Category Archives: Travel

Sunset on the Danube

In Vienna, every time we tried to navigate our way through the U-Bahn, we commenced a kind of game of verbal gymnastics, struggling to pronounce all the German words. This was further complicated by indecipherable name of the metro nearest to our apartment: Taborstaße, with a funky ß character that we had no idea how to pronounce. (Turns out, it’s just a kind of s-sound. You can become a better German speaker than me here.) As we would try to chart our route, we would inevitably stumble over stops like Kettenbrückengasse, Donaustradtbrücke, and Perfektastraße. Of course, this was only made more embarrassing by the fact that most Austrians speak English perfectly, with almost no accent.

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We got up extra early to meet Matt at his metro station at 8 a.m., then jumped back on the metro to head to Schönbrunn Palace, which served as the summer estate for the Hapsburgs. Once on the grounds, we quickly purchased our tickets then took off to explore its grounds.

The Schonbrunn Palace, whose name means “beautiful spring,” has over 1,400 rooms inside this Rococo summer residence from the 17th century. The gardens of the palace stretched on far into the distance. Manicured gardens extended across the back lawn and up this gigantic hill, where we climbed up to have a spectacular view of the estate below. As part of the palace estate, there was also a labyrinth, zoo, and never-ending trails.

After a jaunt through the garden, we headed back into the palace to get a tour of the inside rooms, only to realize that the crowds had significantly grown since we purchased our tickets at opening time that morning. Squeezing our way through the tour groups, we picked up our audio guides and began to walk through the imperial apartments. (Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed!)

We headed back over to Stephanplatz to show Matt around the area and finally find St. Peter’s Church, which we had tried to search for in the afternoon rain the day before but failed. At last, we used the handy GPS from the Trip Advisor app to locate the church, and peeked inside for a quick look. Church #7—check!

When we were walking through the area, we also came across the performance of an Austrian dance group in the street.

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Belvedere Palace was the next stop on our list. Along the way, we found the Turkish embassy!

IMG_2475 We also stumbled upon a Soviet monument. Matt was able to translate it for us: “Monument to the soldiers of the Soviet Army, which for the liberation of Austria from fascism have fallen…” Upon further research, the monument was built in 1945 to honor the 17,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Vienna during WWII.

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Belvedere served as the residence of the Prince of Savoy, today housing two Baroque palaces, the Orangery, and the Palace Stables. We didn’t go inside, but we took the time to walk around the gardens and appreciate the buildings themselves.

Afterwards, we headed back to our apartment for the afternoon to catch up on readings for class. In the evening, Alex and I decided to take the U-Bahn down to see the Danube River, since we hadn’t had a chance to visit it in Vienna yet.

The view from the U-Bahn station––much better than the dark, damp tunnels of DC's metro!

The view from the U-Bahn station––much better than the dark, damp tunnels of DC’s metro!

Like Prague and Budapest, Vienna stretches over both banks of a major river. By the time we arrived, it was just in time to watch the sunset.

Once the sun had set, we quickly took the metro over to meet Matt for dinner. We decided on Pancho, a Mexican restaurant that our host had recommended. Coming from California, I could eat Mexican food every meal of my life and never tire of it—so I was extremely happy to find a substitute for my Mexican fix in Vienna. (And it was surprisingly good!)

Afterwards, we headed over to Café Central, one of the famous coffeehouses in Vienna, for some dessert and coffee.

Because when in Vienna, sometimes you have to do as the Viennese do—with sachertorte and cappuccinos.

The Sound of Music

The hills are ALIVEEEE with the SOUND of MUUUUSIC!

I couldn’t help but replay the Sound of Music soundtrack in my head all day as we spent the day touring Vienna. Granted, Vienna may have been far from the idyllic estate of the Von Trapp family, but I think the breathtaking beauty of this Austrian city deserves only the best Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack to accompany its endless gardens, stately palaces, and towering churches.

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This morning, Alex and I arrived to the train station at the crack of dawn in Budapest—lugging our suitcases through the metro as many people were still coming back home from the night before. We had bought our tickets online several weeks prior through a very confusing Hungarian website—I ended up on the 7:10 train, while Alex ended up on the train the hour before at 6:05.

