Venice, Italy

Venice is one of the most beautiful cities we have visited thus far. However, the overcrowding of people, along with the debris they leave behind tends to take away from its beauty.

The first day we arrived in Venice, the crowds of people made it difficult to walk on the streets. It wasn’t until two days later that we realized the Film Festival was being held there on August 30th, also a Regatta Race was in the area as well. From what I understand, on a typical day Venice has around 30,000+ visitors. They have already limited the number of cruise ships they allow to come to the city in order to control the over-crowding.  We found hotels and restaurants to be extremely high priced.  Perhaps this is also a way of controlling the number of visitors.

If you’re planning a trip to Venice make sure you pay close attention to transportation, especially at the airport. Marco Polo Airport is the closest to Venice.  Treviso Airport is the furthest away. You may get a better rate from the Treviso Airport but you will pay more in the end because of the distance into the city. A taxi from Treviso Airport into the Venice or Mestre area is around $100/84 euros. A taxi from the Marco Polo Airport is $30/25 euros. The number 45 bus, which runs 24/7 from the airport, will take you to the same places for $9.50/8 euros. The currency in this area is only euros. Another interesting point is the ride from the airport to the Mestre area is only 2 to 3 miles, a bit pricey compared to what we are accustomed to.

We stayed in the Mestre area to avoid the high priced hotels and crowds of people, not to mention the only way to get to most hotels is by water taxi, which could be a little tricky if you travel with alot of luggage. The Mestre area is a smaller community with lovely people, plenty of small shops, markets and a few small restaurants. My favorite was The Wine Shop with a great variety of homemade wines. I was able to take my 2-liter water bottle that I had emptied the night before, and get it filled with Malbec, a red wine that was some of the best I have ever had.

No problem walking on those streets!

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We booked our hotel online through Hotwire getting The Hotel Ducale; nice hotel but very small room. The hotel staff was very friendly, helpful and spoke English. Everything at the hotel was very convenient – – from being able to purchase bus tickets at the hotel to service of complimentary breakfast each morning. Transportation into the Venice downtown area from Mestre is normally by bus or train, with the train taking a little longer but offering the same price of 1.50 euros per person and is only a 15 minute ride. If I made a return trip, I would definitely go back to this area, very pleasant.

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Hotel Ducale – Mestre area

Walking around Venice was a little more pleasant after some of the events were over, although it was still crowded. We purchased tickets for the water bus taking us on a 25 minute ride through the canals to visit the San Marco area. San Marco, which seemed to be the most popular area of all was flooded with people. Ched remarked on all the changes that had taken place since he was there around 40 years ago. He remembered feeding masses of pigeons in the square. Today, there is no room for pigeons and difficult to walk freely through the street.

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Boat to San Marco

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This was my first visit to Venice, seeing the beautiful old buildings and churches, walking through the maze of streets, trying to find our way back, stopping to ask directions along the way while enjoying the beauty of canals flowing in all directions. While walking the streets, we passed a floating vegetable market.  There was also a garbage boat collecting garbage, making its way through the canal just as a garbage truck would drive down the streets at home. I had to wonder what it would be like to live there, having to travel by boat to get out of the city or go to work or go shopping every day. We also saw two men-moving furniture on to a large boat; moving day for someone.

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Floating Market

 

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All of the activity taking place along those streets and waterways was very interesting since the only way I had seen Venice was through the movies or television.  In my mind, it was all men, dressed in striped shirts, black pants and straw like hats giving rides to people while standing on the back of Gondolas, rowing down canals. There are definitely some of those, but I never realized they had to share those waterways with all the rest of the residents.

Venice is a town everyone should see at least once!

Next stop…Romania!

Edipsos, Evia Island, Greece

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Evia Island is an island located off the north shore of Greece.  I had never heard of this island until the day before we bought our bus tickets to go there.  We knew we were not ready to leave Greece yet, but we wanted very much to leave Athens.

We realized that some of the highly advertised islands in the area, although beautiful, could be overpopulated and just as pricey as Athens; therefore, we would need to choose wisely.

About ten years ago, I became acquainted with nature’s hot springs.  I’ve enjoyed several throughout the US and many other countries.  I got hooked the first time I was able to soak my sore bones in the hot, soothing mineral water that bubbled up from the ground. Having heard that some of the islands surrounding Greece have these hot springs, I decided to base my search on that; hence, I found Evia Island.

