on Island Time.

Where Athens and the continent have a hurried and somewhat structured feeling to them, the Greek islands do not. I found that Santorini had a feeling akin to the Bahamas or the islands of Thailand. Time is an entity unto itself.

Where the whole place can seem somewhat hurried when the cruise ship crowds are descending down upon the various towns on Thera, when the same big boats pull out the whole thing changes. The island slows down. It becomes quite lazy. People linger and meander. The restaurants tend to let you sit and converse longer, not needing to turn over their tables. Having a drink and watching the sun set is an actual activity to look forward to.

And, it’s fantastic! I mean absolutely fantastic! You can actually feel yourself decompress. And you feel it more, the longer you stay. The long casual walk uphill into town from my little hotel was enjoyable, the light evening breeze cascading down the hillside through the trees and carrying along the fragrance of the fruits. Waiting for the waiter to get done with their conversation before he/she ambles over to the table you chose out of the empty street side arrangement of the restaurant is quite acceptable. Having a second drink after dinner (or breakfast) is perfectly enjoyable.

It’s all good! Once you embrace it, you will enjoy it.

Ouzo. Santorini. Brownell. 2019
Drinking an after-dinner ouzo in Fira, Santorini.

Another thing to consider about working on island time is getting around the island. Travel around the island for your basic traveler comes in two forms.

First, you can rent a scooter or ATV to whiz around the island on. Rental counters are literally everywhere! They may be in even more places than that. Outside of full time rental companies, most every hotel has rentals. A lot of regular shops have them as well. One thing to consider, you’ll need to have an international drivers license to rent something. They get pretty sticky about it too, so take one.

Second, you can take the bus. The bus runs everywhere. It runs pretty consistently. Now, you won’t find any timetables on any websites. The timetable is handwritten. It’s posted at the bus station wall in Fira with a thumbtack. No joke. I actually walked over and took pictures of it for later use. Also, they put everybody on the bus that will fit before it leaves. A gentleman makes his way through the bus and sell ride tickets while underway. You pay cash for the tickets, so keep some coins with you. When the bus is over-full it can take some time to get a ticket. The buses can be like serious third world country overfilled. But, they tend to show up on time, and their cheap.

Local Santorini bus. Brownell. 2019

One of the countless over-stuffed buses transiting the route between Fira and Oia.

The List of Things to Do.

Street shopping

Shopping street in Firi, Santorini. Brownell. 2019
One of the countless shopping streets in Fira, Santorini. A literal labyrinth of shopping, stretching from the cruise ship gondola to the Main Street.

Both Fira and Oia are literally build around the shopping experience. Both have a big section of town designated as shopping zones. You can get any of the standard tourist items. Oddly, for being such a magnet for Atlantis conspiracies, you can’t get an Atlantis tshirt (or I couldn’t find one!). That aside, you can find whatever you want. The streets are narrow and crowded, so have some patience and enjoy island time shopping.

The Beach

Red Beach. Brownell. 2019
Santorini’s famous Red Beach, as seen from the cliff side entrance trail. 2019

There are a plethora of beaches on Santorini. I mean, it is an island after all. There are beaches for all occasions. However, there are three more famous beaches among them. They are somewhat uninspiringly referred to as the red beach, the white beach, and the black beach (which is actually named Perissa Beach but known as the black beach.)

All three of the famous beaches are located along the southern section of the Santorini caldera. Two of them, the red beach and the white beach, can be reached from the southern bus stop (the bus stop for the ruins). The black beach is a little more secluded, and requires a water taxi which is also available at the bus stop.

I took a walk over to the red beach. The trail is sketchy, at best, and winds it’s way across the rock ledges of the water’s edge. It’s not a difficult walk, just narrow and heavily trafficked. The water is refreshing, so it’s worth the walk over to the beach.

Note. Parking around that area is limited. So if you’re traveling by rental scooter or car, you may need to wait a minute or two to get a parking space. People come and go constantly, so it’s not a big deal.

