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Category: Istanbul -> Paris (page 2 of 3)

Day Eleven

We got to wake up in Montmarte, and it was glorious. Our Airbnb looks out over a great courtyard, so we get to see and hear this small part of Paris wake up around us. 

After lounging around for a while, we roused ourselves and headed to a recommended brunch spot, Marcel. After having amazing poached eggs, we decided to more thoroughly investigate the neighborhood around us. 

Perched up on a rather steep hill, narrow winding roads connected by a series of stairways had a certain familiarity to it. We poked around side streets and eventually ended up at Sacre Coeur. 

It’s a beautiful building, both inside and out. While nice that it is free to visit, this made it very busy and so we made our visit brief. The overcast day hedges the view a bit too, even though it was still spectacular. Returning on a clear day is in our future. 

More exploring gave us our bearings. Grocery. Wine store. Restaurants we wanted to return to. A slow map was building of all the places you can’t read about or look up until you’re finally at the place. 

So we spent the rest of our evening planning, buying tickets, arranging loose schedules of days. Of course the baguette and bottle of wine helped tremendously. 

We headed to bed early, knowing tomorrow was an early rise to try and get to the Eiffel Tower before the huge lines struck. 

Day Ten


We slept in. We had to. We just traveled 2800 kilometers in a handful of days, stopping in some amazing places. So we slept in. 

After sneaking out just before checkout time, we had the hotel hold our bags as we started taking in the sites. We walked without purpose, merely hoping to find a cafe at some point. Wide tree lined streets, gorgeous buildings, accents and fashion a plenty; all the things we’ve been told about for years were finally becoming first hand experiences. 

We finally settled on a cafe we liked and had a delicious late breakfast. Settling in, we both faced the sidewalk for some slow coffee drinking and plenty of people watching. 

Eventually we headed off to the Jardin des Plantes, enjoying the crowds of locals enjoying their weekends set against a wonderful variety of plants and flowers. I guess they named the park correctly. 

A short walk along the Seine and we wandered through Ile Saint Louis. We finally got our first photo of Notre Dame, but resisted the urge to take more, knowing we would have to spend a large part of a day in the future there. 

We took a long arc back to the hotel to gather our things before heading to Montmarte and our Airbnb. Some more pastries and drinks refreshed us, and we began our subway journey. A transfer and way more steps than we expected had us on top of the hill, wandering down streets until we found the right building. 

We unpacked. And not just a change of clothes for a day. We really unpacked, but everything away, settled in. We now had a home for a week. The travel had been great, we’ve seen tons, but it was wonderful to walk to a corner store and buy some soap, a cold beer and s bottle of wine, knowing we had some place to leave them. 

We headed back out for dinner, a bit too early as it turned out, and had to “settle” for a cheese and meat plate with some rosé at a cafe that was open while we waited for restaurants to start their service. 

After finding our first choice booked solid for the night, we headed to Oggi, and Italian themed restaurant a few blocks from our place. What a wonderful decision. Delicious pasta, a food which largely didn’t exist anywhere we had been so far, was a delicious treat. Accompanied with great French wine, it was hard to not enjoy the surroundings. Which included a very talkative pair of natives next to us that we eventually broke down the language barrier of, and had a delightful conversation ranging a wide variety of topics. 

Montmarte was a good choice of neighborhood. 

Day Nine

Our last day of crazy whirlwind train tours! 

We woke up early in Vienna as our train was scheduled to depart at 7:30. We opted for nice business class seats, and quickly were situated and on our way. The Austrian country side flying by, we finished some chocolate croissants and espresso. 

A few hours into the trip we cut through Germany before turning back south into the Austrian alps. Which then became mile after mile of draw dropping beauty. Beautiful chalets and farms, sweeping vistas framed by mountain ranges. It was hard to stop taking photos, meanwhile we are surround by more native travelers who are working on laptops and planning meetings while this all rushes by. 