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After a bus ride of less than a hundred miles, which was continued by Ferry, we reached our destination in a little more than 3 hours.  Once we arrived at the ferry, everyone was asked to get off the bus.   Each passenger was required to buy a ticket to cross over to the island; a trip that took around an hour.  No one spoke English and we were not sure what to expect, so we just followed the crowd. We were surprised to find that Edipsos was located at the exact place we were getting off the boat.

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The location of the hotel could not have been better:   a short walk from the bus station, a market right around the corner, a block up from the beach and a 10 minute walk to the thermal baths (a/k/a hot springs). The hotel, Dafni Studios, is an older building but very well kept, with marble floors, a tiny little elevator and a balcony overlooking the street lined with restaurants and shops.  At $30 a night we felt it was a steal. This price is common for most of the hotels in the area, which was surprising after what we had just left in Athens, not to mention this is a beautiful little island town.

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After getting settled we were off to find the main attraction that had brought us to this island. The search for the hot springs was not difficult since all you need to do is follow the old folks walking down the street in their swimsuits, carrying beach bags, with a towel thrown over their shoulder.  It was very apparent that we had found a favorite hide-a-way for old guys, although not all were in that age bracket.

Since there is no time limit on going to the thermals, we could not wait to check out the water and decided to go back around 7:30 that evening.  Many people had the same idea and were laying around on the tops of rocks in pools of hot mineral water.  This was the highlight of our time spent in Evia Island.

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Nights in Evia Island are also a big event. Every night, the street around the bay front is closed to traffic. A large variety of vendors set up, selling just about anything you could imagine.  Musicians, puppet shows, games, carnival type shows, different kinds of food, etc. were all along the streets on both sides, making a walk through the area a bit challenging as well as entertaining.  The first night we came across this event I thought they were having a special celebration, but after asking around I found out this happens every night. Each night we were there we would go down to check it out and found that every night the streets were just as crowded as the night before.

We enjoyed our stay on this little island but nothing lasts forever…

Next stop, Venice, Italy.

 

Athens, Greece

Athens:  One of the most sought after travel destinations worldwide.

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Now that I’ve been there, the only way I would make a return visit is for a brief stop-over in the airport or possibly for a connection to a bus or ferry to get to one of the 200 Greek Islands.

One disadvantage of being last minute travelers is having to take whatever is offered for flights and lodging.  This type of travel would not work for some, I suppose, but for us this is the only way to go.

Our flight into Athens arrived at 3:00 in the morning. We had no euros for transportation to the hotel but were fortunate to find a money exchange that was open since no American dollars are accepted. We had previously searched online for Athens transportation options. After finding that a taxi from the airport to the downtown area could be around $50, we decided to look further.  The best travel seemed to be the X95 Bus that makes trips to and from the airport to downtown Athens.  It runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week ,taking 45 minutes to get downtown – – not a lot of difference in time than a taxi would have taken. The cost for the two of us was 12 euros, which was about $15, with a drop off point in Syntagama Square, only a short distance to the place we were staying. We probably could have walked to the hotel, but being in an unknown area and at that hour, we decided to take a taxi. We found out later during our stay that we had made a wise decision.

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We decided that our first stop should be the Acropolis, along with a visit to the museum. We were able to walk to most of the points of interest from our hotel but the walk to the Acropolis was a little over a mile.   To save energy for the climb and walk around the Acropolis, we decided to take a subway to get there.

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We both enjoyed the walk through time, seeing the work of past architects, sculptors and artists, feeling the history and energies of the past all around.  As for this part of Athens I felt it an honor to be here, but we soon found out that the rest of the city was not quite as inviting.

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I found very little English spoken in this area, which was surprising as well as disappointing.  In my past travels I have relied on locals to give me tips on the best points of interest and things to see, rather than relying on the highly advertised tourist areas. Since we had no inside information we decided to take one of several sightseeing bus tours, hoping not to miss anything while touring the city.  While taking a break on the tour and waiting for the next bus we decided to have a cup of tea at one of the street side cafe’s.  The biggest surprise came with the bill. The tea was 5.50 euros per cup or about $7. We found the same high prices at most of the restaurants as well.