The Ruins

Akroteri ruins in Santorini. Brownell. 2019
Hanging out in the buried ruins of Akrotiri on Santorini.

Ruins of Akrotiri. Brownell. 2019
A section of the buried ruins of Akrotiri, on the south end of Santorini. 2019

At the southern end of Santorini are the buried ruins of the city of Akrotiri. The ruins date back to when Thera blew its top in the volcanic eruption. Though not buried anymore, they are a nice window into what the place looked like, back in the day.

The ruins are quite easy to get to. The bus that runs to the south end of the island (number 2, I think) has a bus stop right next to the entrance to the archeological complex. From Fira it’s an easy ride.

Today the Akrotiri site is covered by a large roof enclosure. It moderates the heat of the day and gives you an escape from the sun. Inside the exhibition the route around the ruins are laid out in a series of numbered stops. Each stop has large signs in a couple languages explaining individual items of note. It’s easy to traverse just by walking and reading.

Not overly pricey, and easy to reach. I enjoyed the ruins quite well.

The Blue-Domed Buildings

Blue domed churches of Oia. Brownell. 2019
The famous blue domed churches of Oia, Santorini. 2019

If you’re looking for a scavenger hunt, this is it. You would think a view as internationally known as this would be easy to find. It’s actually not. I’m not going into the turn by turn directions, as many blog sites already have done that. I suggest you look up the path before you go.

Also, the area where you can get a quality picture has limited space. It will inevitably also be swelled with throngs of cruise ship people. Be patient and polite. It’s really that simple.

Now getting to Oia is pretty easy. There is a bus that runs from Fira to Oia fairly regularly. The bus drops off just outside the market area. From there you just head uphill toward the congestion. The Blue Domes are Oia’s big draw. They’re worth the bus ride and scouting trip necessary to find them. After that, and two dozen pictures, Oia is worth an exploration for lunch and souvenirs. Then, you’re back on the bus.

The sunset

There’s supposedly a famous place on the north side of the island where people go to watch the sun set. I don’t know where it is, because I never went. By that point in the day, I was already drinking. Sorry!

Thoughts.

When I arrived on Santorini, I had three whole days to kick around and explore. I literally thought I was going to go insane doing nothing. Once I downshifted to Island time I didn’t want to leave. It was soooooo excellent to not need to be any particular place, at any particular time. Even sitting by the hotel pool drinking ouzo was the best use of my time, if I chose it.

It is such a chill place. The people are very gracious and accommodating. The weather is spectacular. The water was even warm and accepting. It was everything you want an island to be. It was excellent. I highly recommend it. The Greek island of Santorini is absolutely worth a stop.

Now, get out there and find an island experience to enjoy!

The current situation in world travel.

There is an ever-growing disconnect between what guide books and travel companies are selling and what tourists end up buying. The hardships and harsh realities of our world effect everything, including the wonders of the world at large. Overpopulation and over-tourism have had impacts (both good and bad) on many cultural areas in the world.

The pressure to keep a tourist attractions pristine versus the pressure of the outside world pushing in around them is a hard thing for many countries to content with. If you travel enough, and by travel I mean non-itinerary non-package travel, you can’t help but notice the downward shift in status to many areas in the last several decades. It’s a sad fact of life on a planet with an ever-increasing population.

The way you think it is.

You come up out of the metro, look at your tourist map you acquired from the hotel (or a thousand other places), fix your view uphill at the Parthenon, and start walking. You turn a corner here, and a corner there, and by complete surprise you round another and run into ruins. White columns stand sturdy in the morning sun telling you of a time when Athens was a mighty city-State. You walk briskly down the little street and peer into the gated area, outlining the space that was once Hadrian’s Library. You read the sign, take a few snaps, and sigh.

Ruins in downtown Athens. BROWNELL, May 2019.
Ruins found in downtown Athens. May 2019.

