To Jasper by Train

About a year ago I ended up having one too many cocktails at an event and got a little aggressive with the silent auction. The result was my ‘winning’ a train trip for two on Via Rail through the Canadian Rockies to Jasper and a couple of nights at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.  I love a mini holiday and thought this would be really fun since we love train travel in Europe (cue aggressive bidding).  When I called with excitement to tell the husband he was a little caught off guard, but I assured him it would be fun, and that I would pay for it as the piece de resistance.

Before I left, I had to tell people about a thousand times that no, I was not taking the Rocky Mountaineer to Jasper; that I was in fact taking Via Rail and that shockingly yes, there are actually two trains that you can take. It also was surprising to people that we would be sleeping on the train, and in bunk beds no less!  As a sidebar, although the Rocky Mountaineer has superb food and wine I’m sure, it travels on the same tracks as Via and you have to spend the night at a hotel in Kamloops so it makes the journey a lot longer. It’s also about 3 times the price of our round trip tickets for a one way trip.

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I love train travel. It’s romantic, it’s scenic and gives you an opportunity to meet other travelers along the way. Yes, I am the rare specimen under the age of 50 who actually would prefer to talk to strangers than look at my phone.  It’s also, let’s face it, a very slow way to get anywhere in North America.  But when you factor in the travel time as an active part of your vacation the hours just fly by.  I read a whole book en route!!!

We left Vancouver at 8:30pm Friday night, just in time for wine and snacks in our cabin, and arrived in Japser at 4pm the next day. The reverse was a 3pm departure and a 9:30am arrival home. The times are great because you get daylight pretty much any time of year for the most spectacular section between Jasper, AB and Valemont, BC. The crowd was a good mix of tourists (couples and families) and people who were commuting across country for various reasons. I chatted with a nice girl who was going all the way to Toronto. She would spend 4 nights on board and would be arriving in Toronto around the same time we’d be leaving Jasper to come home after a 3 day vacation.

Our cabin was tight, but cozy and worked well for the two of us and our backpacks. Don’t bring a rolling suitcase on the train, trust me, you will regret that choice. We started out with two comfortable reading chairs that were converted by our very friendly porter to bunks at night. Inside was also a sink and shelf area and a tiny little toilet room. Each car has a shared shower that I wasn’t brave enough to use.

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We rolled out right on schedule and after getting settled, we wandered down to the bar car where we enjoyed very reasonably priced drinks. It was slow going heading out of Vancouver because we got hung up waiting for the bridge to drop so we could cross the Fraser in New West, but it was neat to see different areas of the same places you drive through from the train. By the time they kicked us out of the bar car at midnight we were just leaving the sleepy town of Mission.

We snuggled in for the night and woke up east of Kamloops the next morning. I can’t say it was the best sleep of my life, but I’ve certainly had worse. Ear plugs are essential and just plan that you’ll wake up a bunch of times and roll over and hopefully go right back to sleep. However, anyone who tells you that the train will rock you to sleep like a wee little baby is lying.  There’s a fair amount of screeching and lurching happening. And if you’re lucky enough to snag the top bunk there’s a handy net to ensure you don’t roll off in the night!

We were served breakfast and lunch on the way to Jasper, and dinner and breakfast on the return. I did have higher hopes for the food, thinking it would be similar to White Spot quality, but it was more like the cafeteria at Ikea minus the meatballs and Daim bar cake. You get to order off a menu (meat, fish or veg options) and there are fancy white tablecloths and ‘china’, which I think was actually Corelle.  Although it’s not the best meal you’ll have in your life, think of it as a novelty. You get to eat a three course meal while watching the world go by.  And who doesn’t want apple crumble with lunch!

Another thing to be aware of when traveling by train is that passenger rail, because it’s going the way of the dodo bird, gets put on hold anytime a freight train needs to access the tracks. In quite a few of the mountain passes the tracks are one way, so you end up waiting…a lot in our case.  At one point the train was stopped for over an hour and we watched about 6 freight trains go by. The good news is that despite delays we were only an hour late arriving in Jasper!

Now, about the scenery, which is probably the number one reason to take the train to Jasper. The Rocky Mountains are simply stunning. I’ve lived in BC for 12 years and having never been east of Kelowna being able to see a large part of our province from the domed panorama car was really exciting. Grab your seat early and hang onto it, because trust me, everyone wants those spots once the train starts making its way towards Mt. Robson.  You still get a good view from your cabin window, but the dome car is fantastic!

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I’d heard of Mt. Robson, but had never paid much attention to it or really seen any photos. But wow, what a beaut!  It’s considered the most prominent mountain in the Rockies and is used by climbers training for Everest. Because of its elevation at 3,954m it creates its own weather system at the top, which results in either the top, the bottom, or both being socked in most of the year. The entire mountain is usually only visible from the train about 14 days a year so we were thrilled we got an unobstructed view (thanks full moon). It was fun to sit and listen to all the oooohhhh’s and aaahhhhhh’s from the other people as they snapped away or essentially viewed the whole thing through their iPads. And sorry, but I have to rant about how annoying it is when people use these massive devices to take photos…lots of photos…blocking other people’s view…instead of just enjoying what’s around.  I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get a good shot through the smudged windows or iPad’s and decided to just sit and enjoy.

Once in Jasper we spent the next three days at the Jasper Park Lodge, wandering around the lake and enjoying our quaint cabin, an original part of the property from the 1930’s, which felt like a summer camp for grownups. It’s amazing how breathing the fresh mountain air just wipes you out.