Distracting from this are some delays caused by track works. We were averaging 15-20 minutes behind schedule, and we only had 14 minutes to make our transfer in Zurich. By the time we actually arrived, we were a hair over 30 minute late. Our train was long gone. We were directed to a customer service desk, grabbed our ticket to wait in line, and braced for the worst. 
We started to imagine fighting with some surly agent in a foreign language after an hour wait. Biased by our U.S. Expectations around travel, we were pleasantly surprised to be fast tracked to the next available desk, where a friendly attendant had new tickets sorted on the next train that leaves with a stop in Basel, all in less than 5 minutes. At no cost, which when asked about garnered “Of course no cost, it is our mistake not yours, enjoy your trip”. Revolutionary. 

So we stowed our bags and meandered along the river, snapping what few touristy photos we could at our surprise stop over in Zurich. 45 minutes later we hopped on a very full train to Basel, where we transferred to our TGV to Paris. Unfortunately our delay caused the sun to set during this leg, preventing good vistas of the countryside at 200mph. When heading to Paris, it seemed inappropriate to complain however. 

We lugged our bags through Gare de Lyon to the small hotel we had booked for one night, just to be close to the train station before getting to our Airbnb the next day. And what a great idea that turned out to be. We were exhausted. Thrilled to be in Paris, we gave in to sleep. 

Day Eight

I woke before Abby on the train as we were stopped in Budapest for an engine change. The sun just beginning to rise, I managed to grasp a few glimpses of the Danube (again) and some very pretty city streets. We were quickly in some foggy countryside as the sun rose, incredibly picturesque. 

We arrived in Vienna around 8:30, 10 minutes late on our 16 hour leg. Amtrak could learn a thing or two. We were now suddenly in a modern marvel of a building that handles more passengers than pittsburghs airport. Easing back into a more western life was a bit more jarring than expected. Our hotel held our bags as we decided to grab breakfast before trying to find something historical to make ourselves feel better.

Having decided to stretch our legs, we walked a bit more than a kilometer to a small cafe in a park. After struggling with our lack of German language skills, we managed to order a spectacular breakfast on the banks of the river Wien. Shortly after we hopped on the U Bahn and headed to Schönbrunn Palace. 

And what a palace it is. The grounds are absolutely enormous flowing out behind the equally large palace. We opted for the tour first, as large crowds were already forming. A short wait, which we filled with espresso, and we were able to enter at our assigned time for our self guided tour. 

Sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos, but I’m not sure they would do the rooms justice. We meandered through 40 rooms of immaculately preserved and restored paintings, wall coverings, furniture, clothing and dinnerware. Large halls. Private bathrooms. Studies. All of it was pristine and stunning. 

After we explored the gardens and grounds for longer than it took us to look through the actual palace. Fountains. Flowers. Sculptures. Acre after acre of perfectly sculpted trees and shrubs guided you along wonderful gravel paths. A climb up the hill at the far end of the gardens led to an amazing view out over the city. After plenty of walking in the sun, we headed back to the hotel to see if our room was ready and to cool off a bit. 

Checked in, refreshed and cooled down a bit, we headed back out for more sights and dinner. We swung by Augarten to admire the old porcelain factories, and the let over defense towers from WW2. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, it was hard to imagine such massive structures built for war. 

We carried on around the ring road that used to separate old Vienna from the newer outer sections. Now a wide boulevard accommodating trolleys, cars, bikes and pedestrians, large historic buildings lined both sides. We settled on a fantastic restaurant based in a vaulted basement underground for dinner. The food was outstanding, and the beer even better. Full of both, we took in the night sights as we made it back to the hotel. Another nights sleep in a real bed, and we would begin the longest, and final, rail leg of our trip. To Paris. 

Day Seven

Having recovered somewhat from our lengthy train encounter, we woke up in Bucharest wanting to get a good view of the city with our morning, since our train to Vienna left at 2 that afternoon. 

