Sunday, June 29, 2008

Irish summers are a bummer

I returned home from France this week praying that summer weather would have arrived in Galway. My husband warned me otherwise. June could have easily been mistaken for March, April, May, even October. It rained...a lot. The wind blew. Damon wore his hooded raincoat every day. Nothing new. I savored every day I spent in France and Hungary, soaking up the humid air and sunshine. I keep hoping that summer will arrive; they'll be sunny skies and opportunities to wear shorts and tank tops.

I won't hold my breath.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Adventure #27: France and Hungary

My second (and final) big work trip of my year abroad centered around a documentary filming project with B.Napa Films. My company commissioned film maker Bret Lyman, the founder of B.Napa, to make short documentary films profiling each of our winery clients in France and in Hungary.

Bret and I spent roughly two weeks on location, working from sunrise to sunset. From a geographic standpoint, this trip was a repeat of all the regions I visited in France in April while scouting shots for the June filming trip: Rhone Valley, Burgundy and Champagne. (See previous blog post.)

Hungary was a new destination for me, so I've chosen to focus on it for this post.

We spent two days in the Tokay region, about 2.5 hours east of Budapest. We stayed in the village of Mad, where Royal Tokaji is located. To read an interesting story about Mad, click here. Mad is a charming, sleepy little place. Although this village is the birthplace of the Tokaj Renaissance and Tokaji wines have re-emerged on the international stage since 1990, the local community is just beginning to wrap its arms around the idea of tourism and capitalism, after so many years under Communist rule. A hotel has opened in town, buildings are being restored, a few bars have opened. Even more much-needed tourism development is happening around the nearby village of Tokaj. The two rivers that meet near Tokaji village throw off a mist that contributes to the fungus that grows on the Tokaj grapes and helps shrivel the berries so they can be made into Tokaji Aszu wines. Tokaji wines are some of the richest and rarest in the world. Because tourism is just getting started here, it's definitely an interesting place to visit if you prefer a more rustic, quaint travel experience. The 13th/14th-century cellars built under the villages are incredible. I encouraged them to start hosting cellar/cave tours in the summer. Lunch at the Grof Degenfeld Castle Hotel (on the terrace) with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling wine should not be missed.

Budapest is a very charming city, actually two cities -- Buda on the west side of the River Danube and Pest on the other. I didn't bring my pocket camera on the trip, but here are some great pictures of the city.

We had an incredible dinner at the famous Gundel's restaurant in Pest, replete with musicians, Hungarian food and spoonfuls of the rare Essencia from Royal Tokaji Wine Company. The architecture of Budapest was an interesting mix of old and new. Lots of old mansions had been converted to museums or museums with restaurants, cafes downstairs. Walking through Heroe's Square and down the Andrassy Avenue, now a World Heritage Site, was quite an experience. There was an exciting vibe throughout the city; maybe it was the arts festival that was taking place, but I also sensed an air of liberation still alive and well in Budapest, some 20 years after the fall of Communism in Hungary.

Bret also traveled to Alsace without me, as I had to return to Ireland to pick up cousin Bruce for his holiday.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Adventure #26: Cruising Greece and Turkey

Who could possibly spend one year living in Europe without taking advantage of the opportunity to cruise one of this country's sparkling seas? This was the question we asked ourselves last December before booking a week-long cruise around Greece for a last big vacation of our year abroad.

Budget Travel summer holiday magazines profiled a trip called Pearls of the Aegan with Thomson Cruises, a UK-based company. Though drinks were priced in pounds and the ship, Emerald Princess, was showing her age (2008 is her last year of voyage), we were still thrilled with our first cruising experience and the value of our vacation. Sure, there were only three couples our age on this vessel. Cruises might be packed with eldery folks, but we were all about the destinations, so we had a blast -- especially making fun of the live entertainment on the ship -- definitely catering to the old, English clientele. We had to walk out on the comedian one night because we didn't get any of his jokes. :)

We had no idea how many islands there were surrounding Greece -- according to Wikipedia, there are about 1,400 islands of Greece, of which 227 are inhabited. Only 78 islands have more than 100 inhabitants. And the islands are divided into different groups with names we'd never knew existed. Nor did we know how many different seas surrounded Greece that we would have the opportunity to cross over seven days. It truly was a fascinating vacation from every aspect.

