A long overdue travel post but better than never. I do regret that I never wrote a recap on my trip to Italy and France in 2008. Well, since then I haven’t traveled out of the country until this year during late May, I was fortunate to share my travel memories with my friend again, Michelle Ng whom I have known since Kindergarten. Four years later we realized how much of a better traveler we have become but also how much we have yet to explore. This time we visited Greece and Turkey.
So why Greece and Turkey? Sure, Greece economy is not doing very well these days and the media portrays the country in a lime light with riots and petitions. But to be honest during New York City Occupy Wall Street was much more worst and disruptive than the current Greece economy slump. It’s actually a great moment to travel to Greece because so many foreigners are avoiding to visit it thus it is less crowded even during high travel season which makes it a perfect getaway. We were part of a tour REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) which may have contributed to my opinions on the country. It was a 9 days (5/26 – 6/3) Greek Island hiking tour and we visited the city Athens followed by the Greek Islands in respective order: Tinos, Naxos and Santorini. Of the three Islands Naxos was my favorite, after all they are agriculturally famous for their Naxos potatoes! And to my fancy, little did I know it was a hiking and eating tour, which are two of my absolute favorite things. Normally, I would dread traveling with tours as they are on a time schedule but it helped that our tour guide Dimitri and Christiana who are Greek natives were young, energetic, and are Greek food connoisseurs. Also given I regularly organize events for a career, it was nice for a change that someone did the planning and where I sit back, relaxed and went with the flow.
Prior to our visit to Greece Michelle and I traveled on our own for 3 days (5/22 – 5/25) in Turkey, Istanbul which has been on both of our minds for quite sometime. Istanbul is a city like no where else in the world. With the iconic mosque in art history slides, textiles that paints the city and with peddler who are the faces and sounds of the city; it is a modern city in an ancient world. It’s a magical city with a cross cultural influence from Asia, Middle East and Europe and an unworldly experience I will never forget. There is so much culture in Istanbul from the food, arts, architecture, language (literally the street peddlers are multilingual), to their religion. Istanbul, Turkey is a heavily Islamic populated country where people are devoted and still pray five times a day. It was so amazing to observe how a religion shapes the way people live and how respectful people are in their belief. It was remarkable to experience and to participate during a prayer. Of all cuisines, Middle Eastern is probably one of my top favorite cuisines based on New York City, Mamoun’s Falafel and Halal street meat only. To my surprise, Turkey is a heavily meat consumed country, with various grilled meats, kebabs, kofte, dönor and endless Turkish delight and baklava you can imagine. Here is some of my favorites from what I ate along the Mediterranean Sea:
5.22.2012 (Day 1, Istanbul, Turkey): We arrived at the Atatürk airport late afternoon and at the customs we were greeted by a wave of people in head wraps covered with only the eyes peaking through and signs in Arabic. We have arrived in a Middle Eastern country. We took the metro to our hostel and being two young Chinese girls we had stood out regardless of looking lost, although admittedly we were lost. We were assisted with directions and approached by at least seven Turkish men before finding our hostel and some who appeared untrustworthy and being from New York City we are custom to trust no one. Finally, when we found Cheers Hostel, located in an alley way it was a sign of relief. Let the adventures begin! We were still in US time zone and without much of an appetite, we settled for some Turkish tea at a tea house tucked in a cemetery where I had my first sage tea and have since been obsessed with the herb. On our way back to our hostel we nibbled on baklavas.