We opted for a walking loop, hitting up Cismigiu Park and the Parliament building before heading back through the edge of the old city and admiring architecture on Calea Victoriei
The architecture is an amazing mix, spanning from decaying facades of the cities pre-socialist past, through the concrete glass and metal structures erected in the 60-80s, to the resurgence in revitalizing and preserving more and more of the historic structures. The contrast was amazing to behold. 

There were no tourists. We were the only ones taking pictures, and we certainly didn’t hear any English. But we never felt judged our out of place, every person we interacted with was incredibly friendly and understanding of our lack of Romanian language comprehension. Even our botched attempt at a late breakfast where we tried to pay with the wrong currency with a line forming didn’t show the slightest bit of frustration. 
We ended our brief journey back at the hotel, agreeing that we would love to com back and spend more time in this great city, and likely see more of the beautiful country. We gathered our bags and hopped onto what we were hoping would be a smoother train ride. 

A real train. With multiple cars. A diner car. Sleeper cabins. What was this magic? Awe struck compared to the prior day’s journey, we settled into our room, marveling at having beds, a sink, and so many places to store bags and hang clothes. We sprawled out on the lower bunk and quickly took in the sights as we pulled out. 

After a few hours of beautiful rolling countryside full of sunflowers (Romania is a world leader in sunflower seed/oil production, we learned after seeing so many huge fields) we approached the Carpathian Mountains. Slowly meandering and climbing up valleys, we were treated to splendid vistas and quaint towns as well as larger tourist centers aimed at ski slopes. Eventually we descended into Brasov, leaving the mountains as a constant reminder on our left as we turned and headed towards Hungary. 
As the evening progressed, we decided to try out the lap of luxury that was having fresh food on this train (compared to our loaf of bread with packs of cheese and salami from the last trip). Our very friendly waiter/cook happily explained the confusing menu, and we soon had entrees, salads and a bottle of wine to accompany the setting sun. 
Meal finished, we polished off the bottle in our room playing continuo. The black countryside the only view we had, we decided to try our our bunks and get some sleep. And sleep we did. 
Until a 1:30 am border crossing into Hungary. But taking less than an hour for both checks, and having beds to get back into, it wasn’t long until we were on our way and back asleep, Vienna in our future. 

Day Six

Trains, trains and more trains. 

We arrived at the border crossing station in Kapikule around 2 am. I had read this was going to be the toughest part of the trip, and it didn’t disappoint. We milled around in a depressingly lit room for about 30 minutes before going into another room to have our passports stamped for exiting turkey. 

Once this was done we were able to board our very fancy train. Graffiti outside, terrible fluorescent lights glaring inside, all on a single train car hooked to a locomotive. Oh and the toilet was terrifying. This was fairly bad, but the train schedule is still built around a full train with hundreds of passengers showing up to go through customs. We had maybe a dozen. So we sat, and waited, and sat, and waited, for almost two more hours before heading to Bulgaria. 

The Bulgarian border crossing was a bit easier. We didn’t have to get off the train, and the whole thing was a bit more straightforward and better explained. Yet again, we were subject to the schedule, and had to sit for a while. 
Once we made it to Dmitrovgrad, we had to get off me change trains. Ironically, this had only a 15 minute window, and the new train set off right on time. We now had full benches and a semi private cabin, and with mak few people on the train, we were able to lay down and catch some shut eye. 

I woke up as we were going through a mountain range in central Bulgaria around mid day. Beautiful tree covered mountains and valleys and quaint villages reminded me why we thought trains were a good idea. You get to see how this part of the world lives and works, not just fly over it. I would have to keep reminding myself of that. 