We flew from Dublin direct to Corfu on a charter flight (typical of holidays booked through Budget Travel) and boarded our ship there on a Friday. We spent the first day getting the lay of the land on the ship, then we hiked up to the old fort of Corfu. Corfu, the island, is a Greek island on the Ionian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean. Corfu, the town, is a quiet village with a charming, old-town district. Great architecture, influenced by the Venetians during their reign.


We spent our second day at sea, lounging on one of the decks, tanning our sun-deprived Irish skin. An amusing safety training was also conducted that morning.

When we awoke on Sunday morning, the cliffs of Santorini welcomed us from our round, cabin window. We learned what a soft-port is this day -- cruise ships can't dock at shore; they anchor offshore and small boats taxi passengers to the shore. Santorini is essentially what remains of an enormous volcanic explosion. It is one of the most stunning places we've ever seen in our lives, in terms of the cliffs, the waters, the architecture. We definitely want to return here some day to spend more than just one day. If you only have time to look at one slide show, pick this one!

Santorini is part of the Cyclades Islands of Greece. (It's also a wine-producing island, so one of places I was definitely interested in checking out.) There are only three ways to get from the port at the bottom of the cliffs to the towns at the top: 1) ride the gondola; 2) ride the donkeys; 3) walk up the steep donkey trails. We opted for the gondola, where tragedy struck: Damon dropped his camera when exiting the gondola, sending it flying across the concrete. The injuries appeared fatal. Could there be any worse fate for a photographer on his first day of vacation? During our exploration of the area around Thira, the main town on the island, after many hours, he finally figured out a way to rig the camera to work again and took a few incredible shots in the process. (Scotch tape saved the day.) There are only a few streets where cars can drive near Thira, the rest are paths, sidewalks, winding through a sea of stacked, white stucco buildings perched high on the edge of the cliffs. We hiked to a rock formation, got nasty sunburns, and I stopped off in an art shop and bought a Nazar Boncugu, the Evil-Eye hanging bead. I thought these were Greek, but when I got to Turkey, I was told the Greeks borrowed the concept from the Turks.) Then we had an amazing traditional Greek lunch at Restaurant Aris, part of the Loukas Hotel, overlooking the sea before a stroll through the shopping district and taking a long, stinky, amusing walk down the donkey trail to a seaside bar for a bottle of Mythos. We then returned to the ship for our overnight travel to the next destination.


We hopped off the ship the next morning in Kusadasi, a port town on the west coast of Turkey, with no expectations and very sketchy plans. We knew we wanted to visit the ancient city of Ephesus, but we didn't want to partake in any group bus tours organized by our cruise ship. Serendipitiously, we ended up in a taxi cab driven by a young, friendly Turkish guy who used to live in Los Angeles and also studied wine while he was there. All he wanted to do was talk about wines -- California, Oregon, Washington, New Zealand, Australia -- you name it. His family owns a hotel, Hotel Bella, in Selcuk, near Ephesus, with a restaurant on the top roof. He offered us a fair price to drive us to Ephesus, gave us a private tour outside the entrance, lent us his tourism book on the ancient ruins, then picked us up after we spent 1.5 hours walking through the ruins. The ruins of Ephesus were spectactular. Hard to compare to Rome, but so fascinating due to their age, the location (in the middle of an arid, forested valley), the fact that only 10% has been excavated and that the entire city used to be on the harbor, but earthquakes and time have moved the water several kilometers westerward. The city itself was founded in the 10th-century BC!!!

We then drove to Selcuk to see the Isa Bey Mosque on Ayasoluk Hill and the 6th-century basilica of St. John the Apostle. Damon ended up photographing their hotel for them, they took us to their rooftop terrace to try some local Turkish foods and photograph the baby storks nesting around the street. We also bought a beaded, hanging piece, shaped in a diamond, which is supposed to be some Turkish good luck charm for your home, but I can't find the name on the internet anywhere.