5.23.2012 (Day 2, Istanbul, Turkey): Our hostel was only walking distance from Aya Sophia and we made sure to arrive early to beat the tourist crowds and without a doubt there was a parade of tourist and surprisingly a lot of Asian groups from cruise tours that docked for an Istanbul excursion. Seeing Aya Sophia in person which is one of the most famous mosque was breathtaking. It use to operate as a place for prayer but now operates as a museum. The structure is nothing like anything I have seen with the rocket like towers known as minarets and used to call for prayer. The interior is why the Aya Sophia is so iconic and it is absolutely beautiful. The ambiance has a a feeling like the Grand Central Terminal with its own uniqueness. With chandeliers, mosaics, and Farsi scripture, Aya Sophia is a true work of art. From the Aya Sophia to the underground palace, Basilica Cistern where hidden are two mysterious medusa head sculptures. We then walked to one of our highly anticipated places to visit, the Grand Bazaar. In the Grand Bazaar it consists an overwhelming 700 and more shops, restaurants, and vendors selling anything and everything you can imagine from leather, rugs, purses to pepper grinders. With some vendors more aggressive than others speaking in multilingual and a guessing game of my friend and I, ethnicity: Japanese! Korean! Chinese! Ni hao! Ah! The shopping built up an appetite, at a corner, a man was shaving off meat and wrapped in a pita and for a dönor kebab at Cardak Büfe. What I enjoyed most about the Grand Bazaar was not quite the shopping but observing how important Turkish tea is to their culture where there is the the usual afternoon tea delivered to shopkeepers. Later we walked to the Spice Market where I found the shopping experience much more relaxed and enjoyable and best of all sampling! This was where I stocked up on Turkish Delight at Malatya Pazari which their customer service is above and beyond. I bought a couple of boxes of Turkish Delight as souvenir and told the sales associate that I will be traveling for a week before heading home and he vacuum sealed it for freshness and waterproof. We visited the New Mosque, then walked across the Galata Bridge and made our way to the Galata Tower for a bird eye’s view of Istanbul. We concluded our first full day in Istanbul with dinner from a street cart. We were in the part of Eminonü and read about the least expensive way to eat seafood was from a street cart for a grilled fish sandwich (similar to a Vietnamese banh mi) was like observing a masterchef perform on the streets without the fuss. Watching the chef skillfully deboning the fish and seasoning it with spices was incredible. The 5 Turkish lira sandwich (US$2.50) was a steal and a deal and we finished off with Turkish tea and coffee at Karkoy Gulluoglu.
5.24.2012 (Day 3 Istanbul, Turkey) Across from Aya Sophia was another mosque known as the Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet Mosque and is still a place to practice their religion and for prayers. The courtyards and the minarets is what makes Blue Mosque distinctively different from any other mosque. The gold Farsi scriptures on a beautiful teal colored is eye popping. We then visited Topkapi Palace which was once lived by the royals during the Ottoman Empire. For the afternoon we decided to pamper our feet and took a cruise ride on the Bosphorus River. We ended the day back near the Spice Market and stumbled upon what became the highlight of our trip a kebap house: Ocakbasi Dürüm Ve Kebap Salonu (no website but here is another blog). Without a menu we were dictated what options we had and we just decided to go for everything. We were seated in mini stool chairs with a big round tin like table and we watched the chef grilled the meats. We were presented with a platter made for a Sultan with a variety of meats: chicken wings, lamb kofte, beef skewers, and pork skewers on fragrant rice and some onions, peppers, tomatoes and on the side flatbread. It was grilled to near perfection and seasoned well. It was by far one of the best meals we had in Istanbul, Turkey and to this day I am still salivating.
5.25.2012 (Day 4, Istanbul, Turkey) It was our last day already in Istanbul, Turkey before our 9 day hiking trip in Greece. So to conclude our stay in Istanbul, Turkey we made a visit to Taksim Square for some last minute shopping and had lunch at Sultanahmet Koftesi which is a famous luncheonette kind of dining with celebrities signed autograph photos on the wall that reminded me a New York City old school diner. The menu was very limited and we ordered their signature kofte which are meatballs, a piyaz which is a bean salad and a corba for lentil soup. So to prepare ourselves for the hike ahead, we pampered ourselves with a traditional Turkish bath/ spa at Cemberlitas Hamami where we were given a head to toe bath and oil massage. It was my first experience in getting a massage but the best part was being inside of the ancient bath house where the architecture is a must see on its own. After being fully cleansed we ended our trip in Istanbul with a sacred dance performance at the Hodja Pasha Arts Center: Whirling Dervish which was exactly what it appears to be a lot of spinning but it was very tranquil and peaceful.
5.26.2012 (Day 1: Istanbul to Athens) After a whirlwind trip in Istanbul, we took an early flight to Athens. We arrived to the hotel and crashed. We met up with our REI group in the early evening and surrounding us were the people we will be traveling together for the next 9 days. We had dinner near the Acropolis called God’s restaurant and we were offered family style platters of authentic Greek dishes one after another and it was a much needed transition as we ate vegetables for the first time since the trip!