So, after Alex got on his train, I waited around an hour for my own—buying a chocolate croissant and a “cappuccino” that was really powder and hot water in a cup from the stand at the station.

Once on my train, I almost immediately fell asleep, only waking up periodically to hand my ticket to the conductor to be stamped. Soon enough, I arrived at the train station in Vienna, reunited with Alex, and headed on the metro to meet up with our Airbnb host for the weekend.

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We quickly set our bags down, and then headed out into the city. To make the most of our time here, we had planned our itinerary the night before—today, we planned to conquer most of the major sights in Stephanplatz and visit the Hofburg Palace, which served for many centuries as the palace of the Hapsburgs.

The clouds and rain of the afternoon did little to obstruct the beauty of the city. We couldn’t stop exclaiming at every corner our shock at how the palace grounds just kept stretching on and on—palace next to palace, garden next to garden. More than once, we wandered around a corner to find a new church, then peeking inside for a jawdropping glance at the soaring ceilings and lavishly decorated interiors.

Vienna, or Wien as it’s called in German, is the capital and largest city of Austria, with a population of over 1.75 million. (In fact, it’s the largest German-speaking city in the world after Berlin.) For centuries, it has served as a major political, economic, and cultural center for Europe, as it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it’s a beautiful and vibrant city, often topping the charts of various quality of living indices. (For example, Vienna has one of the best public transportation systems that I’ve ever been on, with strikingly clean and modern stations all available for a simple 48-hour pass.)

At the Hofburg Palace, we purchased our tickets and began with a tour of the imperial silverware collection. We toured an exhibition on the life of Empress Elizabeth in the Sisi Museum, and finished with a tour through the apartments of the imperial family.

The Hofburg Palace has served as a documented seat of government since 1279, and was used the principal winter residence by the Hapsburgs. Over the years, more wings and buildings were added to form the mini city it is today. Today, in addition to the museum, the complex also houses the official residence of the president of Austria, as well as most of the offices of government ministries.

(Unfortunately, no photos were allowed past the Silverware Collection.)

Afterwards, we continued our stroll around Vienna.

We couldn’t get enough.

At one point, we wandered into the Votive Church, where there had live baroque organ music playing.

For dinner, we met up with Matt, who also arrived into Vienna in the evening by bus. Taking our host’s recommendation, we had dinner at a traditional Austrian restaurant, where the servers even dressed up in lederhosen and they served all types of wiener schnitzel.

Tomorrow, we’re getting up early for another round of palaces—the Schonbrunn Palace and Belevere Palace—then seeing how many other places we can fit in. Time to get some sleep!

One Day in Budapest

Since I was already leaving for Vienna the next morning, I was determined to cram as much as I could of Budapest in my one full day in the city. The best way to accomplish this? Free walking tours!

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Budapest is the capital and largest city of Hungary, with a population of over 1.74 million along the banks of the Danube River. While it once was composed of three different cities––Buda and Óduba on the west bank and Pest on the east––it was unified in 1873 into one: Budapest.

Alex and I got out early to meet up for the start of the morning walking tour. You can find tours like it all across Europe, which are most popular with the young and hostel crowd since they’re only funded by a policy of “pay however much you can” at the end of the tour. We were paired with Anita as our tour guide, and started out for a 3-hour tour of some of the major sights on both sides of the river.

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Anita began our tour with an overview of Budapest’s history, from the seven original tribes of the Hungarian people to their horrendous luck in also being on the losing side of wars over the past centuries. In the 16th century, the Ottomans pillaged Buda and occupied it for 140 years, during which they constructed many of the traditional Turkish baths that you can still find in the city. With the fall of the Austria-Hungary Empire in 1918, Hungary declared itself an independent republic. Hungary once again was on the wrong side of World War II, where it suffered serious damage and remained under Soviet occupation until the fall of the USSR.

Our tour began in the Pest side of the Duma River, slowly making our way over the Chain Bridge to the Buda side, where the old castle and palaces are located.