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Jasper is a cute town with a couple streets of restaurants, bars and shops selling tourise junk.  We did the Maligne Caynon ice walk (go with a guide), and a dog sledding trip booked through Sun Dog Tours.  Dog sledding was a fun thing to do once, but it’s not something I need to do again. Sort of like hot air ballooning. It’s expensive, really cool, and provides great photo ops!  But after 3 days of being a tourist, sipping martinis in the lodge and watching herds of elk wander by we were ready to head back home.

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The train was a bit late coming in from Edmonton, so we asked the hotel to hold our bags while we walked into town.  They assured us they would bring them to the station 20 minutes prior to departure along with another couple who was getting on the train. Needless to say we had some issues with the bags and thought we might have to either leave without them, or miss the train (me=stressed).  But thankfully train travel is different than air travel. Our friendly porter from the trip out saw me looking very distraught and after I explained the situation he put his hand on my shoulder and said, with his thick Quebecois accent, “don’t worry, it’s the train, we wait for you”.  So there you have it, Via Rail really is a more human way to travel.

Take a train trip at least once in your life!  And support long distance commuter rail. It’s an important institution to maintain for future generations.

Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with French Lentils

Happy New New Year!  Wow, it’s 2015, I really can’t believe it.  Unfortunately 2014 was a dismal year on the blog for me; not because I wasn’t cooking a ton and doing fun things. In fact, I think my cooking reached a new level and I was doing so many fun things that I just didn’t get a chance to properly collect my thoughts in this space as often as I wanted.

I’m not making resolutions or promises to blog a lot this year, but we’ll see what happens. Two weeks ago I proclaimed this blog was dead, and now here I am, back at it.  Last night I created something so delicious and amazing that I just had to share it.  Also, 2015 should be an exciting year for me for a number of reasons. I’m starting a photography course tonight so that means better pictures to accompany these posts, and I have a a few fun trips planned this year.  In addition to a handful of weekend getaways, I’m off to the Carolinas for a wedding and reunion with my college friends in March, that will take me to Raleigh, and Charleston (yeah, I’m already hungry for that one), and then in September my dream of going back to Iceland is coming true.  Two years after our first visit and becoming completely obsessed with all things Icelandic we’ve decided to do a full island 11 day road trip!  We’re also taking a little side trip to Amsterdam to get our proper Euro fix.

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So now that we’re all caught up and re-acquainted, I’ll let you in on a little secret I’ve learned.  It’s the ticket to perfectly roasted veggies.  Before you toss your veg on the sheet pan, rub a good thick layer of olive oil over it (also really great for moisturizing your hands while you cook).  Then throw down the veg, and drizzle more olive oil and salt and pepper on top.  This ensures that the side that roasts down first gets nice and caramelized in the oven.

And without further ado, the goods.  I had an amazing dinner at Pourhouse here in Vancouver just before Christmas that consisted of a cauliflower ‘steak’ on a bed of lentils with a yogurt raita and papadum’s.  To me it was the perfect plate of food for a vegetarian. So good in fact, that I left vowing to re-create it, which I did last night.  I just ate the leftovers at my desk and felt like I’d had lunch in a little Parisian bistro.  This dish is quintessentially French, it’s hearty, it’s healthy, and inexpensive to make.  The only thing I need to improve is my cauliflower cutting skills.  I only was able to get two actual ‘steaks’ because you need to cut all the way down to the stem.  But don’t worry, just toss whatever you get on a sheet pan and roast it up.

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Roasted Cauliflower Steak at Pourhouse

Roasted Cauliflower with French Green Lentils and Herbed Yogurt 

Pre-heat your oven to 400.

For the cauliflower:

  • 1 head white cauliflower, trimmed, sliced in half, and then cut into 3/4 in. steaks as best as you can (start from the larger inside pieces and work your way out)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

For the lentils:

  • 1 cup french green or de puy lentils
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • half a white onion or 2 small shallots diced
  • 1 tbsp herbs de provence
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • water, as needed

For the yogurt sauce:

  • 1 cup full fat Greek yogurt (honestly stop wasting your time with low fat dairy)
  • 1/2 cup chopped herbs (I used dill and mint)
  • squeeze of fresh lemon juice

While the oven pre-heats, boil the lentils over medium high heat with the stock, veggies (feel free to add celery, leeks etc. to this one), and herbs. Cover and simmer about 25 min. until the lentils are tender, but retain their bite, and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Add water or more stock throughout this process as needed. I find cooking the lentils in stock vs. water gives a much richer flavour.

Place the cauliflower on an oiled roasting pan, drizzle more oil on top and season with sale and pepper. Roast for 20 min, turn carefully, and roast for another 12-15 minutes, until tender but crisp.

Mix up all the yogurt sauce ingredients and when you’re ready to plate, put a big scoop of lentils down first, top with a piece of cauliflower steak and then dollop of yogurt.

Bon appetit!

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My Roasted Cauliflower Steak

The Kaya Valley, Turkey

I believe there are a handful of places we go in our lives that will truly change us.  These are the places we remember when we close our eyes at night, when we need a moment of peace during times of stress, and they are most certainly the places we fantasize about uprooting our lives to move to.  They are places that speak to us on a subconscious level, that make us feel like we’ve been there before, or that we were meant to experience.  I don’t know, and I can’t explain it, so I won’t try, but the Kaya Valley in Turkey was one of these places for me.

