The Most Breathtaking Moments from My First Year of Traveling

DSC_0439[1]

Now that I’ve nearly survived all of my responsibilities at the school this first year, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting.  In the moment, so much of it seemed like a blur, but now I find myself trying to look back on (and over-analyze) everything that has happened since I moved to Turkey.  There were some moments that felt so difficult and so dark that I didn’t think it would ever get any easier, but now that I’ve gotten through the biggest waves of culture shock, I can appreciate how amazing this opportunity really is and all of the incredible things I’ve been able to do that before seemed like a distant dream.  When I think back through this year, there are a few moments that really stand out.

DSC_0785

Crossing the Bosphorus for the first time

This is something that takes my breath away again and again and again.  I’ll never forget how blue the water looked or how magical the 360 view of seagulls swirling around the sea of minarets was the first time I took a ferry to Eminonu.  It has to be one of the most incredible experiences one can have in the world for under a dollar.  Even after almost a year, I still have a “holy crap, I can’t believe I actually live here” moment every single time I cross over to Europe.

12038289_1663090127239182_807279988026757411_n (1)

Hitchhiking from Perge in Antalya

I still can’t believe this happened only two weeks into our expat experience, but that’s also why I think it’s so memorable.  In that moment when we were deciding what to do, I remember a tiny voice reminding me that my mom would have a heart attack if she knew I was doing this, but I also had a voice telling me that it was cold and raining and the guy offering us a ride definitely didn’t look like a serial killer.  He ended up being an incredibly nice and genuine person and that experience really taught me the importance of trusting humanity when it comes to traveling.  Most people really are good.

44982903358896__672x378-ARGB_88881476404896

Experiencing a true White Christmas in Eskişehir

I had my worst bout of culture shock in the fall and I was so overwhelmed and unhappy that I really don’t remember much of that time period.  The weekend we spent in Eskişehir is kind of where my memory starts to kick back in because it was a spot of pure bliss.  It was obviously very difficult to spend Christmas away from home for the first time, but when I saw the first snow of the whole year happening on Christmas day?  I knew everything was going to be okay.

DSCF3829

Getting snowed in on New Year’s Eve

I saw my work/home in a whole new light when it was buried under a foot of snow.  This place is gorgeous in the spring and summer, but I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it is in the dead of winter.  I’ll never forget how happy I was when I read the email that lessons were cancelled and all of the students and teachers who couldn’t beat the weather out gathered together for a giant snowball fight.  Definitely one of the best New Year’s Eves I’ve ever had.

BudapestMulledWine

Sipping hot wine at Buda Castle in Budapest

Wine is not a drink I ever imagined would be good warm, but it certainly is.  They were selling this stuff all over Budapest and I finally caved and had to try it when we were up at Buda Castle and it was FREEZING.  They add some fruit and spices that make it taste more like a warm sangria and it was the perfect way to warm up and relax while enjoying the incredible view of the Chain Bridge to Pest.

DSCF3990

Walking from Hungary to Slovakia on the Maria Valeria Bridge

Another fabulous moment in Hungary was the time we spent in Esztergom, a little town that is only a short walk away from Sturovo in Slovakia.  At first, we thought we might regret stopping in such a small place without much going on, but it ended up being one of the highlights of our winter break.  There was something that felt so cool about being able to walk from one country to another in a town that’s barely changed since the Middle Ages.

DSCF4098

Standing before the Library of Celsus at Ephesus

Our trip to Ephesus was our first taste of warm weather after a winter that felt like it lasted a billion years.  When I first laid eyes on the Library of Celsus, I couldn’t believe how intact it was after over 1,000 years.  The way the yellowing stone contrasts with the bright blue sky is truly mind-blowing.  It is an absolute must-see in Turkey.  I even want to go back, which is not usually the case when it comes to things like ruins and monuments.

DSC_0408

Hiking the Fira Trail in Santorini

The hike from Fira to Oia in Santorini is an unforgettable journey.  10 kilometers of the most beautiful white-washed buildings you’ll ever see and blue Aegean water that stretches out into forever makes you feel like you’ve tripped and fallen into a dream.  I’ll especially never forget the delicious Greek picnic my husband and I had on the side of a volcanic cliff.  It felt like we had the whole world to ourselves.

DSC_0508[1]

Indulging in local hospitality in Naxos

I have never received a warmer welcome than the one I got at Hotel Kymata in Naxos.  It turns out the whole island is unbelievably friendly and hospitable.  Although a part of it is definitely due to a decline in tourism following the economic troubles in Greece, I still believe that hospitality is a central tenant of Greek culture.  Much of the hospitality came in the form of free food, which is my fave.

12107173_1724698027745058_5398578335063181722_n

Nerding out in a Sci-Fi bookstore in Stockholm

Stockholm was such a whirlwind trip that much of it seems very fuzzy, but I remember almost every detail of the incredible book store we found near the main palace.  I am a gigantic nerd and this place was designed for people just like me.  They had a very unique collection of anime, comics, sci-fi titles (mostly in ENGLISH!), board games, and all kinds of nerdy collectibles.  If I ever win the lottery, I’m probably going to buy one of everything in that store.