In our tour group, we quickly became friends with Cindy, a girl from Chile who was about two months into her 3-month solo trip across Europe. She had previously spent two years as an au pair in Massachusetts, and she now was traveling across Europe by couchsurfing and meeting up with old friends.

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After the tour, Cindy joined Alex and me to grab some sandwiches at a local grocery store and eat them near the Fisherman’s Bastion. We walked around a bit, crossing over the bridge and taking lots of photos.

Cindy had to go meet up with her friend, so we said goodbyes and exchanged contact information to stay in touch and exchange photos. Alex and I went on the prowl for some free Wi-Fi and  ended up in the lobby of an extremely posh hotel.

Since we enjoyed our morning walking tour so much, we decided to also meet up for the afternoon Communist walking tour. This time, our guide Anna took us by some of the remaining buildings and monuments from the Communist era, but also told us a lot of anecdotes about life under Hungary’s version of “Happy Communism.”

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In 1949, the Communist Party gained control of Hungary, subsequently enacting an era of state socialism under the influence of Moscow. However, unlike many other countries east of the Iron Curtain,  demonstrations in Budapest in 1956 led to the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution in defiance of the Soviet occupation. In response, the state began to enact several reforms to appease the people––for example, Hungarians were allowed to purchase their own kind of blue jeans and could buy real Coca-Cola at the store. As a result, from the 1960s to the 1980s, Hungary was often satirically referred to as the “happiest barrack” within the Eastern bloc.

Anna shared with us all kinds of stories about life in communist Hungary, such as how the state supplemented two-week vacations for all Hungarians, dubbed James Bond movies in a way that left out all references to Communists as the enemy, and created all kinds of bureaucratic nightmares, such as the arduous seven to 10 year process to buy a car. While Hungarians lacked many types of freedoms, Anna explained the kind of nostalgia for the by-gone era that still persists for many older Hungarians. More than once, Anna commented on the need for a generational change––that it would take several generations to truly instill a “democratic” way of thinking in the country.

After the tour, we scoped out a traditional Hungarian restaurant that we found on Trip Advisor, and ended up having one of the best meals we’ve had on the trip so far—they even had a man playing the harpsichord in the restaurant!

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Afterwards, we walked over to the Buda side of the city once again to get some night shots of the city, especially the Parliament Building.

What a beautiful city!

Ticket to Ride

There’s something magical about trains. You don’t have to worry about ridiculous long security lines; you always have plenty of legroom; and they even have an entire car dedicated to feeding you. On a train, travel doesn’t happen in a vacuum-sealed chamber of screaming babies and persnickety passengers. Travel passes before your eyes—the patchwork of farms and pastures, the small town centers, the trees with their changing colors—so that your journey becomes more than a passage from point A to point B but instead a way to experience the country as you travel through it.

I said goodbye to my parents in Prague this morning to board EuroCity 171 to Budapest, where I was meeting my friends for the rest of the fall break. After a relaxing breakfast at the hotel, I arrived at the train station with my printed out ticket in hand.

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It turns out, my train was running a full 30 minutes late—a condition that wasn’t too much of an inconvenience but made me internally freak out as I convinced myself that I was reading the departure information wrong and the train most definitely left without me. But around 20 minutes after the scheduled departure time, they finally posted the platform number for my train and I practically ran to platform 3S in my antsy anticipation.

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Shortly, my train arrived—an old hunk of steel called the Hungaria, with its faded red utilitarian exterior straight out of the 1960s. I was able to find a window seat in a row by itself, stretching out my feet on the chair directly across from me, with its unique combination of brown carpet and yellow pleather upholstering.

I quickly settled in for the 7-hour journey ahead, catching up on blog posts and tearing through chapters of my book. The train slowly made its way through the Czech Republic and into Brno, then entering Slovakia and passing through Bratislava. By the time we entered into Hungary, it was dark.

At this point, hardly anyone was left on the train, which made it eerily silent as the lights flickered overhead. Maybe it was because I was 6 hours into my ride—or maybe it was because it was suddenly dark outside—but the creepiness factor of the train increased suddenly. Repeatedly, the train kept stopping on the tracks for no apparent reason.