Hours later we arrived at Gorna Orjahovica where we had to change trains yet again. After seeing no sign of said train, we eventually managed an answer out of the information desk. There was no train. Today is a national Bulgarian holiday (unification day for those curious). But good news! If we waited 2 hours a different train that can still get us to Bucharest will come along. And our ticket is still valid. So we waited, snacked, and used some absolutely terrifying bathrooms that were still somehow better than the ones on the last two trains. 
Despite the arrival and departure board showing our train running 15 minutes late, it showed up right on time. We boarded a slightly cleaner version of the same car our first leg had, and we were off. Large swatches of farm land on rolling hills accompanied us to Ruse, a border town with Romania. We didn’t have to change trains, but we did have to have the train split in half, and our half connected to a Romanian engine. Which took forever. Once this was done, we did passport control (why this couldn’t be done while waiting for the engine I’ll never know). After a nearly hour and a half delay through all of that, we were off again. 
Entry into Romania is rather grand, crossing a huge metal structure called the friendship bridge. It offers sweeping views of the Danube river, and helps remind you why you are doing this train thing. We have another seemingly long wait on the Romanian side for another passport check (hey, at least we are racking up the stamps?) before setting off. 
The Romanian country side is flat. Super flat. Flatter than anywhere else I’ve been, and with absolutely huge expanses of farm land. As the sun was setting, we were treated to quite a light show on this beautifully flat canvas. After a circuitous route to get to Bucharest, we finally arrived around 8, four hours later than expected, and is wager another 4 past what the actual travel time could be. But we made it. 

We checked into our hotel exhausted. We picked up our tickets for the next day that had been dropped at reception. Then we found out there was no way they’d be able to get our laundry done before our departure the next day. With little brain or physical power left, we took quick showers and had a dinner that we were longing for in the worst way. Those beers were incredible. We went to bed early with hopes of seeing a sliver of the city the next day before hopping on another train. 

Day Five

Our last day in Istanbul, and just the beginning of some crazy travel. 

Going to bed at nearly 4am with a laundry list (including figuring out laundry) to do was a bit rough. Our morning was spent getting packed up and shipping souvenirs and dress clothes from the wedding back home. (If anyone every needs to shop from the Sultanahmet area, we can’t speak highly enough of the DHL location there). 
With those tasks done, we checked out of the hotel and left bags in storage and we headed to a late lunch/breakfast, running on Turkish time yet again. After we grab our check, our waiter asks us if we have five minutes. Knowing our train doesn’t leave until 10pm, we of course said yes. Low and behold, his restaurants back wall has a hole in it leading to several large underground rooms dating to the Byzantine era. Because, it’s Istanbul. 

Since you can never have too much old stuff, we then head to Topkapi Palace, where sultans of Istanbul lived around 400 years ago. Many portions of the structure have been wonderfully restored, but the real treasure is in the artifacts spread throughout the galleries. Gorgeous examples of everything from cookware to armor unlike anything we had seen before. Between these collections and the jaw dropping buildings, we spent most of our afternoon there. 

Upon leaving the palace, with plenty of time til our departure, we decided to head to the neighboring Basilica Cistern. This huge, absolutely huge, underground water storage room dates back to 600AD with reused Roman components dating back to 2500 years ago, including two huge medusa heads. With hundreds of columns and a few feet of water still in it, eerie barely begins to describe it. Being cool on a warm day was also a great perk. 
We grabbed our last dinner at a small cafe off of the main square, views of the blue mosque in the distance. The simple meal gave us time to plan and catch up on postcard writing before heading back to the hotel to grab our bags. 

Hauling everything to the train station wasn’t the most fun task, but went without a hitch. We had time to kill and headed outside to a small park to watch ferries come and go. A small snack of grilled corn and a bit more waiting, and we were ready to go. Due to rail construction in Istanbul, we had to take a bus to the border. Fortunately it was the nicest charter bus I’ve been on, because we were about to have quite a lot of travel in front of us! 

Day Four

The big day! The wedding is here!

Except first, let’s go see some really awesome things to drive home how great of a city this is. 

We got started on Turkish Time again, leaving the hotel around 11. We had breakfast at a nearby restaurant, sampling more local fare. This included an ottoman style omelette, known as a menemen.