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The Kaya Valley

All the guide books you’ll read when planning a trip to Turkey’s Turquoise Coast will tell you to stay in Fethiye.  It’s a lovely town, with a cute harbour, lots of fun tourist activities, and day trips within easy reach.  It’s also the starting point for many multi-day gulet sailing trips.  But it’s overrun with, well tourists, and expensive hotels, package holiday resorts, and not so great restaurants.  What the guide books don’t tell you, is that just up the hill, a short 8 km drive, is the Kaya Valley, a beautiful little garden of eden that most people probably will never know is there.

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Fethiye

Kaya is the kind of place you can completely lose yourself in. It feels like you’re stepping back, to a simpler time, where people were self sufficient and didn’t need massive grocery stores.  They still use donkeys to plough their fields and carry heavy loads around, and an actual shepherd is responsible for grazing the flock up the mountainside and back each day.  What drew me to Kaya initially, besides Liz and Tim’s awesome B&B, was its relative proximity to touristy things down in Fethiye or Oludeniz, but your ability to escape it all at the end of the day.  We wanted to experience real Turkey and this was pretty close I think.

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The only real tourist attraction in the Kaya Valley is Kayaköy, a Greek village that was abandoned overnight in 1923 when the Greeks were pushed out of Turkey.  It’s neat and totally worth a visit because it’s quiet and not a ton of people go there.  The valley itself is difficult to reach without a car, but not impossible (the dolmus runs often).  There are two ways to get into the valley, the most spectacular being the winding mountain road that leads up from the harbour in Fethiye.  The other is through the packaged resort village of Hisarönü.  Find the mountain road if you can, in Fethiye just beyond the ruined castle and watch out for stray goats scampering across the road.

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Once you descend into the valley, if you’re like me, you will fall head over heals in love.  It’s like a little micro climate tucked away that time forgot.  We stayed in Keciler, which is the first settlement in Kaya once you come down the mountain road.  The directions we got from our hosts were to turn left at the mosque and we easily found the house from there.  It’s not the kind of place with street names or road signs. Keciler means goat in Turkish, so again, if you’re like me (obsessed with goats) this is the place for you!

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The first night our hosts recommended dinner at Cin Bal, an open air kebab restaurant. We had been driving all day so decided to walk across the valley to the restaurant.  We wandered down a little dirt path, through a very old cemetery and along a small river bed at dusk.    The Cin Bal doesn’t really have menus (you pick your meze and your type of protein), so we said we wanted lamb and veggies and left the rest up to them.  What arrived at our table was some of the best meze of our trip, followed by a charcoal grill that was placed next to our table.  Next came a huge plate of local vegetables, and then a platter of raw lamb (5 different cuts).  For people who are pretty much vegetarian we were a little scared, but managed to consume everything.  The food and experience as a whole was outstanding.

Since we had walked over at dusk, and it was now dark we needed to figure out how to get home because street lights are pretty much non existent in Kaya.  Our host had told us to just ask the manager for a ride back and that he would know where their house was. Skeptical, we asked and sure enough, 5 minutes later, we were getting into the back of some young guys pick up truck.  Of course, no seat belts, music was blasting, and he was driving really fast on little country roads.  But we arrived home safe and sound, and he didn’t even give us an opportunity to tip him.

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The next morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on our sunny patio with a view of the Baba Dag (Father Mountain) off in the distance.  We watched the herds of sheep and goats wander up right next to the house and then carry on up the hillside to their grazing pasture for the day, bells jingling and meandering about in the brambles.  We had mulberries for the first time, and local cheese, and homemade apricot jam.

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It was a hot day (30+), but we decided to take our hosts up on their offer to let us use their bicycles.  So we set out on our journey to explore Kaya by daylight. First we detoured and passed some sarcophaguses and ancient Lycian tombs that were guarded by a herd of goats, and then continued on down to Gemelier beach. Half way down the steep hill I was ready to turn back when I saw how far down we still had to go.  I anticipated having problems making it back up, especially after a hot afternoon and a few beers at the beach.  But I was essentially told to suck it up and we peddled onward.

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When we arrived at Gemelier it was pretty much empty.  There was a kid offering to take people out on speedboat rides, and a couple of older ladies selling gözleme, which is a kind of Turkish pancake/crepe, and cold drinks.  Of course, the beach chairs and umbrellas are free to use, but it’s highly suggested that you buy a drink.  But don’t worry, these ladies aren’t here to gouge you, large Efes were 10 TL which is marginally more than they are at the corner store, and they’re ice cold.  If you aren’t hardcore like me and prefer to drive down to Gemelier, there’s free parking.

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We sat for a few hours, watching the gulets cruise by, swimming in the salty water of the Aegean, and sunning ourselves. In the end we were very happy with our choice to stay in Kaya, and then 2 nights further south in Kas, instead of joining a 4 or 5 night gulet tour. We had debated it after friends recommended the gulet experience, but it’s a total crapshoot in terms of who ends up on your boat, the quality of the food and accommodation and where your captain actually ends up taking you.  And what we did was cheaper in the end than 5 nights on a gulet would have been.

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The return back up the hill was a struggle.  I was dehydrated, on the verge of becoming very hangry, and sweating like I never thought possible.  I’m totally down with up hill cycling, but not in 35 degree heat!  But in the end, after my husband thought I was about to have a stroke, I made it!!!  Achievement unlocked!  We cruised back into Kaya’s village and picked up more beers at a little store where I don’t think they had seen a tourist in years, which was cool, and headed back to our patio for some heat relief.