I was incredibly relieved when the train finally pulled into the Budapest-Keleti station, where I found a taxi and gave them the address to the apartment. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find my friends since I was almost an hour late for our meeting time, but luckily Alex and Matt were still waiting outside.

I dropped off my stuff at the apartment, an entire two-bedroom flat that looks straight out of an Ikea catalog. I had found the place for super cheap through Airbnb, which connects owners to short-term tenants.

We went out to dinner at a Hungarian restaurant nearby (which honestly isn’t too different from Czech cuisine), before heading back to the flat to get ready to see all of Budapest in a day. Bring it!

Through the streets of Český Krumlov

As we drove through the Czech countryside from Prague to Český Krumlov today, it seemed like every city we passed had began with the word “Český” as part of its name. Perhaps it means “city”? “Ah, no,” replied Pavel when my dad asked. “They just thought the name of those cities sounded too German so they added the word ‘Czech’ or ‘Český’ to the front to make it sound more Czech.”

And so, we woke up early this morning to drive to Český “Czech” Krumlov, a small city about two hours outside of Prague. Because of its well-preserved village and incredibly expansive castle, today the city is further protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our drive took us through the foggy hills of the Czech countryside—at some points, the fog was so thick that one couldn’t see more than several meters on each side of the road. We stopped for a pit stop at České Budêjovice, which had a huge cobblestoned city square.

When we arrived at Český Krumlov, our first stop took us through the expansive gardens of the castle—past fountains, numerous garden beds, and even an indoor heated riding arena.

The castle itself is gigantic; within the Czech Republic it is second only to the Prague Castle. It dates back to 1240, when the powerful Rosenberg family built the first castle. Over the years, the castle was renovated and updated according to the latest style. To this day, most of the castle remains decorated in the opulence of the Renaissance area, with countless frescoes and lavish furnishings.

We had a chance to tour the castle (unfortunately, no cameras allowed!), and I couldn’t believe how huge and how well-preserved the castle remains today. I couldn’t imagine one family owning all of it!

Afterwards, we had lunch along the river and walked around through the city’s narrow, winding streets.

Once we got back, we had time to sit at one of the cafes in the Old Square then sit down to dinner.

Since my parents leave back for California tomorrow, I can’t say how wonderful and lucky I was to spend time with them, especially in such beautiful cities like Istanbul and Prague. I couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed before it was time to say goodbye to them once again. Skype and email and narcissistic blogs like this one are great ways to stay in touch, but nothing truly can replace the time you spend together.

What’s all the Praha-ha

We met up with Pavel again in the morning, for our second half of the walking tour around Prague. To begin, we took the metro and tram across the river to Lesser Town to visit the magnificent complex of the Prague Castle.

The Prague Castle sits on a hill overlooking the river, where it has served as the seat of the Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and the presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. It holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of almost 70,000 square meters.

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The castle dates back to the 9th century, where the first walled building was the Church of the Virgin Mary. At the beginning of the 10th century, the rulers began work on the Basilica of St. Vitus, a gigantic gothic church that remained under construction for centuries until it was finally finished some 600 years later. Look at those stained glass windows!

We also toured some rooms inside the castle itself––from the grand coronation room to the offices for the government scribes.

My mom’s favorite part was this row of little houses built into the castle walls––complete with a collection of torture devices (yikes!).

Afterwards, we walked around Lesser Town and visited the Lennon Wall.

Beginning in the 1980s, people began to cover the wall with all kinds of Beatles-inspired graffiti and song lyrics. Under the communist regime, the wall served as a source of irritation. Young Czechs began writing grievances on the wall. Multiple times the wall was painted over, only to be covered again with flowers and lyrics by the next night.

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After the tour with Pavel, we had lunch as we decided what to do for the rest of the afternoon. First stop: the Communist museum!

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The Communist Museum of Prague had a somewhat creepy collection of old artifacts and mannequins, depicting life in Prague during the Communist era. When we had asked Pavel what life was like before the fall of the Communists, he always told us the same thing: “Gray. Everything was gray.” It was fascinating to contrast the photos of drab, ramshackle streets with the beautiful facades of Prague today.