After we headed to one of the major tourist destinations that we had been saving for this day: the Hagia Sofia. Tourism has been down tremendously, and while we feel for the hurt this does to the local economy, there was hardly a line to get in, and very small crowds inside. On a weekend. 

The Ayasofya, as it is called in Turkish, is huge. Shocking, right? Despite seeing it at all times from the areas we had been in, it’s scale is lost until you walk up to, and then into, it. I won’t bore you with details on history that can be learned from Wikipedia, and for a million photos just click through the Instagram feed. But it is easily one of the most awe inspiring places I have ever seen, and in a way that I don’t think will be beat easily. 

If that wasn’t enough significant cultural visitation for one day, we then proceeded to the Blue Mosque. We had actually tried to go there first, but didn’t time our visit appropriately and visited during a time of prayer. Our second attempt brought us inside to the beautifully blue tiled interior lending to the mosques name. To get inside you must pass through a massive courtyard that is equally as splendid as the interior. The scale, again, is hard to grasp when you are that close. 

We were by far in the extreme minority, ethnicity wise, in the crowd visiting. But visitors, those there for prayer, and the staff facilitating visitation were all incredibly welcoming. The admiration for the graciousness of opening such a sacred place of worship for all to see definitely added to the experience of the visit. 

With two of the big “must dos” crossed off our list, we had a few hours until the wedding. Some last minute souvenir shopping was followed by a trip to our “regular” spot for a small snack and beer before beginning wedding prep. We ended up having a lengthy discussion about politics (which very few people would talk about, so we were enthralled) and once again found more similarities than differences. 

Cleaned up and dressed up, we made our way to the rooftop terrace a bit later for the cocktail hour before the wedding. It was great to meet such diverse families and catch up with old friends. Time flew by and we quickly went into a brief, but memorable, ceremony. Delicious Turkish cuisine followed, everyone at the table fighting between the desire to finish everything in front of them, and still being able to fit into formalwear. Eventually it as time to dance, which was kicked off by some excellent solo and then family group dancing on Nadeems side of the family. 

Following the wedding, merriment and dancing continued on a large party boat in the Bosphorus. Dancing and drinking with strobe lights going is enough of a challenge, the boat element made it even more daunting. But all prevailed, and almost 4 hours later we pulled back into port at nearly 3 am, grinning ear to ear from the excitement and happiness of the day (and night!). 

Exhausted, we crawled into bed knowing that we had to say goodbye to Istanbul tomorrow, and begin the most challenging leg of travel. 

Day Three

We finally started running on Turkish time. And I don’t mean time zones. After our surprise at how quiet it was in the morning, we learned most in this city sleep until 9 or 10, and so we happily followed this trend. 

After our late rise we met up with Beverly and headed to the grand bazaar. We stopped at Istanblue, a small gift shop run by the father of the family Beverly is staying with, along the way. As with most buildings here, he casually took us upstairs and mentions his shop was in a several hundred year old stable. After getting the typical amazing history lesson, we resumed our trek to the bazaar, stopping for breakfast, at noon, along the way. 

Better prepared to deal with the bazaar, we headed for a recommended textile shop, Eğin Tekstil. Located in he far corner of the bazaar, this seemingly small shop opens up into multiple rooms of absolutely gorgeous woven goods. Towels, wraps, linens; all of them stacked floor to ceiling throughout the intimate space. One of the purveyors gave us the full tour, explaining differences between fabrics and giving the full run down of the two dozen or so Hollywood movies they have supplied their goods to. We got to touch the fabric used for Gandalfs robe in The hobbit. Neat and nerdy. 

The next several hours were spent negotiating the vast covered market that is the bazaar. Over 5000 shops, and over a quarter million visitors on busy days, this took a lot of concentration. Slowly we mastered the art of the haggle and had our bags filled with various goods. We poured out of the bazaar amongst the crowd and meandered down side streets until arriving at the Spice bazaar. 