The way it is a lot of the time.

You come out of your hotel in the stark light of day (because you got there in the middle of the night, having taken the cheapest flight you could get) and are greeted by a rundown, graffiti covered alleyway that leads to the Main Street. You push on, swearing softly to yourself that you need to start making better hotel choices, and realize that this street isn’t just the local paint spot. You turn the corner and the breakdown of society continues on, completely robbing the next street of any value. You bust out of of this gauntlet of urban decay, hoping to find the central square by the metro in better states. When you reach the Main Street, the traffic is so congested that you just walk between the car. The locals give you that annoyed tourist look, but you kind of don’t care at this point, because the touts in the square have already seen you and are ready to try and sell you bunches of crap you don’t want. You sigh, realizing you only have three more days of this, and keep trudging toward the graffiti-covered sign arrowing your way toward the Parthenon.

A side street in Athens, Greece. BROWNELL, May 2019

A random street in Athens, Greece. May, 2019.

The idea behind over-tourism.

The idea of over-tourism has been around for a considerable amount of time. Places like Athens, Rome, and Venice have long been complaining about the problems that it brings with it.

To be honest, I don’t think that there’s a fix for it. With ever-increasing populations of people that have the ability and the means to go abroad the situation can really do nothing but get worse. What one can do is adjust to new realities.

The first suggestion is about timing. I mentioned it a couple times in the last post about being at the venue before it opened to get in without crowds. The majority of the tourists these days travel in an organized group; bus trips, cruise ships adventures, day tour groups, and the like. These groups have almost universally predictable schedules. They appear between 9-10 in the morning, and retire about 4 in the afternoon. Working on either side of this time block will help the single or couples traveling independently to have a better experience.

Second suggestion is also about timing. I tend to travel on the shoulder season. This is especially true in Western Europe, as it reduces prices considerably. The mass of the population travels during warm season or cold season (beach or ski season). There are sometimes limited hours or limited options in lodging during the shoulder season, but the lack of crowds more than makes up for that. I’m completely convinced of this.

Below are two pictures to sumerize what a difference 2 hours can make at a major attraction. (While in Madrid, I planned wrong and literally left because of the huge lines at the Palace. I returned the next day and had a very nice experience.)

Steps up to the Parthenon at the opening of the day. BROWNELL, May 2019
The steps to the Parthenon just after the 8:00 opening. May, 2019

Steps up to the Parthenon a couple hours after opening. BROWNELL, May 2019.
The steps up to the Parthenon, a couple hours after opening. The crowds did not get less from this point on. May 2019

Things you were told never to do that are now perfectly acceptable.

There is an axiom that I learned many years ago. You never discuss politics or religion while drinking. Truer words have never been spoken. Well, up until a couple years ago, anyway.With the over-population of the tourist world, and the advent of global media, some of the rules have loosened. I’ve had some fabulous political conversations in bars, religious conversations in churches, and tourist conversation with taxi drivers. People in other places aren’t immune to the global situation, and can be genuinely curious about the reality of situations in other parts of the world (as opposed to the distorted views presented by the media).

My suggestion, just go into these conversations gently and honestly. You’ll find them extremely rewarding. (I had a fantastic conversation about Geopolitics with the guy at the front desk of my hotel. It was fact based and timely. He had come to Athens from one of the islands, and had insights that I wasn’t going to hear on any tv network.)

Thoughts.

Okay, I realize that sections of this were an over-dramatization of the realities of life. I also realize that I’ve kind of been picking on Athens, and not spreading the joy around Europe. Most European cities have these problems, to one degree or another. Not only Europe, but north and South America as well.

There’s no real fix for the issues that present themselves, other than limiting the amount of tourism (which some cities and countries are already looking at) or cutting the global population back down to realistic numbers (which probably isn’t going to happen). The days of undiscovered ruins and un-crowded archeological sites are a thing of the past. My best advice is to study the place you want to go, and go when it seems that other people aren’t going. Off-peak traveling, and end of day museums stops may help you have a better travel experience.