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We agreed that Kaya was the kind of place where you could live, and really enjoy life.  It would be a simple existence, but a happy one.  We spent our evenings in Kaya sitting on our terrace, watching the sunset and the light changing in the valley, and listening to the sound of the animals all around us.  There were cows, sheep, ostrich, goats, cats, doves, bulls, donkeys, and dogs.  Every so often you hear the call to prayer form the mosque down the road, and in this setting, not only does it remind you that you are far away from home, but it adds to the beauty and comfort of Kaya.  The second night we lost power, which apparently is a regular occurrence in the valley, and it was nice to not be able to get on the wifi and be forced to just sit, relax and enjoy the view.

DPP_1168DPP_1079If you like to get away from the crowds and experience a place like a local, then consider staying in Kaya instead of Fethiye.  We had three nights, and I wish we could have stayed longer. Four nights would have been perfect to really enjoy the valley to its fullest, and experience Fethiye.  We did the 12 Islands by boat one day which was nice, but I kind of wish we’d just stayed in Kaya and hiked/had another beach day instead.  But c’est la vie, it’s a place I’m sure I will return to.  And if you need a great place to stay, for 50 EUR a night Liz and Tim’s B&B is perfect.  You get a private terrace, a fridge in your room, and a large luxurious ensuite.  It was also the most comfortable bed we had during our two weeks in Turkey.   Their hospitality and friendliness really made us enjoy our stay.

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An Insiders Guide to European Cities

I’ve hit most of the major European cities in my various travels and one thing I always find sad is the number of people who spend their precious holiday time stuck in the tourist trap that is the ‘historical centre’ of these beautiful cities.  I recently spent 4 days in Istanbul and it reaffirmed all my suspicions and generalizations.  I don’t care what Rick Steves or Lonely Planet books say, the historical centre of any major European city inevitably is going to be:

  • Full of crappy, overpriced hotels.
  • Home to a bunch of restaurants who cater strictly to tourists and although they claim to serve authentic cuisine, are most likely serving overpriced, greasy, processed and/or frozen food.
  • Full of, well other tourists. You will also see a lot of locals who are trying to sell you things you don’t need or want, hustle you into their restaurants and perhaps even rip you off. What you won’t see is locals enjoying the same things you’re supposed to be enjoying.
  • The epicenter for a good chunk of your sightseeing. Historical centres have developed overtime to make it as easy as possible for tourists to get into a city, see its sights, and then leave, without really experiencing the city itself.

Now, that makes a historical city centre sound like a terrible place, but they can really be quite enjoyable if you have a game plan to get in, see what you want to see, and get back to your awesome neighbourhood of choice where you can experience the city for real. I’ve used this approach in Prague, Vienna, Copenhagen, Oslo, Venice, Florence and Istanbul. I wasn’t wise enough to do it in Paris, Munich or Milan and as a result, these cities, although amazing in their own rights, have fallen low on my totem pole of memorable experiences.

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Nørrebro, Copenhagen

To make the most of your city experience, when it comes to booking accommodation in a major city, ditch the guide book straight away and go right to airbnb.  It’s your key to finding awesome apartments (shared or private) in some of the hippest neighbourhoods in Europe.  Do your research in advance to find a hood that fits your lifestyle and interests and then narrow your search based on that.  Two great examples of awesome neighbourhoods I would have never experienced if I hadn’t been staying in them are Copenhagen’s Nørrebro and Istanbul’s Chiangir.

Nighttime in Cihangir, Istanbul
Nighttime in Cihangir, Istanbul

The beauty of unique neighbourhoods is that you run a way smaller risk of being ripped off.  You also get a way better selection of restaurants, cafes and bars.  And you’ll be hanging out with locals, instead of other tourists.  Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting other tourists when I travel, but I tend to reserve these experiences for seaside towns and small off the beaten path places where you can’t avoid being a tourist.  As a city dweller, I like to see how other people like me live day to day, and becoming a temporary resident of their neighbourhood allows me to do this easily.  Hands down, the worst meals I’ve had traveling have been in tourist centres. Sometimes you can’t avoid it (lunch, snack, it’s too hot and you need a rest).  And some of the best and most memorable have been outside these traditional tourist enclaves.  For example, I had the best veggie burger of my life at Bronx Burger in Copenhagen, far far away from KFC and McDonalds madness.

Airbnb apartment, Istanbul
Airbnb apartment, Istanbul

The other reason I like to stay outside the historical centre is it encourages you to walk. You’re never forced as there is always a quicker way (transit, taxi, bike), but walking around in a city is truly the best way to see it.  We have often taken transit into a city centre in the morning, do our sightseeing and then walked back to our apartment. Typically the apartments we rent are about a 30-40 min. walk back.  It gives you an opportunity to not only see things you wouldn’t otherwise see, but it’s a great excuse to stop for an espresso or glass of wine and just watch the city go by.

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Florence

Shopping is always going to be better once you’re out of tourist dodge as well.  In the centres you’ll usually find all the North American chains (including at least 3 H&M’s), tourist shops selling everything from t-shirts to key chains to chocolates, and big department stores, which I actually like to go into.  In neighbourhoods like Istanbul’s Galata or Cihangir you’ll find little boutiques with better prices and often locally made jewelry and clothing.  I get it, if all you want is pizza for dinner and an I ♥ CPH shirt then stop reading this now!

And lastly, the beauty of renting an apartment in a neighbourhood a little out of the way is that you have the ability to cook your own meals.  There is nothing worse than paying 16 EUR for fruit and croissants at your hotel when for 6 EUR you could get beautiful local produce from a greengrocer, cheese, fresh bread and yogurt.  The same goes for dinner. I love eating out, but after a few days of travel I start to miss my kitchen.  One thing I didn’t get to do on my trip to Turkey was cook.  The food was just too good and cheap in restaurants, but in other cities it’s been a great way to save a little money and extend our travel dollars.  And as one of my dear friends always says “you don’t want to be the dining dead in a restaurant” which can happen after a long trip.