Watching my students blow their end-of-the-year performance out of the water

Being a teacher is exhausting and time-consuming, but somehow, the students make every ounce of the blood, sweat, and tears worth it – at least most of the time.  After a hectic first year, it was so satisfying to work on a big performance with all of my first students and watch them do such a great job.  It definitely ended my year on a high note.

I am so thankful for everything I’ve been able to experience this year.  It was a lot of hard work, but it’s only proven to me how much hard work can pay off.  I’m already looking forward to the long list of adventures that are sure to come next year!

A Tale of Two Countries: Ezstergom and Sturovo

DSCF3975

I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing when I planned for us to stop in the tiny town of Ezstergom between Budapest and Prague.  Part of me thought it might be too boring and uneventful and that we might regret not spending more time in one of the larger cities.  At the same time, I thought it might be nice to go somewhere a little more quiet and relaxing before jumping straight into another city.  I’m so glad I went with my gut because, for a second time, Hungary blew my mind with this little gem.  I’m learning more and more how important it is not to count out the little places.

DSCF3973

Ezstergom is a tiny, village-like town along the Danube bend, just north of Budapest.  In this place, I felt as if I got to experience the “real” Hungary, as there were no tourists in sight.  In fact, when we checked into our hotel, the owner seemed genuinely surprised that a couple of Americans were there to spend the night.  After dropping off our bags, we hurried off to see the Ezstergom Basilica, the town’s main attraction.  It was built as the seat of the Catholic Church and Ezstergom was actually the capital of Hungary from the 10th to the 13th century.  When we walked up to the old church and nearby castle, it felt like we were stepping back in time.  The medieval presence was strong inside the castle walls and the views from the hilltop were extraordinary.  We spent a good chunk of time just staring at all the beauty that surrounded us.

DSCF3979

With just a little daylight left, we decided to get to the second item on our list, which was one of our main motivations for coming to Ezstergom:  crossing the Maria Valeria Bridge. The bridge connects Ezstergom to the Slovakian city of Sturovo, without any need to stop for border control.  The idea of walking across a bridge from one country to another was just too alluring to pass up and turned out to be a lot of fun, if only in a kitschy sort of way.  The views of the giant basilica from the bridge weren’t bad either.  We stepped into Sturovo and walked around it a bit, but found that it lacked the charm that  Ezstergom had and quickly turned back around.  At the very least, we can now say that we’ve been to Slovakia.

DSCF3990

Once back on the Hungarian side, we stopped for a bite to eat and stumbled upon a fabulous cafe that had amazing desserts and  coffee.  We ordered some tarts filled with a delicious coffee cream and the “Ezstergom Coffee”, a small espresso served with a side of hot vanilla-infused milk.

DSCF3966

After a busy day of traveling and exploring, we settled back into our hotel to take advantage of the hotel’s spa room to soak in the Jacuzzi and relax in the sauna.  Although we only had one evening in Ezstergom, it was an evening well spent.  We dozed off, fully satisfied and ready for the next adventure.

DSCF3967

 

Budapest: The Greatest City You Never Hear About

DSCF3934.JPG

When I was first planning our trip through Central and Eastern Europe, I had anticipated wanting to allocate most of our time to Prague because it’s the city I’d heard the most about and just assumed it would have the most to do.  However, once I got around to doing some research for Budapest, I found myself adding more and more to the itinerary there because everything about it just seemed so intriguing.  It was a city that seemed to have everything: a tumultuous and fascinating history, marked by both grandeur and total destruction; incredible views from every angle; delicious cuisine; a vibrant urban scene; and most importantly, warm and inviting people.  It was hands down the best leg of our entire trip, but it left me wondering:  why aren’t more people talking about it?  In my experience, people are very quick to rave about Germany, Austria, Poland, and the Czech Republic, but hardly anyone breathes a word about Hungary.  If you are looking for a fabulous experience in Europe that won’t break the bank, this is it, my friends.  Budapest seriously blew my mind.

BudapestLift3Our adventure started out on the right foot when we saw just how much we had scored with our accommodation.  For the price of a cheap hotel (at least per US standards), we were able to get a very nice apartment with a kitchen, bathtub, and living room near the main metro stop.  Seriously…I almost wept tears of joy when I saw that tub.  I had not had a proper bath since I had left Emporia EIGHT months ago.  On top of that, the staff there were super friendly and helpful and gave us tons of recommendations for what to do and where to eat in the city.

BudapestGoulashOur first tastes of Hungarian cuisine left me thinking it was pretty unbelievable that all we know of their food is a bastardized version of goulash.  We ate at a restaurant specializing in Jewish cuisine that our hotel recommended and it was nothing short of amazing.  Everything we ate was a feast for the senses.  Spicy, flavorful, and interesting in all the right ways. Since it was vacation, we topped off our first night of freedom with some Hungarian wine and matzo cake.

BudapestBridge2After getting some much-needed rest, we were ready to get out and explore on our second day in Budapest.  It was freezing cold and snowing, but in my opinion, it made the whole city  even more magical.  The architecture in Budapest is absolutely stunning and pretty much every building looked like it could possibly be an important historical monument, especially when dusted with snowflakes.  We first stopped at sights such as St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Dohany Street Synagogue since they were close to our hotel, but we eventually made our way across the beautiful Chain Bridge so that we could go up to Buda Castle.