*****To be fair*****

I have to say that I loved Athens. Once I looked past all the graffiti and people doing drugs in alleyways, there was a host of things to do and experiences to be had. The food and beer scene was excellent. Their ruins and museums are well-kept, and world-class. And the people, once you stop to talk with them, are warm and engaging. Try and look part the problems, and see the true essence of a place. It will help you have a better time. Just sayin…..

Athens. Athens. Athens.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone knows where Athens is. It’s such an enormous seat of history and myth that it still demands a place among the great stops in the world of travel.

I have personally been wanting to hit up Athens ever since I started reading Greek Mythology. It’s one of those iconic places. It’s sights are (still) world class. It’s food is fantastic. And, it’s people are very, very Greek.

Of Greece, Athens is the place where it all comes to a focus. This last statement is true of all things Greece. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The cultural, and the political. It’s all in Athens for the taking.

Getting to Athens.

Once again, everyone knows where the city is, especially the travel industry. All major airlines have a route there. You can get there by ferry, and by train. You can also drive, if you choose.

I chose to fly in. I caught a flight out of Geneva to the Athens International Airport. The airport is on the outskirts of the city (a trend for major airports in Europe), but is easy enough to transit through. The metro system has a direct connection to the city center, which makes late arrivals manageable. Taxis, and a city bus are also options. I chose the metro train, as it had a stop close by my hotel.

If you’ve never been to Athens before, do some research before just diving in. The nicer tourist parts of the city aren’t necessarily where you think they are. Areas around major tourist attractions (normally a prime hotel area in most European cities) can not be the best areas for unseasoned travelers. I stayed in the seedier part of the city, and though I had a marvelous time, it’s not the spot for first-timers or older, more cautious tourists.

Getting Around the City.

Walk. It’s pretty much that simply. Athens isn’t massive. It’s significant ruins and museums are all congested in and around the middle of the city. The city is quite vertical for Europe, so you will want to pace yourself. It’s not strolling through the countryside here, it’s urban adventuring. You’ll burn off the calories by the end of the day.

For the outlying museums, ferry ports, and other such items, the metro will get you where you want to go. The metro train does have a daily time schedule and doesn’t run continuously. If you have an early connection, set up a pickup from your hotel, just to be safe. I had an early flight, so I had my hotel set up a transfer to the airport. It worked out wonderfully, and without added anxiety.

Street side cafe, Athens. Brownell, May 2019
A street side cafe on the way up the hill to the Acropolis. A great place to stop for a coffee. May, 2019.

The Major Sites.

Athens, like Rome, is replete with stuff to look at. There are layers of history in the city. All of them still vying for space on the world stage.

With too many things to chose from, I chose the pieces I found to be the most interesting to me. Guide books are filled with expansive lists of stops, all of them have their due. These are the ones I enjoyed most.

The Acropolis.

The Parthenon. Brownell, May 2019.
Your obligatory picture of the Parthenon. As seen from the entranceway to the Acropolis. May, 2019

The Acropolis is the preeminent, must-see item in Athens. Fortunately, you can see it from just about anywhere. It sits well above the remainder of the city, so walk in the general direction of the hill and signs will get you the rest of the way.

Two words of caution. It fills up and never empties, so be there before the gates open (to be first in) or you’re going to be lost in a sea of other people. And, the ticket price ain’t cheap! They know you’re gonna pay, so use the multiple attraction pass and save a little cash.

As for the state and stateliness of the ruins overlooking the city. It’s exactly what you’re going to be expecting. Even in its ruined state, it’s awe inspiring.

After you have seen it up close, make sure to hang out in the market square one evening while you’re there. The whole complex gets lit up in multicolored lighting after dark. It’s pretty cool to see.

The Agora.

The Temple of Hephaestus in the Athens Agora. Brownell, May 2019.
The Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora of Athens, as seen from the Acropolis. May, 2019.