Another deciding factor as to whether we stayed in Athens or moved on to our next stop was the area in general.  The signs of criminal activity are all around.  Graffiti is everywhere, even on government buildings.  We saw the police chasing a young man, throwing him to the ground and putting him in handcuffs.  On our last afternoon in Athens we were on our way back to the hotel when suddenly I felt a little something at my side.  I looked down to find a young thug’s hand in my purse with my cell phone half way out. A natural instinct turned me into “Granny Clampett,” which he did not see coming.  He seemed a bit shocked and backed off even though he had other young men waiting in the background.  I felt very lucky that the incident went no further and certainly did not want to push my luck. I reported the incident to the hotel, only to have the hotel clerk tell me that was a common occurrence in the city.

It was time to leave Athens!

Exploring the Mediterranean   

August 2017

First stop:  Macedonia!

Macedonia is a small country just north of Greece, also bordering Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania. It’s a well-kept secret – – for me anyway, and for most other Americans according to what I heard from the locals.  They told me they get very few American visitors.  This amazes me considering the beauty and interesting history Macedonia has to offer.

Our first stop in Macedonia is Skopje, the capital city. Skopje is Ched’s birthplace.  He left there long ago and remembered little about the area, so it was a challenge finding our way around.  Lodging has not been an issue here since we have been able to stay in an extra apartment owned by Ched’s family.  After looking around though, there appear to be great deals on places to stay in Skopje, so lodging shouldn’t be a problem for any traveler.

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Our View from Ched’s Family’s Home

The taxis are very reasonable and restaurants offer a large variety of delicious meals at a very affordable price.  Ched introduced me to one of the Macedonian favorites:  Bourek.  It’s severed mostly as a breakfast food and made from sheets of pastry dough filled with feta cheese or possibly spinach and feta cheese, then baked to a golden brown.  Most of the locals eat Bourek with yogurt. It’s a tradition, I suppose. This is not the typical yogurt you find in America.  It’s served as a drink. I will have to say, it isn’t too bad.

Touring downtown Skopje:

Considering the temperatures are around 100 degrees this time of year, we chose to ditch our usual walking tour and accepted a ride to the downtown area from Ched’s nephew.  Surprisingly to Ched, there’d been a recent addition of hundreds of statues and fountains all around the downtown area, along with big beautiful buildings that were also recently built.

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Although these new buildings and statues made a nice addition to Skopje, we much preferred walking through the old town, visiting all the small shops, restaurants, markets and historical sites.  The house of the birthplace of Mother Teresa is here, along with a memorial to her.

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Mother Teresa’s Birthplace

While we were there, we also spotted a place called The Casa Cubana, a Latin Restaurant and Bar.  It’s quiet in the daytime but comes alive at night with great music and dancing.  We made a return trip there on a Friday night to get our Salsa on!

A visit to Matka Canyon:

A great suggestion by Ched’s family was a visit to Matka Canyon, located just west of Skopje.  Once we arrived at the area we took a short hike up the canyon by the water’s edge where we reached the main attraction, a small medieval monastery.  It’s located just behind a rustic outdoor restaurant built on a cliff overlooking the lake.  There we saw  a few small wooden boats with tiny strips of bamboo fused together  as a makeshift shade.  These boats were available for anyone that wanted to take a ride up the river.  After a short visit to the monastery to light a candle and say a prayer, we decided on a boat ride which would take us to a cave located about a half mile up the river.

Getting back to nature after so many planes, trains and automobiles was very satisfying and calming.  What a relaxing trip! Thank you Lydia, for the suggestion!

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Medieval Monastery

Matka Canyon 

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Bus ride to Ohrid Lake:

Ohrid Lake is located just over one hundred miles from Skopje.  The most logical way to get there is by bus ride, which is a little more than 3 hours long.  Along the trip we were surprised to see so many Muslim communities.  The area consisted mostly of new, tiled roof homes surrounded by twelve foot block walls.  There was also a Mosque with a tower located near the center of the village.

On Booking.Com we found a place with a 4 star rating near the center of town for $30 per night.  Once we arrived in Ohrid Lake we took a taxi from the bus station to our hostel for a little less than 3 bucks.   We took notice of the area along the way since we would be walking after getting settled in. The Hostel was owned and operated by the Joce family, who were very pleasant.  The small apartments were cozy and clean.  There’s also an outdoor sitting area with an arbor full of sweet tasting grapes. The owners were very friendly and helpful and made our stay in Ohrid even that much more pleasant.

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Lake Ohrid is a top tourist area in Macedonia, mostly visited by people from Turkey, Romania, Holland, Italy, Greece and other surrounding countries.  I only know this from speaking to other travelers who were from these countries and from talking locals about the tourism in Ohrid.  I was delighted to find that many of the people there spoke English.