Cooking in Venice
Cooking in Venice

Here are some of my great airbnb finds, but you don’t have to take my advice on these as half the fun of planning a city trip is finding a place that makes you happy!

Prague: Hana was a great host and this place was easy to get to on the tram from the main train station.  It was about 15 min. into the city centre on transit, and a nice 40 min. walk.

Florence: Top floor of a 4 floor walk up building about a 10 min. walk from the central train station. Although it’s in the city centre it still feels very authentic.  The rooftop terrace was the piece de resistance, offering 260 degree views of duomo and surrounding countryside.

Copenhagen: People will tell you that Østerbro is the best place to stay in Copenhagen, but I beg to differ. Yeah it’s trendy and cool, but it feels a bit manufactured.  I loved Nørrebro because it’s still being re gentrified and the restaurants are a lot cheaper.

Istanbul: Idil’s apartment is outstanding value for money.  It’s a little difficult to find, tucked away in the tangled, hilly streets of Cihangir, so just take a taxi from the airport and then you’ll be able to get your bearings. We were a 2 minute walk from all the best brunch spots in the hood, and a quick 10 min. walk up to Taksim.

Happy travels!

Impressions of Turkey

I’ve just returned from two amazing weeks in Turkey! It’s somewhere I never gave much thought to visiting before my flights were booked, but I’m so incredibly happy that it found its way onto my travel radar.   I was a little apprehensive about visiting a Muslim country for the first time and was also slightly concerned about the political climate, but what I came away with is an appreciation for the simple life most people live in Turkey, their incredible friendliness, amazing food and wine, and the historical significance of this gateway between Europe and the middle east.

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Galata Tower, Istanbul

There will be many blog posts to come on the subject of Turkey, but I thought an introductory post was necessary.  First things first, I have to say that I went in thinking I would be put out of my comfort zone at every turn, that I would stick out like a sore thumb, and that being woken up by the call to prayer at 4am would be annoying, but I was wrong about all of these things.  I also was concerned about safety after traveling predominately in northern Europe.  But honestly, I felt safer walking around Istanbul at night than I did in Paris, and yes, people try to take advantage of tourists and sell you crap you don’t need or want, but if you ignore them (which you’ll get good at) you almost stop noticing them.

Our Turkish adventure started at midnight when we landed at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. Normally we take transit to our destination when we travel, but the Metro was not running so we were forced to take cab (our first ever after many trips to Europe). Thankfully our airbnb host had given me directions in Turkish to print because our cab driver didn’t speak a word of English.  We walked right past the hustlers inside the airport, outside into the sticky night air to the legit taxi stand, and were promptly put into a Fiat taxi that looked like it had been to war.  My seat belt didn’t work (we were lucky that there were even seat belts) and after a minute of mild panic over his terrible and fast driving I decided to just go with it and give myself over to the organized chaos that defines Turkey.

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Spice bazaar, Istanbul

We spent the next two weeks falling in love with this wonderful country, its food, animals (and their noises) and beautiful landscapes.  Our itinerary included a good mix of sightseeing, city time, country/beach time and active pursuits.  We did agree that one more beach day would have been nice though.  This trip was different than the others we’ve been on for two key reasons.  First, you do have to just give up worrying about your physical safety in the North American sense, and second the fact that people might think you’re rude or disrespectful if you ignore them, wear a tank top, or show your knees just becomes an afterthought.  Obviously you want to respect their culture, religion and traditions, and by no means should you enter a mosque dressed inappropriately, but along the coast and in other touristy areas you can dress as you would in California.

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Blue Mosque, Istanbul

On the topic of safety, Turks really don’t seem overly concerned with it.  Honestly I’m sure most of the rest of the world is similar.  In addition to not having seat belts and over using their car horns, Turkish drivers will not stop…for anything.  They may pause briefly at a red light, but the car will be rolling slightly forward the entire time.  As a pedestrian it is your responsibility not to get hit by a car, moped, tram, bike or cart.  Even if you have the little green walking man in your favour be careful!  But if you’re too patient you wont’ get anywhere, so sometimes you have to just commit and go, which is scary at first.

When you walk along the sidewalks off the main thoroughfares you’ll find that you get about 2 meters and then will be forced into the street for some reason.  Usually it’s a set of stairs leading down into a basement apartment, a pile of rubble or construction debris in the way, or a herd of stray cats just hanging about.  So eventually you just get used to walking down the centre of the street until you hear a car coming and then you scamper back to the supposed safety of the sidewalk as quickly as possible.  It’s like a constant game of road hockey, except no one yells “car”.  You wouldn’t last a day if you were deaf in Istanbul.

Driving is an entirely different animal that my husband handled like a champ.  I guess once you’ve mastered driving in Italy you’re good?  We picked up our little Fiat at the airport in Izmir, and not 10 min later on the highway we encountered a cement mixer that had t-boned an SUV, just stuck in the middle of the highway, no flares or anything directing you around it.  In addition to driving very fast (especially around corners on seaside roads) and not being shy about flashing their lights when it’s time to get over, Turkish drivers have decided that even if two lanes of traffic stop at a light, there’s usually room for a third lane to be created.  This causes a bottleneck once the light turns green, and invariably people end up back in the same position they were in before, but they feel like they’re getting somewhere faster I guess.  We didn’t understand it.