When you look down from the Acropolis and wonder what the well-preserved temple below is, that’s the Agora. A cheaper, and (I think) wholly better cultural experience.

More than a single temple, the Agora is a whole complex of temples and buildings. Their state ranges from semi-well preserved to ruins, and there are remnants of every kind to examine. A small exhibit/museum at its middle displays the important pieces.

The Agora is well shaded, and can represent a nice rest from the heat, especially after you have walked down from the Acropolis. It’s well worth your time.

Church of the Holy Apostle.

Dome of the Church of the Holy Apostle, Athens Agora. Brownell, May 2019.
The inside of the dome, Church of the Holy Apostle. Located in the Athens Agora. May, 2019.

Located in a quiet corner of the Agora, the church is a marvelously intact structural. There are many tiled frescos in the 10th century structure, but the inside of the dome is my favorite.

The inside of the church is otherwise sparsely decorated, beholding the Greek Orthodox style, but it is in definite contrast to the older temples that surround it.

The National Archeological Museum

Aphrodite and the Satire. Athens Museum. Brownell, May 2019
Statue of Aphrodite and the Satire. Athens Museum, May 2019

As you would expect, the National Archeological Museum is the one stop for everything old and Greek. The collection is expansive and consumes several floors of a massive building out and away from the major tourist sites. The metro will get you close to the museum, and a short walk will finish it off.

Again, like the Acropolis, plan on being there when the doors open. The museum draws huge crowds and bus tour groups. If you aren’t first in line, you may not necessarily enjoy the experience (as much).

Thoughts.

The city is a great many things. It’s congested, crowded, seriously over-populated, over-touristed, dirty, graffiti covered, and loud. It’s also old, historied, friendly, easy to access, contains minimal travel barriers, has awesome food, and good drinks.

In a city that is as stretched at the seams as Athens is, one needs to look for the good. There is plenty to find. If you make an attempt to avoid the crowds, eat and drink local (think side streets), and turn a blind eye to the obvious crime problems, you’re going to have a good time.

Athens, in a great many ways, is a poster child for what is happening to many old European cities. You can hate it or your can deal with it. In the end, the Greek people will turn the tide of opinion in your mind. They’re great people and are proud of their history. Go see them. You’ll enjoy the experience.

Statue of a Greek soldier at the military museum in Athens. Brownell, May, 2019

Statue of a Greek Soldier protecting the entrance to the Military Museum in Athens, Greece. Circa May, 2019

Now get out there! Go see what the world has to offer.

Zermatt, Switzerland, Looking Up At The Matterhorn.

When I was making plans for the European summer experience, the second place I wrote down was The Matterhorn. I blame this on growing up with Bugs Bunny.

It wasn’t until I started looking at how to get there that I came to learn about the town of Zermatt. A small little mountain town dedicated to the mountain lifestyle, conveniently situated at the foot of the mountain. It seemed the right spot to head toward.

Zermatt turns out to be a fantastic little town. A basically car free collection of hotels and shops, with hiking trails and chair lifts that leave right from town. Though designed around the 365 day a year skiing business, it has many items to offer summer sport seekers. It is also a Mecca for tourists just excited to get a look at the mountain. People like me. There’s a fair amount of upscale options, and a goodly amount of cheaper backpacker options for hotel, bar scene, and shopping.

Getting Into The Mountains.

Unless you have a car and some experience driving in the Alps, you’re taking the train. The shuttle train runs from a connection in Visp up-up-up hill to its termination in Zermatt. Since Zermatt is a car-free Town, if you drive in you’ll need to park your car in Tasch and take the train the remainder of the way. You can also get a taxi out of Tasch, if that’s more to your liking. Just don’t overthink it and take the train.

Entrance to the train station in Zermatt, Switzerland. Brownell, May 2019.
“Taxis” waiting outside the main entrance to the Zermatt train station. May, 2019.