While not as large as the grand bazaar, it was certainly just as busy. Large bins of spices and Turkish delight fill booth after booth in this bustling, culinary centric market. We managed to not eat everything in sight and slowly added to our packs and bags. A solid day of shopping complete, we headed back to the hotel to unload and unwind before venturing out for dinner. 

After a quick refresh and drink at the hotel, we wandered back across the Galata bridge to have dinner at Karaköy Gümrük. The food here has been great at every establishment, and this wasn’t any exception. A more modern take on some of the cuisine we had sampled so far, we eagerly shared amongst the small group of wedding friends that made up our party for the evening. 

A short tram ride back to hotel had us finishing our night with a glass of wine on the rooftop terrace. We had to retreat to the covered portion, as the other half had quite the party going. Which is what our following evening should certainly turn into!

Day Two

Excited to wake up in a new city, we rolled out of bed bright eyes around 8. What crazy breakfast would we have? What bustling crowds would be found? Neither, it turns out. 

The streets were empty. The shops were closed. While we had gotten looks (and pictures) taken of us the afternoon before, we certainly turned a few heads this morning give the hour of our walk. 

We decided to take advantage of the quiet and at least help get our bearings and one major errand out of our way. We headed to the historic and beautiful Sirkeci train station, the former terminus of the famous Orient Express. A very helpful attendant assisted us in the final puzzle piece; our train ticket to Bucharest from Istanbul was now purchased! With no way to buy remotely, this last piece was a relief to have taken care of. 

Hungry, and still not having seen an open cafe, we opted for some street breads. Fumbling through Turkish and clearly not understanding the pricing at the cart, we eventually walked away with some sweet poppy breads and water to hold us over until the city woke up. 

Heading for Galata tower next, we crossed the aptly named Galata bridge. Offering a great view of eminonu and the golden horn, we took in the sights of this gorgeous city, water and minarets all around us. 

Despite being hundreds of years old, Galata tower is nestled back on side streets upon a prominent hill. Typical 3 and 4 story buildings crowd up around it, lining the narrow cobbled alleyways and steps we used to get there. We purchased our touristy tickets to go to the top upon arriving, and very quickly we saw they were worth every penny. The view from the top was incredible, and our early rise on a weekday led to no crowds or need to rush. 

After taking a million photos, and learning a bit more about the towers interesting history, we headed back to the old city. Not knowing what to expect, we decided to at least try and find both the spice bazaar and grand bazaar. We succeeded on both of these, but the experience was more than a bit intimidating. It was clear that we were tourists, and the slow traffic at that our made us prime targets for shop keeps to find new and interesting phrases to convince us to hand over some lira. 

So after brief dashes through both, we headed towards the hotel area. A brief stop for lunch around 1:30 quickly explained our troublesome morning. The proprietor of the great named “Fish Home” restaurant explained he had only woken up some time after 10, and had yet to have breakfast. Their main cook wasn’t even there yet since they normally don’t serve lunch until 2. With the daily timeline set straight, we finished another delicious round of food. 

To spend some time before the scheduled boat ride that was part of the wedding festivities, we went for a walk along the Bosphorus. A walking path along the straight gave us great views of both halves of this city, and tremendous people watching of those who inhabit it. We freshened up at the hotel and then set about meeting and greeting with wedding attendees before boarding the boat chartered for the evening. 

Our almost three hour cruise took as along the Asian side of the Bosphorus up to the second bridge before turning around and cruising along the European side. Along the way we’re gorgeous waterfront houses, old ruins and bustling water traffic. Introductions turned into long conversations, and the setting sun took great views and transformed them into even more amazing and magical vistas. Seeing this city from the water is a must for any visitor. 

Exhausted from our erroneous early rise that morning, we quickly retired once back on shore. We resolved to stay up as late as we could, which resulted in some humorously dubbed movies on TV, before trying to sleep in the next day as long as possible. 

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