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Road from Kas to Antalya

Parking is no problem. Basically you just throw your car wherever it will fit and walk away. But be careful though, if you happen to park in someone’s lot they will probably approach you to buy something from them.  You may or may not feel obligated to do this as a tourist. We did not as we had gotten over the whole ‘we’re being rude thing’ by the time we got our car.

Food and water are also interesting topics in terms of safety.  After some research we decided not to drink the tap water.  First of all, it’s heavily chlorinated most places and tastes absolutely terrible, second, apparently it can make you sick, although I doubt that (I brushed my teeth with it no problem), and third, you can buy a 1.5L bottle of cold water at any corner store in the country for $0.50, making it not worth it to even attempt tap water.

The food we had was consistently delicious, with the worst meal of the trip being had in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet tourist centre.  And even then it wasn’t that bad (just greasy).  We ate at all family run one off places and found that the vast majority of people were actually concerned about your experience, thus providing excellent service, and the quality and value of the food was outstanding. We ran the gamut. eating at mehanes (pubs), market stalls, chic bistros, beachside cafes, and even inside caves.  Our typical evening meal was a shared meze plate with bread, a couple of vegetarian mains to share (or lamb once in a while) and a couple large bottles of Efes, or a nice bottle of Turkish wine.  Outside of our splurge meal in Istanbul at Meze by Lemon Tree our meals never cost more than $50 CAD. We had one dinner (without booze) cost as little as $12 for two.

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Meze plate

And the last thing that made a big impression on me was how lovely, friendly and generally kind the Turkish people are.  Even when they’re trying to rip you off they’re pretty nice…which makes it harder to say no of course!  From our first encounter with Idil, our airbnb host in Istanbul, to our final stop at the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel in Goreme, the people of Turkey were keen to share honest information about their local area, country and culture.  For example, we learned that in Goreme, since the 70’s when tourism overtook the local economy they have seen a crisis develop.  Families who had farmed the land for hundreds of thousands of years suddenly stopped and began operating restaurants and hotels.  Within a generation the skill of farming has been lost to many.  At Kelebek, they are trying to raise awareness on this issue by hosting an ‘organic breakfast’ for their guests in the family’s valley close by, stay tuned for that post!

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Night time in Goreme, Cappadocia

When staying in the Kaya Valley, just above Fethiye, we thought the British couple whose B&B we were staying at were nuts when they told us to walk into down for dinner at Cin Bal, and then ask the restaurant to drive us home.  But sure enough a nice young guy scooped us up in his truck and drove us right back home, knowing exactly where our hosts house was.  Didn’t even give us the opportunity to tip him!

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Kaya Valley

We had car trouble one day (note to travelers, do not put your car keys with a remote fob in your swim shorts and go into the water) and I thought ok here we go.  It’s going to cost us an arm and a leg to get help.  But to my dismay within minutes of our car not starting we had two guys helping us (neither spoke English).  I was also shocked when I went to a hotel to use the phone that the girl at the front desk said ‘of course you can use the phone for free’, and that it was no problem to have the car rental company ring me back at the hotel if I wanted to wait there.

There are countless examples of kind people, delicious food, and unexpected surprises (the good kind) in Turkey.  Yes, we did encounter people who tried to scam us and sell us useless junk.  No, I don’t want to buy a nice carpet (t-shirt, purse, fill in the blank as you see fit) No, I don’t want an English guide to skip the line with, I don’t want to eat or drink something in your restaurant as I already ate, and oh, you know someone who lives in Canada…your cousin, friend, brother…what? Nope, I still don’t want to buy what you are selling me, but thanks!

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Gemeli beach, Kaya Valley

There will be individual posts to come on various aspects of my recent trip, but if you read this and are thinking about possibly going to Turkey, my advice to you is do not hesitate. Do it and you will not regret it.  The exchange rate to the Turkish Lira makes is incredibly affordable, meaning you will spend infinitely less than you would in Croatia or Greece.  It’s a food and wine lovers paradise (yes, Turkish wine is actually really good!), and there is a wonderful mix of historical sights, places to relax, and activities for all ages and fitness levels.  I don’t have kids, but it’s a way more appropriate place to take your kids than say Italy (just be warned that Turkish people love kids and will pinch your child’s cheeks at every opportunity).

We are so preoccupied with the idea of our safety in North America, and this trip really highlighted that.  We also are incredibly focused on earning a good living to buy a home or a car or other seemingly meaningless material possessions (often times, lots of them). In Turkey many people don’t have this opportunity, but they make do with what they have, and in the end seem happier than we are for it.  There is something very appealing about a simpler life.  After this trip I feel like I am a better traveler, have truly experienced a different culture, and my desire to continue exploring continues to grow every day.

Obsessed with Iceland

If you haven’t figured it out from reading my blog, I’ll just come out and say it.  I’m obsessed with Iceland!!!  I think about going there at least once a day, I have dreams about it, and I have developed an odd enthusiasm for Icelandic products.  You may think it strange that someone could spend 72 hours in a place and it subsequently consume their thoughts.  It would make more sense if it were somewhere exotic like Bali, or Madagascar but brrrr, it’s cold in Iceland and expensive, and barren and weird…which is why I fell in love.

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I recently finished reading Names For the Sea (for which apparently there are 12 of in Icelandic) by Sarah Moss about the year she spent living in Iceland with her young family, teaching english at the university.  Although some of the things I read surprised me, as a whole it was fascinating.  My husband and I often talk about selling everything and moving to Europe.  We debate where we would live and what we would do and Iceland does creep onto the list.  I’m not sure it’s somewhere I could commit to living long term, but a year…sure!