Back at Kusadasi, Damon detested the pesky salesmen at the Grand Bazaar market near the port, so we took a public shuttle bus (quite an experience itself) to Ladies Beach for some sunbathing and lunch. The Muslim influences on life were ever-present. I noticed, few, if any, local women at the beaches. Many Turkish men were hanging out on the sand in their swimming trunks only, but rarely with a woman by their sides -- always accompanied by other men. Kusadasi was quite touristy, like Gran Canaria in our opinion (at least the closest beaches and areas near the port we visited); not much ethnic, local experiences to be had and lots of garden-variety shops and restaurants catering to Northern European tourists who want to eat fish and chips when they are in Turkey. We did manage to find some Turkish food at Ladies Beach and sampled one of the best beers I've ever tasted in my life, Efes Dark.

Western Turkey:

We woke up early the next morning in Piraeus, the port of Athens. After a 40-minute walk to the Metro station, we found our way into the heart of Athens, located about 9 km south-east of the port. It goes without saying that the history of Athens, and each of its ancient architectural highlights, would be hard to capture in any blog. It's one of the world's oldest cities, with a recorded history spanning at least 3,000 years.

We had a full day to explore, and saw as much as we could. We learned that many of the churches, oldest structures in the old town of Athens date from the Byzantine era. We walked throughout the city. Our highlights included:

First Cemetery of Athens
Athenian Acropolis
Temple of Olympian Zeus
Plaka neighborhood
Temple of Hephaestus
Ancient Agora
Roman Agora
Philopappou Hill

We also tried to find a bouzouki bar to listen to authentic music before boarding the ship, but learned that musicians didn't start playing until at least 10 p.m., and we were far out to sea by that time. But we did get to sample local souvlaki sandwiches. We both agreed that the Acropolis was a little disappointing, only because there are so many tourists herding around the ruins and restoration work limits the magnificent photo opportunities. Cranes, fabrics and scaffolding obstructed the Parthenon especially. But somebody's got to try to preserve such a priceless part of civilization, right?

I believe this was the night I realized something was seriously wrong with my skin. Itchy, red bumps had popped up all over my calves. The ship doctor, who didn't speak much English, charged me 40 pounds and said it was an allergy. Shouldn't a doctor on a cruise ship be able to recognize a sun rash when he sees it? I got some ointment, but it didn't help much.


Our day in Mykonos, another Cyclades island, was the shortest of all ports of call, sadly, due to the long overnight journey ahead to Zakynthos. We strolled through the capital city of Hora, took some amazing photos of the white-washed architecture and some playful kittens, then hiked up the hills in search of great vista views before boarding the bus to Platis Gialos beach, one of the more low-key, family beaches and the closest to Hora. (There are also gay and nude beaches a little farther away which we skipped, of course.) I tried to keep my sun rash covered as much as possible as we lounged on cushiony chairs in the sand. I gathered lots of cool stones along the shore before we headed back to Hora to catch the final bus back to the ship, with only five minutes to spare. (This was typically the case for us throughout the trip -- first people off the boat, and last back on before the ship left port.)


My skin rash spread overnight; Damon became inflicted too, unfortunately. For our last new port of call, Zakynthos, another Ionian island, like Corfu. (This was also a soft-port, which means it took a little longer to get to shore.) We'd hoped to find a half-day boat tour at Zakynthos where we could see the loggerhead sea turtles, as well as Shipwreck Cove and the Blue Caves. But all of the boats left an hour or so before we arrived at port. So we took an afternoon boat ride in the bay of Laganas to see the loggerheads, then visited an island (possibly Marathonisi) to sunbathe for an hour (not a good idea with our skin at this point), before heading south to see the Keri Caves. The Laganas area was overly developed restaurants and bars catering to English-speaking tourists. We did, however, enjoy walking around Zakynthos Town and found a great local pottery maker. We had fun that day but probably wouldn't go back to this island.


Our final day was spent back in Corfu, strolling through the streets of old town. A bus drivers strike caused some panic with travelers that morning, but we had no problems with our charter bus from the port to the airport. We did, however, feel very sorry for the hundreds of people standing out in the blazing sun at the airport, trying to figure out how to get to their final destinations.

It took seven days for the sun rash to heal but the memories will last forever. What a great way to experience a cruise for the first time.