BudapestMulledWineOnce we got there, we were greeted by spectacular views of the city and numerous stands selling mulled wine, in which we indulged.  It was so easy to spend hours up there, wandering the castle’s grounds, sipping on hot wine, and watching the snow fall over the beautiful city from every direction.

DSCF3963

We made our way back over to Pest to rest for a little bit and dry off before heading out on our next adventure:  Escape the Room!  Being the extremely  nerdy person that I am, I had been wanting to try an Escape the Room game for YEARS, so I was really stoked when I learned that one existed just a few buildings away from our hotel.  Budapest is very well known for these Escape Games (there are over a hundred of them in Budapest alone) and is often credited as being the city where they originated.  For about $15 a person, you can get locked into a room for an hour, desperately trying to solve all kinds of crazy puzzles with the ultimate goal of finding the key to get out.  Our theme was being locked in a prison cell and we had a BLAST! We actually didn’t solve it within the 60 minutes allotted, but since we were the last team for the day, they let us finish and we only went about 10 minutes over.  I’m so hooked now that I’ve been researching Escape the Room games in Istanbul and I’m hoping we can drag a few of our friends with us this time.

DSCF3923

Our third day in Budapest started out with something I had been missing terribly: breakfast!  Now don’t get me wrong – I love a good kahvalti – but Turkish breakfast is very repetitive and still just doesn’t fit in with what breakfast should be to me.  We found a great little breakfast joint that we loved so much we ate there again before we left, even though I generally don’t like to repeat restaurants when I’m traveling.  Most of the time, I honestly don’t miss pork that much, but when I saw bacon on the breakfast menu, my mouth started watering uncontrollably.  We went a little crazy, ordering bacon, sausages, fried eggs, grilled veggies, fresh fruit, toast with butter and jam…it was all cheap and it was all amazing.

BudapestMarket2

We decided to wander around the city a bit more and came upon a stand selling tickets for reasonably priced Danube River cruises, so we decided to go for it.  We were already on our way to the Great Central Market, so we figured we’d stop for our cruise on the way back.  Unfortunately, it was a very foggy and rainy day – so foggy that the boats couldn’t leave the docks.  We were bummed, but weren’t about to let it get us down, so we decided to go ahead and check out another thing that had been on our list:  the ruin pubs.

BudapestRuinBar

The ruin pubs are mostly located in the Jewish District of the city, near where we were staying.  These neighborhoods took a major hit during World War II and continued to face a lot of poverty in subsequent decades.  The concept of the ruin pub – using an old, abandoned building as the base for an amazing quirky bar – has really revitalized these old neighborhoods and put the Jewish Quarter back on the map in Budapest.  I was surprised at just how great these bars were.  Normally, I’m not really into the whole bar scene just because I don’t always love spending my evenings in dimly lit rooms while obnoxious drunk people scream more than necessary.  The ruin pubs were not like that at all.  There was such an eccentric charm and ambiance to the mix of the old architectural details mixed with colorful lights, graffiti, and contemporary artwork.  The drinks were crazy cheap and the vibe of the whole place was very laid back and enjoyable.  I pretty much want to go back right now.

BudapestRuinBarBStairs

On our last day, we wanted to check out the famed thermal baths at Szechenyi.  I have been a spa enthusiast ever since our trip to Iceland a couple of years ago, so I was pretty excited.  The thermal baths were lovely.  The beautifully-constructed bright yellow building was in perfect contrast with the blue waters and rolling steam.  My main complaint?  It was COLD!  It was already a very cold day outside, only made worse by the fact that I was wearing a swimsuit.  I had expected the thermal waters to be steamy and hot like they were at the Blue Lagoon, but they turned out to be sort of like lukewarm bath water.  Still, we managed to hang out there for a couple of hours purely because it was so beautiful and relaxing.

DSCF3943

We wandered around for a bit in the Szechenyi area, stopping by Heroes’ Square and peeking in at some old carnivals.  Then, we decided to head back over to the docks to *hopefully* (finally) use our Danube River cruise tickets.  We barely made it over in time, but we were pleased to see that there was hardly any fog in sight.  The cruise turned out to be beautiful as well as interesting and informative.  The architecture that lines the Danube on each side is not only gorgeous and impressive, but also imbued with (often very dark) history.  The whole thing was fascinating and inspiring, despite the cold.  The Hungarian Parliament building all lit up is not a sight I’ll soon forget.

DSCF3956

We finished off the cold evening with yet another perfect cup of coffee (Seriously…why is no one talking about the coffee scene in Budapest?  It’s incredible!) and honestly walked back to our hotel with heavy hearts.  It was SO HARD to leave Budapest! Most of the time when I visit a city, I’m ready to move on after a few days, but Budapest just left me wanting more.  I was so awestruck by the whole experience.  Even in the dead of winter, we had a fabulous trip.  I can’t imagine how great it probably is in nicer weather. Budapest has definitely not seen the last of me!

DSCF3962