The amazing thing about Iceland is that it it’s essentially at the Arctic Circle, yet they have distinct seasons.  Yes it is always on the chilly side, and as Sarah says in her book, and I experienced first hand, you never leave the house without a sweater, even in August!  The other thing that stays with me is the unique and almost painfully beautiful landscapes. It was the mossy rocks, they cast a spell on me…wait, maybe the elves did that!  I was buying all natural toothpaste the other day and when I read one of the ingredients on the Kiss My Face one was Icelandic moss I put it in my basket and walked on without a second thought.  Why wouldn’t I want to brush my teeth with that beautiful moss?

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It’s difficult to describe, and if you’re a lover of beaches and palm trees then Iceland may not be for you.  But I love mountains and snow, and seeing those windswept lava fields just worked for me.  Think of the blackest rock you’ve ever seen, and spread that out in a ripple pattern for miles on end, and then cover it with bright green moss that screams life. Get a ray of sun shining on it, smell the water vaporizing in the air and that is just the beginning.

Here are a few things I noticed on my trip, and/or found really interesting in Sarah’s book.

On Recycling:  Iceland is essentially 99% carbon neutral. They advertise this on the plane going over.  Yet apparently recycling your used goods onto someone else is just not a thing that is done.  If you look on Craigslist for Reykjavik, there’s almost nothing for sale.  This is because Icelanders believe that once you’re done with something it’s finished, and should be completely discarded.  God forbid you use something someone else previously owned. In my mind this goes against the idea of reducing your carbon footprint.  If I have cheap Ikea bookshelves and I move house, I would certainly sell or give them away, vs. putting them in the dumpster.

On Grocery Shopping:  You can’t really grow anything in Iceland, unless it’s in a greenhouse.  The vast majority of the island is blanketed by lava flows or glaciers, although there is some arable farmland.  So most of the food items have to come from somewhere else. And it’s not like here in Vancouver where my strawberries from Whole Foods were picked a day or two ago in California.  No, in Iceland your food has probably been traveling at least a week, maybe two, or more?  There are two major grocery stores in Iceland. Bonus, which you can’t miss because it’s got yellow signs with a pink drunk looking pig on it, and Hagkaup, which is the more posh market.  Apparently stuff that doesn’t sell at Hagkaup goes to Bonus.  I went into Bonus not knowing this. The produce was not very good, although I did end up with some awesome Icelandic feta.  Most of the veggies we bought that weren’t imported were tasteless (greenhouse grown).  The apples were from South Africa and were a bit mealy.  And pretty much everything was processed and pre-packaged.  Even the apples were in a package.  If you wanted just one, take a hike.  You had to buy a pre-wrapped package with 4 apples in it.  You can’t look at them in the round to make sure they’re ok and get 4 you really want either.  It’s a crap shoot.

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On Elves: Yes, you are reading this correctly.  Elves, elf in the singular, little woodland creatures who are known to help Santa out once a year or so.  Well in Iceland they are treated like royalty.  I want an Icelander to do an AMA on Reddit about this elf believing business, but for now I’ll go with it, because I did feel a strange connection to the Earth when I was there, so I can’t discount what others are feeling.  Apparently the places where elves live are very important.  Sarah shared her findings on this in her book and the most fascinating thing to me was that these people bought a house and just didn’t feel quite right about it, like it was haunted or something.  So a person who speaks to elves came in, and discovered that the house had been built on top of where these elves had been living for like ever. So to make amends, she recommended putting a rock in the corner of the bathroom for the elf to feel like it had a place within the house, and then a larger rock was placed in the yard for the elf as well.  Lucky elf, having a city house and a country house!

On Driving: Driving in Iceland is no sweat, my husband did it, jet lagged and sick.  Once you’re out of Reykjavik you’re lucky if you pass 3 cars an hour on the road.  But don’t expect Icelanders to use their turn signals.  They don’t think anyone (including the person driving directly behind them) has a right to know where they’re going.  And taking the bus. Please, that’s for students only.  Bus service becomes limited in the summer months because there’s no demand for it. It’s a great place for tourists to drive though, because if you see something pretty you just pull over and take photos or enjoy the surroundings.

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On Knitting: I’m not a knitter.  I don’t have the patience for it.  My hands are better used in the kitchen, but I respect those who choose to knit. In Iceland, you have to knit or you’re an outcast.  Most girls join a knitting circle at a young age, and maintain some sort of connection with their circle throughout their lifetime.  As someone who has pretty much lost contact with my friends from high school, I think that’s awesome!  But this highlights the difficulty I imagine people face making friends in Iceland.  Everyone has their group, they don’t need to extend it!  So if you’re a knitter be sure to buy yarn in Iceland, and if you’re like me, buy some woollen goods!  Icelandic wool is warm, water resistant and somewhat wind proof.  They have special sheep you see.

On Fast Food: Iceland is the perfect place for bachelors with no desire to cook.  The number of fast food outlets I saw there was staggering.  Ones you’d never expect either. Subway, Taco Bell, KFC and something very puzzling called American Style.  Seriously check out their menu, it’s awesome.  Who doesn’t want a lobster burger!  I guess globalization is the real deal now, but I had thought Iceland would be somewhat immune to it.  Nope.

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I could go on and on about the unique, quirky and fun things about Iceland.  But I’ll stop, because it just makes me want to go back even more.  I almost pulled the trigger on a weeklong road trip for June of this year, but opted for sunshine and the turquoise coast of Turkey instead. But I’ll be back.  Seeing the northern lights over Esja is at the top of my bucket list!