5.27. – 5.28. 2012 (Day 2 & 3, Tinos: Τήνος) The next morning we started our morning tour of the Athens Olympic stadium in 2004 and a visit to the Acropolis which the history and the ruins was miraculous. Shortly after we made our way to the Rafina Port for lunch at the Galini Seafood restaurant before boarding on a high speed boat to our first Greek Island: Tinos. The Rafina Port was filled with several seafood shops selling fresh, seasonal catch and amongst the shops there were of course seafood restaurants which was delicious and fresh. But one of the best meals of the whole trip might possibly be in Tinos at Nefeli, located near the ocean breeze. The restaurant can easily be a home-run if the establishment was in New York City. One of my favorite dishes was effortless but complex with flavors was a rice and chicken baked in parchment paper. The rice was aromatic with herbs and the baked chicken had a nice rotissarie crispy chicken skin, and fell right off the bone. It was cook to perfection. On day 3, we finally started our hike and the view was picturesque with dovecotes, white washed houses and a four legged friend who joined us on our trail from our restaurant lunch pit stop. That evening, we ate at an elegant restaurant Portioli famous for their shellfish pasta.
5.29 -5.30.2012 (Day 4 & 5, Naxos: Νάξος) Our second island was Naxos and it was my favorite of the three islands. It was one of the most fertile and agriculturally abundant also known for their Naxos potatoes. Our hotel was only a walk away from the beach which was awesome. Hiking, eating, and swimming…life does not get any better. As soon as we arrived in Naxos, we immediately started hiking. The hike was unlike anything in the Northeast of America with the vast mountain landscape and the stillness of nature and the percussion of goats. These trails led us to a small village where local artisans handcraft distillery, goat cheese and weaving was a nice break from a hike. Follow by our first dinner in Naxos at a kebab garden seating restaurant, Yanni’s. We ended the day with a nice sunset and an ocean breeze at the beach by our hotel. The next day we had our epic hike to Mt. Zeus and were rewarded with an in house authentic Greek picnic prepared by our guides Dimitri and Christiana. That evening we went to town of Naxos for dinner but the highlight was probably the ice cream!
5.31 – 6.2.2012 (Day 6, 7, 8 Santorini/ Thira: Σαντορίνη/ Θήρα ) Before we depart Naxos, that morning Michelle and I took a last stroll at the beach and absorbed the beautiful deep blue ocean view and met a couple of local fishermen preparing their fish net for the day’s catch. Off to the third and last island and probably the most touristy of all, Santorini. It is the most popular islands of all for it’s spectacular sunset and at every corner and for every photo taken was like a computer desktop wallpaper artwork or a postcard. Hiking through Santorini was probably the oddest because everyone looked so fabulous with white colored clothes, and rather than a conventional hike it was more like property shopping…if only. We stopped by at an untitled restaurant for lunch where we had gyros or pronounced as yeeros. One thing I love most is fast / street food with fresh ingredients and the gyros was spot on. The flatbread was freshly baked and the meat (pork or chicken option) was cooked to perfection. The gyro is worth traveling to Greece for. We ended our second day at Santorini with a sunset view dinner at Ellis. The next day we did an optional hike and was accompanied with our guide’s friend who owned a restaurant in Santorini, Doris. She owned a bistro and more than a restaurateur, she was also a forager. Hiking through, she picked wild herbs: thymes, rosemary, sage for her own pleasure. Also she pointed out Santorini was rich in natural pumice stones which I saved a couple. We ended our hike and our trip at the Black Beach before taking a late afternoon flight to Athens.
6.3.2012 (Last Day, Athens) Everyone we met from the states were heading back home and Michelle and I had one extra day to explore the city. We visited the Acropolis Museum which opened in 2009 with an extensive collection from the Acropolis and to learn the history. A must visit while in Greece. We ended our adventure back were we began nine days earlier at the peak of the Acropolis over looking the city of Athens with all the memories I had experienced within the past twelves days sinking in. Pinch me because it still feels surreal to this day.
Thank you to REI for this valuable experience and to our amazing guides Dimitri and Christiana. And to my awesome friend Michelle who accompany me as a travel buddy, where to next? The list is endless.