We decided to go along with the majority of the tourists this time and take a boat ride to other locations that could only be reached by water.  This excursion took most of the day and covered some really beautiful area.  The boat stopped for lunch at an outdoor restaurant located on natural springs which offered paddle boat rides, nature walks and small shops.  A walk up the hill there took us to an old beautiful monastery called the Monastery of St. Naum, located near the border of Albania.

Lake Ohrid

On our second day in Ohrid Lake we chose to stay in the downtown area where we visited more monasteries and browsed the small shops.  Ohrid Lake is known for its hand made pearls so mostly every shop window displayed a wide variety of these pearls. Curiosity lead me to inquire from one of the locals (who spoke English) as to where the pearls actually come from.  He told me the story of a family that lived there many years ago. They had a secret family recipe that used fish scales from the Plasica fish that came from Ohrid Lake.  Today the fish are not as plentiful as they were 80 years ago and I was told that most of the pearls being sold in these shops come from China and other sources.  Buyer beware – True Ohrid Lake pearls may not be what you are actually buying.

After three days in this charming place, I found myself wishing I had more time there.

Next stop – – Athens, Greece, with a layover in Serbia.

Galapagos Islands

Still unable to overcome the high altitude breathing issues in Quito, I decided to go on-line and check the flights out of there.  Within a couple of days, we had a one way flight going to San Cristabol, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

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To enter the Galapagos there are several fees involved. When checking in for the flight each person is required to pay $100 to enter the island.  There is also $20 per person fee when going through bag check and upon arrival there is another tax of $40 per person.

I looked on line for lodging before we flew to San Cristabol and found a hostel located near the water that seemed to meet our requirements.  They offered free cancellation so I made a reservation.  My mistake was not realizing that the hostel I reserved was not, in fact, located on the island we flew into.  Therefore, we came to San Cristabol without being able to give the name of our lodging destination, which is required.  We quickly made one up from memory.  We had looked at quite a few on-line prior to flying in.

San Cristabol airport is very small.  As soon as we got off the plane, I got that small town feeling.  As we walked into the airport, we saw a lady making her way around the room, greeting people who came through the airport.  She looked to be dressed for church.  Her ensemble even included a hat and a small patent leather purse.  As it turned out, she worked for a tour business on the island and was greeting the tourists who had booked trips with their company.  She was very helpful and spoke English.  Not only did she offer us a ride from the airport, she even suggested a nearby hostel and made a phone call checking for vacancy. We were in luck.   We were able to get comfortable, clean lodging for the night plus breakfast for just $40.00.

After getting settled, we got into our normal routine of walking the town, getting familiar with the area.  At the same time, we were checking around for another long-term rental, hoping to stay in the islands for a while. As we were walking toward the bay front, we began hearing really strange noises – – almost like a child screaming. We had to find out what all the screaming was coming from.  Once we reached the bay front, we saw a slew of Sea Lions.  More than I had ever seen before in one place. They were everywhere!   Lying on boats, bridges and walkways.  They literally rule the town.

It’s not uncommon to cross over the bridges around town and meet a Sea Lion coming across from the opposite direction.  You might even find them napping on a park bench.

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Moving along, we decided to stop for lunch while we planning our next move.  There are a handful of cute little outdoor cafes that line the bay front.  We chose one just across   from the pier so we could watch all the boat traffic.  This is the main hub for transporting people to and from nearby islands, which is where we would eventually set off on another adventure.  The one thing we knew for sure at that moment though, was that we wanted to stay and explore this interesting little island before moving on.

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After lunch we explored a little more and looked for our home for the next few weeks.  I felt a strong presence directing me as we walked toward a rustic looking hostel.  The Hostel Galapagos.  Located right on the bay front and managed by a nice young man named Bernardo.  The rooms were clean and adequately furnished with private bath. The outdoor kitchen overlooking the water was to be shared with the other residents.   Luckily it was the off-season in the Galapagos so there weren’t too many people sharing our space.  The $210 per week that Bernardo asked was more than reasonable.  We decided to rent week by week in case we decided to move on to one of the other nearby islands.

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The Hostel Galapagos

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In the next few days we managed to see most of San Cristabol since the island was very small. We took the 360 water tour that covered all of the outer areas of the entire island (as the name suggested). The tour stopped for snorkeling, swimming and a lot of wild life; such as giant sea turtles, dolphins, iguanas and more.