My favorite part of the video was an old documentary that depicted the protests that erupted in Wencelas Square in 1989. Crowds numbering thousands, strong-willed protesters, police brutality… yet all of this underscored by the remarkable success of the subsequent regime change, all with no violence or lives lost.

We also visited the Spanish Synagogue, with its arched ceilings covered with tiny, intricate geometric designs. The synagogue also had a remarkable collection of Jewish artifacts from all over Central Europe. When the Nazis gained control of the synagogue, they had kept a staff working at the museum charged with the task to create three private exhibitions to document many of the Jewish artifacts seized from the territories under Nazi control. All of the museum staff was eventually sent to Auschwitz.

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We had dinner at an Italian restaurant near Old Square, and we then went to the top of the clock tower after dinner to have a view of the city at night.

What a sight!

Czech It Out

After two packed days in Istanbul, my parents and I woke up early this morning to catch a flight to Prague, the largest city and capital of the Czech Republic. Our flight went smoothly, and we arrived in Prague just before noon with a new stamp in our passports.

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Immediately, you could feel the change from the chaos and bustle of Istanbul. While Prague is a large city in its own right, its population of 1.3 million people pale in comparison to Istanbul’s 13 million plus. Its narrow cobblestoned maze of one-way streets keeps most of the cars out of the city center.

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We had lunch at an Italian restaurant just off the Old Town Square—where I scarfed down an entire pizza more as a testament to my gratitude to eat something besides Turkish food than to the quality of the pizza—before meeting up with our guide, Pavel, for an afternoon walking tour of Old Town, New Town, and Josefov.

The four hours that followed took us through a leisurely stroll through the streets of Prague. Repeatedly, I was amazed at the beauty of the architecture of the buildings—a testament to the many centuries of immense wealth and power invested in Prague throughout the centuries. While today it serves as the capital of the Czech state, it has also been the seat of two Holy Roman Empires, the historical capital of Bohemia proper, the capital of Czechoslovakia, and an important city to the Habsburg Monarchy and its Austro-Hungarian Empire.

We began our tour in Old Town Square, slowly wandering over to Wenceslas Square. Wenceslas Square played a significant role as the site of many protests leading up to the Velvet Revolution and subsequent fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.

We then traveled over to one of the most recognizable panoramas in Prague—the view from Charles Bridge, which spans over the Vltava River. The construction of the bridge started in 1357, and served as the only means of crossing the river until 1841. As a result, this crossing helped make Prague important as a trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.

We finished our tour in Josefov, which historically served as the Jewish district of Prague. There still stands a remarkable vaulted gothic synagogue known as the Straronová Synagoga (literally “Old New Synagogue”) that dates back to 1270.

And sometimes, there’s truly no better way to explore a city than on your two feet.

Back in Old Square!

Back in Old Square!

The world’s capital

If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.

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I couldn’t help but think this as I wandered through the streets of Istanbul once again. The once expansive stretch of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires are hard to fathom, a fault I attribute to the failure of my Western education to properly acknowledge the importance of the great powers before the ascension of Western Europe. If we were to truly designate a city as the world’s historic melting pot, I’d doubt any other city would be such a serious contender as Istanbul.

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And so, we awoke to a rainy and cold morning in Istanbul, and met our guide Selahattin for a full day of sightseeing. Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet, as the Turks call it.

Afterwards, we drove to the Fener neighborhood in order to visit the site of the Ecumenical Patriachate.

Above the Partriachate, we drove to the top of the hill in order to get a spectacular view of the Bosphorus! Selahattin also showed us a portion of the old city walls, which you can still climb up on today.

We also toured the Chora Church, which was just as stunning as I remembered it.

Next, we stopped at the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is by far my favorite mosque out of all the ones I’ve been to so far. Sultanahmet may have its exquisite tiles, but there’s something about the quiet and reverence of the Süleymaniye Mosque that truly makes it feel like a holy place.