Touring Zermatt.

The charm of a place like Zermatt come in the form of its proposed detachment from society. It’s small. It’s charming. You walk where you want to go. The climate, even in May, is brisk.

The center of the town is a warren of small streets, tightly packed with shops and hotels. A small mountain stream transects the middle of town and allows you to get your bearing, when needed. A church, and two cemeteries also occupy the middle of town, reminding everyone that the Matterhorn is more for climbing than skiing.

A museum that covers Zermatt’s sorted history occupies a subterranean section under the middle of the main town area. For a small town, there is enough to see and do to keep someone pleasantly distracted for a couple days.

Downtown Zermatt, Switzerland, during the slow season. Brownell, May 2019
One of the many bars and restaurants laying in hibernation, waiting for the winter tourist season. Zermatt, Switzerland, May 2019

The surroundings of Zermatt, Switzerland. Brownell, May, 2019
The mountain lodges that dot landscape around the mountain town of Zermatt, Switzerland. Circa May, 2019

Zermatt Church, Zermatt, Switzerland. Brownell, May 2019

The local church located in the middle of the main town of Zermatt, Switzerland. May 2019

The Matterhorn.

The mountain is best viewed from the far end of town. Though the buildings in town are necessarily small, the tight confines of the streets make the best views just outside of town by the chairlifts. That being said, you can see the mountain from almost everywhere in town.

The Matterhorn. Brownell, May 2019
The snow covered face of the Matterhorn, as seen from the edge of Zermatt, Switzerland. Circa May, 2019

Thoughts.

If I get the chance I plan on returning to Zermatt. It’s mountain charm is invasive and the people are quite friendly, considering the tourist levels. If you find yourself traveling through the Swiss Alps, think about giving Zermatt a try. If for no other reason than to get a good picture of the mountain, and an afternoon drink by the fire.

Have fun. Go find new places.

An Evening at the Bullfights.

The bullfights in Madrid happen throughout the warmer months. Festival season (from around May) sees bullfights every day, where the remainder of the summer they are weekly events.

The Bullfights in Spain are very much a cultural event. Attendance ranges from young couples and family, to the older sections of the population. It can be date night, and escape, or a place for a gathering of old friends.

An evening at the Bullring is a formal affair. The locals dress for the occasion. If you rush back to your hotel and drag the best clothes out of your backpack, as I did, you will find yourself underdressed. Fear not, the local may look at you funny, but they accept you nevertheless.

The Venue.

The Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, known locally as Las Ventas, is located in the northeastern section of Madrid’s city center. Inaugurated in June, 1931, it is the heart of bullfighting in Madrid. A large, open air venue, it has a capacity of almost 24,000 people.

Consuming all of Plaza 1, it’s a purpose built facility. The venue is serviced by both the local bus routes and the metro system. A metro stop at the plaza provides direct access to the Bullring.

The Bullring has a free flowing feel and numerous access points. There is no real need to arrive in advance to get to your seat. People show up continuously, throughout the experience. The venue empties just as effortlessly.

The exterior of the Las Ventas Bullring in Madrid. Brownell. Madrid, May 2019
The exterior of the Las Ventas Bullring, leaving in the evening, after the bullfights. Madrid, circa May, 2019

Getting Your Tickets

There are several different online sites that provide tickets to the various bullfights. The venue also has an online sales portal available.

If you’re in Madrid, I recommend going straight to the box office at the venue. There are different ticket prices and options, and the people at the box office can give you current information. The tickets for the evening I was there ranged from $20.00 to the mid $200.00s. My ticket ended up costing $42.00.

Spanish is the language of the staff, so if you don’t speak Spanish it gets a little more complicated. Don’t let that trouble you though. Getting tickets ends up being the same as getting dinner or anything else. You smile and go slowly, it’ll work itself out.

The Program

My evening’s program consisted of three matadors. Each matador fight three bulls, resulting in nine actual bullfights.