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After a few days of enjoying the water activities and swimming at a nearby beach we decided to have a look at the other side of the island, where we stopped and toured a turtle farm.   I had no idea turtle farms were even a thing??

On the way back we stopped to check out a small community where we found overnight rentals.  We found a tree house made out of a giant Ceiba tree, fully equipped with plumbing, a cozy loft bedroom, living room and kitchen.  The tree house was like a walk back through time.  I would have loved to have a place like this as a child.

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Coming out of the Base of the Tree House

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It was tempting to stop there as it was so unusual but we passed on an overnight stay since we were quite comfortable at Bernardo’s.

Santa Cruz is the next island over.  It’s a 3-4 hour boat trip.   We wanted to check it out but didn’t want to permanently change locations so we packed a few things in our backpacks for an overnight stay and caught the 7am boat arriving in Santa Cruz before noon.  The boat was not very big so therefore a bit rocky.  Despite a little sea sickness it was all in all a good trip.  Santa Cruz is a beautiful island but much busier and congested with tourists and traffic than San Cristabol.  We checked into another $40 per night hostel and walked the rest of the island that afternoon.  Although Santa Cruz is a very beautiful place, San Cristabol made a much better home base for us and was a good fit for our laid back travel style.

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Santa Cruz

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Quito, Ecuador

I was really looking forward to Ecuador after hearing so many positive things about this country.  But I forgot about the most important aspect of traveling here that I should have checked into – the altitude. Quito is more than 9000 ft. above sea level and will literally take your breath away. Since the town is built on mountains, there are either steps or hills to climb each time you walk out the door.  All this climbing makes the breathing issues caused by the altitude even greater. Determined to enjoy my trip and overcome this severe issue with shortness of breath, I continued on… slowly.

We stayed at a lovely place called the Hostel Margarita. Not only did we have to climb a mountain to get to it, but our efficiency apartment was on the top floor… 90 steps up, no elevator (the penthouse, as hostels go).   There is a beautiful open air patio overlooking the city.   The room rental also includes breakfast.  At the rate of $30.00 per night, this beautiful lodging was a real find.

On our first day out, we did our usual walking tour to get acquainted with the area. The people there are very friendly and accommodating. We usually avoid the tourist areas as we find the locals far more interesting and inviting.  There are of course the typical souvenir shops that line the streets of the touristy areas. I find the market areas and seeing the day-to-day life of the local people much more interesting.

Still moving slowly from breathing issues, we decided to take a break from walking and ride for a change. We found a city bus going to the Equator and managed to figure out the schedule.  We figured we had to take the obligatory trip to the Equator while we were so close by.  We took a few pictures, visited the museum and checked our weight on their scale, which is much more flattering than any scale in the United States.   We decided to go for lunch at a nearby restaurant. While there, we came across a couple from Britain who was visiting the Equator as one of the stops on their group tour. After chatting a bit ,we asked where they would be going next. They replied “the Galapagos Islands.”

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I remembered hearing stories about those islands and how gorgeous they are –  filled with natural beauty and an abundance of nature. Ched and I turned to each other as if we had the same thought at the same time…that was going to be our next stop.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia:

Cartagena is an absolute beauty! The historic district is especially beautiful. If you have a lot of energy and don’t mind the walk, you can cover most of the area by walking. If you are not into walking, taxis are very reasonable. A ride into town from the beach hotel zone was only around 3 bucks.

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The next day after our arrival, we went out walking in search of a long term rental. We found a lovely, furnished apartment – – direct ocean front with a balcony that hung over the ocean. $600 a month with everything included seemed more than reasonable.

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We walked every day, checking out the beaches, shopping at the local markets for fresh vegetables and stopping along the way at Juan Valdez Coffee Shop for some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted.

The most interesting and beautiful area in Cartagena is the historic district. There is so much history and culture to take in, with art museums displaying unique and unusual exhibits.

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Past Meets Present – Castillo San Felipe de Barajas – (The Fort San Felipe)

The historic district is also where most of the nightlife takes place. Since it is a bit of a walk, we took the $3.00 taxi into town at nighttime to enjoy all of the street entertainment, a little salsa dancing and people watching.

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Cartagena is rich in in history, culture and entertainment. There is definitely plenty to keep a traveler busy for a full month, without spending an exorbitant amount of money.