We ate lunch at a restaurant that specialized in southeastern Turkish cuisine before stopping by the Spice Market to try and purchase some Turkish Delights for my little brother.

For the rest of the afternoon, it was time to spend some time of the Bosphorus to see the city from the water!

After an extremely long and packed day, we headed to a local restaurant in Sultanahmet for dinner. It turns out the restaurant was actually connected to a long series of caves––part of an old Byzantine palace.

We walked  for a bit around Sultanahmet, where everything is lit up in all kinds of beautiful colors at night. We even spotted a whirling dervish!

At last, it was time for some much needed rest. Tomorrow, on to Prague!

Istanbul Part Iki

After a paper and presentation on Thursday for class, I know I’m not speaking for myself when I say that I was very ready to go on break. The shuttle picked us up at the apartment building at the ridiculously early time of 4:40 a.m. to take us on the 2-hour drive to Antalya, where the major airport is located.

At 7 a.m., the airport was packed—all sorts of tour groups were trying to make their way through the two-step security process and I was glad I had plenty of extra time. After getting to the terminal, Mara and I had some time to kill so we ordered breakfast at the café.

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Soon enough, I boarded my plane to Istanbul, excited to share with my parents the city with which I fell in love at the beginning of September. My flight was uneventful, though I was thrilled to get served a full meal (chicken sandwich, mint and yogurt sauce, and cherry cake) in the 80-minute flight. I only have good things to say about how marvelous it is that Turkish Airlines still gives you food on every flight. (And you get your first bag checked free! Take that, United.)

Once I got to Istanbul, I was determined to figure out how to take public transportation from the Ataturk Airport to Sultanahmet, the old part of the city where my parents were staying. I didn’t really have the chance to go out on my own while we were in Istanbul, and I also knew that it would save a lot of cash—6 TL versus 50-60 TL to hire a taksi. Armed with my printed map of the public transportation system, I struck out to follow the signs out of the airport to the metro.

I figured out how to buy these little plastic tokens from the jetonmatik, and easily boarded the train headed towards the center of the city. Then I had to transfer to the tram, squeezing into a crowded car packed with all sorts of people on their commute.

It was at that moment that I realized that, for the first time since I arrived in Turkey, I was truly surrounded by Turks. I was the only American around. There’s a certain amount of comfort and safety net that comes with a program like the one I’m on, where you take your classes with fellow American students and professors. But while this can be an excellent way to explore a country that might have otherwise been off limits for someone who doesn’t speak Turkish, it limits your opportunities to truly be immersed in a culture. Or to have uncomfortable moments where you have no idea what’s going on.

At some point on the tram ride, everyone got off the train and stood on the platform. I had no idea what was going on. I hadn’t heard any announcement, but everyone gave me strange looks when I was one of the last people staying in the car, so I also exited the tram. Some public transit employees walked through the car, and everyone boarded the next replacement train that came after 10 or so minutes. Luckily, since I was one of the last people to get off, I was one of the first back on. I was actually able to get a seat on the tram this time. Sometimes, ignorance pays off!

I got off the tram at Sultanahmet, and pulled out my Istanbul map to try finding out where my parents’ hotel was. It was then I realized that the map didn’t even have any street names on it. Yikes.

I wandered down the Hippodrome for a bit, lugging my duffel bag around as I tried to make sense of the landmarks around me. I knew that their hotel was somewhere near the Küçük Ayasofya, so I guessed which direction the water might be and headed through the maze of streets.

With a huge serving of luck, I was able to spot the minarets of the mosque, found the right road, and spotted the hotel. I got a key from the front desk and dropped off my stuff at my room. I didn’t have a way to contact my parents since they were on a tour, so I figured I would go back near the Hippodrome and Blue Mosque to pass some time.

I slowly wandered my way around the gardens of the Blue Mosque, circling around the monuments in the Hippodrome, and trying to seem like I was doing anything but wandering around by myself. After a half hour, I was ready to head back to the hotel to get out of the cold, but I just happened to spot my parents at the other end of the Hippodrome. At last!

I'm pretty sure my mom took this photo several minutes before I found them. Can you spot a lost looking 20-year-old in the distance?