Much like baseball in the US, or Formula 1 in Europe, the bullfights do come with a program. It gives general information and statistics about each matador, and the statistics of each bull. The program is written in Spanish, but can also just be a nice event souvenir.

A General Idea Of What’s Coming

while the initial crowds are taking their seats, the grounds crew set down the caulk lines in the ring floor and finishes general sand grooming.

The evening’s affairs then start with a entrance procession. All of the matadors, horsemen, and extra all come out and are greeted by the crowd in a parade of individuals.

After the entrance procession is complete, everyone takes their places and readies themselves. The first matador Of the evening will stride to the center of the Bullring and present himself to the crowd. The matador’s charismatic showmanship and bravado is greeted by applause from the crowd. When applause are complete, the first bull of the evening is released into the Bullring and the bullfights begin.

With three main matadors and three rounds of bulls to be fought, the bullfights go into the dark of the evening hours. Starting (pretty promptly) at 7pm, my evening at the bullfights concluded about 9:30pm.

Start of the Madrid bullfights. Brownell. May, 2019
The procession of Matadors and auxiliary players at the beginning of the bullfights. Madrid, circa May, 2019

What To Expect

Blood. Blood in the sand is what you should expect. Lots of blood.

After the bull gets run around the ring by the assistant matadors to get its adrenaline up, the bull is then engaged by two armored horsemen who spear the bull with hardwood long-handled spears. Once speared by the horsemen, a series of small spears from the matador are used to really get the bull’s blood flowing. After a sufficient amount of time, the lead matador skewers the bull with a sword sunk hilt-deep into the bull’s neck.

It should be noted that if the matador misses sinking the sword on the first try or produces a shot to the bull causing excessive pain to the animal, it is met by the crowds with rejecting howls and shouts. The crowds aren’t there to see the bull suffer needlessly due to an unprofessional matador.

Sword in place, the bull is allowed to thrash about until the blood loss topples him. Once he is deemed to be no longer able to attack, another man approaches the bull and give it a coup de grace by cutting the animal’s throat.

Once dispatched, a team of horses comes out and drags the dead bull out of the Bullring. A grounds crew comes in next and rakes the sand to cover the blood and make the ring ready for the next fight. Sometimes, the blood cleanup can take time. There can be a lot of blood.

Madrid bullfights. Brownell. May, 2019
The culminating point of the bullfight. The matador and bull square off for a final showdown. Madrid, circa May, 2019

Thoughts

I’ll start this by saying that I don’t have a gentle heart. Wether it’s human, animal, or oak tree, if it needs killing then kill it. However, if it doesn’t, then you should probably just let it be. (You’ll usually just make it mad.)

I understand the draw of the bullfights. It’s the draw of any pugilistic sport. The application of man against an oppositional force. That being said, if you aren’t accustom to the impact of such events, you’ll find it off-putting. I’m comfortable with combative sports, as most westerners are, and still found it to be excessive. After about the 4th bullfight, I was outrightly rooting for the bull.

The structure of the event overwhelmingly tilts the odds in favor of the matador. The bull stands little chance in being the victor. The best it can hope for is to kill the matador before it’s dispatched.

It’s a natural leap for how a society can slowly transition from the spectacle of the bullfights to the wonder of the colosseum. Even the events of the Roman Colosseum started with animal fights. I’m not equalizing the two. I’m just saying that I can see how you could go from one to the next.

The Bullring is a centerpiece of life in Madrid. It is something that, I think, should be experienced to appreciate all that is Madrid. You are going to have difficulty finding a similar experience in today’s society. I say, go do it. But don’t go into it with preconceived ideas. That will do it, and the people of Madrid, an injustice.

Leave your western notions behind, go have an experience like no other. The most important thing about traveling is to be granted the opportunity to form your own opinions based upon actual experiences, not what someone else told you to believe.

Now, go. Go have new experiences. Expand your boundaries.