Norway in a Nutshell, in a Nutshell

I was just looking at my photos from the fjord cruise I did in Norway in June, trying to pick the best ones for the photo book I’m finally getting around to make.  And it made me think back on the very long and expensive day we spent on the fjords.  When reading this, keep in mind that I live in coastal British Columbia.  One of the most spectacular stretches of highway (the Sea to Sky) is within 20 minutes of my house, and the Indian Arm which is pretty much like a fjord is also close within reach, as long as you’re pals with someone who has a boat.

Rick Steves raves about Norway in a Nutshell (NIN…no, not Nine Inch Nails, who I am coincidentally going to see tonight) in his Scandinavia book, giving it the coveted 3 triangles.  NIN is basically a string of public transit tickets that the tourism Norway people have put together in one easy to purchase package.  It will set you back about $250 pp (CAD) and be prepared, because if you do it in one shot like we did, it’s a very long day.  I looked around, because I thought I was going to get ripped off on their flashy tourism website, but after checking things out thoroughly I was satisfied that it wasn’t a racket.

This post isn’t intended to persuade, or dissuade anyone from going on the NIN tour.  I’m extremely glad we did.  Because it was so hyped up in the guide books I had high expectations, and was a bit disappointed.  We had really crappy weather the day we were out, and our fjord boat was fully packed with pushy loud asian tourists.  They were more interested in feeding the seagulls than enjoying the peaceful beautiful surroundings, so that was annoying.  What I’m saying is manage your expectations.  If you do decide to book NIN as part of your trip to Norway here are some tips to make the day more enjoyable.

The Sognefjord (from Flam to Gudvangen).
The Sognefjord (from Flam to Gudvangen).

Book ahead!  We were there in mid June and bought our tickets in late March.  If you have a set day you need to make the trek to fit in with the rest of your travel plans, definitely book it in advance.  You can pick up your tickets the day before you travel in the central station in Oslo.  Don’t wait until the day of, as the ticket window opens after your first train leaves Oslo.  The same is probably true if you make the journey in reverse, starting in Bergen.  It’s possible to stay overnight along the way in one of the very small towns.  Not sure I’d recommend it.  If you get bad weather (which is possible any time of year due to the geography of the area) you’re going to be stuck in a crappy hotel or hostel with nothing to do.  Mydral, Flam, Gudvangen and Voss have very little in the way of amenities.  If you’re prepared to hike, paddle, cycle or whatever in the rain, then stay in Flam, it seems to be the most set up for tourists.

Flamsbanna (waiting in Mydral).
Flamsbanna (waiting in Mydral).

Pack a lunch!  We did the journey from Oslo to Bergen. It’s a 12 hour day.  Because the towns you go through have so little in terms of amenities, and you’re essentially spending your day on public transit, there’s not much to offer food wise along the NIN route.  Eat a big breakfast and bring a ton of snacks with you.  You can get stuff on the train from Oslo to Mydral, but it’s expensive crappy train food.  Your best bet for food is in Flam, there’s a Co-Op grocery store there and a couple small restaurants.  We packed along some simple cheese and cucumber sandwiches, tomatoes, yogurts, croissants, bananas, apples and a bag of chips and we pretty much burned through that by the time we hit Flam.  With our arrival in Bergen not scheduled until 8pm, we also needed dinner, so we re-stocked at Co-Op.  If you’re not a picky eater, and you don’t mind over priced food, then you’ll do fine with a few light snacks to see you through.

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Flam

Dress in layers!  It was a pretty warm morning when we left Oslo, but after passing through 3 or 4 different climate zones, we arrived in Mydral, which is very high up in the mountains. There was snow on the ground in June!  You wait here for about 45 min. for your train to Flam, and not everyone can fit inside the tiny station, so you’ll want something warm in case you get stuck outside.  Mittens and a toque are a must on NIN!  The fjord boat was also very chilly.  Even though it was a little rainy, we wanted to be outside to get better pictures.  Inside was also packed with families and people who were unprepared for the conditions and I feel like that probably really spoiled their time.  And again in Voss, we waited outside, for an hour, as there was nowhere to sit in the station.

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Pack light!  You’re luggage will be with you the whole day.  There is no porter service so a rolling suitcase will be a huge hindrance on this journey.  We always backpack when we travel, for numerous reasons, and this was one instance we were really glad to be able to just run around with our lives on our backs.

Be patient!  If your tour is crowded like ours was, remember that there’s a seat for everyone, they don’t oversell this tour.  The only exception we found particularly challenging was the train from Myrdal to Flam. There are a lot of people who take the scenic train (Flamsbanna) roundtrip from Flam, so the train doesn’t empty when it arrives. If you don’t get on it, you won’t make it to Bergen that night.  So don’t mess around in Flam, be ready to get on, and try to get a window seat, because this part is spectacular.  There are no reservations on this part!  Also, when you get off the fjord boat in Gudvangen there are busses (plural) waiting to take you to Voss.  People were pushing and shoving, because they thought there was only one bus, which isn’t the case.  The Voss-Bergen train is long and kind of boring, so find somewhere on that one to rest.  You’ll want to go out when you get to Bergen, it’s fun!

Fjord boat arriving in Gudvangen.
Fjord boat arriving in Gudvangen.

That’s pretty much my version of Norway in a Nutshell, in a Nutshell.  It’s a great tour, the scenery is amazing, and it’s a must do if you’re in Norway.  Unfortunately due to the cost and overall experience I had in Norway, it’s not on my list for a repeat visit.  But, I’m really glad I went!  You don’t have to want to go back to everywhere you travel!