I’m pretty sure my mom took this photo several minutes before I found them. Can you spot a lost looking 20-year-old in the distance?

It was fantastic to see them again, and I was so glad I was able to find them and join them for the end of their tour. We wandered around the Hippodrome, decided to hold off on the Blue Mosque since it had a ridiculous hour-long wait due to Friday prayers and cruise ships, and got lost once again in the Grand Bazaar.

After the end of the tour, we found a little traditional kahve next to this old Ottoman graveyard, where we had some tea as we had time to catch up on their time in Istanbul so far.

We then made it back to the hotel, where we arranged for dinner reservations at a fish restaurant under the Galata Bridge. Dinner was quite a treat!

We ordered a gigantic seabass for the three of us, and the restaurant cooked it in this mound of salt before bringing it to the table and setting it on fire in this elaborate show. It was so cool!

After dinner, we walked over to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street. The area was bustling on a Friday night—it seemed like half the city was out roaming down Istiklal. We even stopped for tea and Turkish coffee at a café.

And let’s be honest—after all the traveling and all the people I’ve met, nothing  beats spending time with your family.

Meeting the Muhtar

At last, we checked out of our final hotel today, bags packed for the final trek to Alanya, the city that will be our home for the semester.

But first, in the morning, we stopped to tour the beautiful ancient city of Aphrodisias, an important archaeological site of the Greek and Roman period in Turkey. Along the banks of the Meander River, the city flourished from the first century B.C. through the 6th century A.D. Due to the dedicated work of one archaeologist, the site has been beautifully restored, with most of the original artifacts remaining at the site or in its own museum. (Unfortunately, many of Turkey’s precious artifacts from this period now belong in museums in Europe or other places across the world.)

We took this tractor tram from the bus parking lot to the entrance of the archaeological site.

We first toured the museum, which had an excellent collection of sculptures and artifacts found at the site.

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There were also lots of cats outside of the museum! (We’ve been very cat-centric this entire trip over all the cats in Turkey.)

We then headed into the archaeological site. One of the most famous sights of the ancient city is the gigantic sanctuary of Aphrodite, the city’s patron goddess of love.

There’s also an extremely well-preserved council hall in Aphrodisias, where city officials once met to discuss governance.

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Aphrodisias is also home to the second largest stadium of the ancient world (the largest one is in Laodicea, but it wasn’t open to the public yet when we visited). It was huge!

After Aphrodisias, we began to make our way southeast to Alanya, a good 6-hour drive away. Yet several hours into our journey, Nese surprised us with a stop in a small village known for its textile production!

She hadn’t been able to get ahold of the village muhtar by phone, so she asked around once the bus stopped to see if we would be able to get a tour of some of the production areas where they make the textiles. Luckily, the muhtar was over at the local kahve, so we walked over the meet him for the tour.

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The muhtar is the elected leader of a village, chosen due to their status and level of education. After meeting us at the kahve, the muhtar of Kizilca generously gave us a tour around the town, demonstrating the various types of equipment they use to produce cloth—from the fully mechanized Russian looms to traditional looms.

At one point, the muhtar decided to even welcome us into our home to demonstrate an old semi-mechanical machine that is used to produce the spools of thread that are fed onto the looms. As we toured the village, the villagers were incredibly welcoming and hospital, allowing us to duck inside their own homes to take a look at their handiwork.

One of the women demonstrated how to fashion the fabric they were making into a headscarf on our professor, Lauve. The muhtar then gifted the headscarf to her as a gift!

Then it was time to pile back into the bus for our drive to Alanya. We slowly made our way to Antalya. (Good news: The bus’s AC was fixed!) Once we made our way to the city center of Antalya, we finally saw the first signs for Alanya.

As we drove into Alanya, it was dark so you could only make out the outline of the ocean on our right-hand sign. Soon enough, our bus was somehow making it up the steep hill to our apartments.

Oh, how good it was to be home! The apartments are wonderful—with an even more spectacular view—but I’ll write more on that later. For now, it was time to finally unpack my suitcase.