That Kazbek mountain thing

My normal method of travel involves just showing up somewhere and exploring. However, one of the friends I made in თბილისი (Tbilisi) wanted to go on a day trip labeled ‘Kazbegi’. So I decided to be a good little tourist go on a group tour.

The marshrutka (from Russian: маршру́тка; it’s basically a large van or small bus) was supposed to pick us up at 0915. Apparently, traffic was particularly bad that Monday morning, and the tour company employees came out to talk to us around 0930. We then walked down the road a little (this was not in the original plan) and got picked up at an alternate location. I didn’t mind, but there were a few people with luggage because they were flying out after the tour, and one person brought a kid and stroller. It was a little tricky getting their stuff over the few cobblestone sections.

We headed out of the city, and eventually hit the საქართველოს სამხედრო გზა (Georgian Military Road) going north. Traveling on this road is amazing. It winds through the mountains and hits 2,379 meters (7,815 feet) at its highest point. This was also the first time I felt cool in months as I’ve been in ‘warm’ countries.

The first stop did not disappoint from a scenery perspective. We were on the side of a mountain looking down on a lake that looked like it might have been artificial as there was a huge mound of dirt on the lower end of the canyon. There were also a couple shops, a bathroom, and some wool outfits with accompanying sword/gun we could wear in a cheesy attempt to look like a local for Instagram. If I ever make it out there to stay for longer than a day, I’ll be sure to wear an actual outfit for my pictures so…I stick my nose up at you, fake costumes.

 

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Small church

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The next stop was at a small church. While I only took pictures of the typical ‘churchy’ things, there were also a lot of defensive structures. The church is surrounded by a wall (that’s now in varying states of functionality), and a tower that’s entrance is a very narrow passage between it and a church wall. No armored (or fat) people are getting through there.

Then we came to a place that reminded me of Pamukkale, Turkey. This time, the mineral being deposited is orange, and makes the water taste like soda water. There’s no carbonation, it just tastes like it.

This is also around the time we started seeing the tunnels on running parallel to the road on the mountain side. These tunnels are at sections of the road where the uncovered area is closer to the edge. In winter when the roads are covered in snow and ice, these tunnels are vital to ensure vehicles can both make it up the mountains as well as prevent them slipping off, and having a very bad day.

We continued on to the town of სტეფანწმინდა (Stepantsminda). This place is pretty close to the Russian border, and is very touristic. There are a lot of hotels and restaurants. We ducked into one of the latter to place our lunch orders. We were going to continue our tour while they prepared the food.

Then we all jumped into some 4x4s (all terrain vehicles), and went up the dirt roads to…. A church overlooking the town. It’s a very plain church that consists of a lot of rocks, and no real decoration. It doesn’t need any as the view is spectacular: very green mountains, rivers, maybe a couple flocks of sheep, and the town that doesn’t have any structures near the church. It’s pretty isolated, and would take a couple hours to walk up to so I can’t imagine it’s used to hold services. We wandered around for about half an hour taking copious pictures.

When the selfies were done, we went back down to the town for lunch. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but Georgian food is fantastic! A lot of it is vegetarian as well; non-meat eaters rejoice.

After lunch, we started the long trek back. We stopped a couple more times along the way. Once, at the friendship monument which is a large semi-circle wall covered in art, and overlooking more stunning views of mountains, valleys, waterfalls…. The scenery on this trip did not disappoint.

The whole trip (minus lunch) cost me less than $30. That was money well spent even for my cheap ass. I also feel obliged to mention some sections of the road were destroyed which meant a very bumpy ride in some spots. The long winters with all the snow and ice make it nearly impossible to keep the road comfortably traverseable. It definitely took its toll on my old, grumpy self too. By the time we got back to Tbilisi, I was very ready to walk around. Also, if you get carsick easily, this trip is going to be hell for you. I was mostly ok, but I know not everyone will be.

Anyway, I hope this has been helpful and/or entertaining. I know most of my friends in the US would have a hard time placing Georgia on a globe (hell, some of them have a hard time with the US state of Georgia), but this place is so worth visiting. See you guys next post.

Ephesus: a biblical scholars dream?

Kuşadası (where I was staying) is the closest ‘major’ (around 100,000 permanent residents) city to the ruins of Ephesus so I had to visit. It’s arguably the most important historical sight in all of Turkey, but we’ll get back to that later.

The first place we went on the organized tour was the Mary’s house. You know, mother of Jesus and all that…yeah, that Mary. It was commonly believed Mary had moved to Ephesus after the death of Christ, but people were unsure where for a long time. It seems a nun in the 19th century had visions of Mary’s house which she wrote down. Having never been to the area added some validity to the claims of finding the location based on said visions. Also, the oldest parts of the structure date to the first century.

A church was later built onto the house, and this is the section tourists are allowed to visit. They don’t allow photography inside, but its appearance is consistent with that of most small christian churches. Due to the large number of visitors, you have to go through rather quickly. There’s just enough time to light a candle, and say a quick prayer before a guard starts hassling you to keep things moving. Note: he only bothers you if you’re slow; most people are fine.

After exiting, you come to the on-site water source. It’s widely believed by religious people that the water is ‘holy’ or has healing properties. They even sell vials of it at the souvenir shop. Being a man of science, all I’ll say is it’s mineral water and [barring some sort of strange medical condition] won’t hurt you if ingested. The day I went, there were hordes of children lined up to get a taste. Noisy brats…I mean…I love kids…yeah, we’ll go with the latter.

Right next to the spring is the wishing wall. Supposedly, wishes/prayers placed there have a higher probability of coming true. Be ware if they do though, because then you’ll need to make the trip back to remove it. Depending on where you’re from, that could be an expensive wish. Though I suppose if it was important enough for you to place it there, it would be worth the price of a return journey.

There’s also a pool on site in the shape of a key. It was used to perform baptisms, and which some believe is the ‘key’ to heaven. Queue bad pun drums.

Travel tip: don’t go close to 15 August. That’s the day Mary died so visitors will be more numerous. Also don’t go on a Sunday as they have services at 1030 which are also largely attended. The site is considered religiously significant by Christians and Muslims who will perform pilgrimages to it. So I would recommend going during the week while most people are working (and the kids are in school).

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Ephesus set 1

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After fighting through the throngs of teenagers, it was time to hit up Ephesus. At the time of Christ, it was a major (and very rich) city. It’s said there were at least 250,000 permanent residents which is a lot for that time (cities have been getting progressively larger). The Biblical book (that sounds so repetitive…) of Ephesians was specifically written to the church there.

It used to sit right on the Mediterranean Sea via a bay and/or river depending on the year. As time progressed, water deposited increasing amounts of sediment which eventually cut the city off from the water (a death sentence for a major trade site). Today the city is several kilometers from the coast.

While all that sedimentation caused the city to be abandoned, it was awesome for farmers. The entire area is now some of the richest (for plants) places on the planet. So much so that the nearby town of Selçuk is populated by mostly vegetarians. Sorry animal rights activists, they’re that way for practical reasons rather than activist ones.

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Ephesus set 2

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Back to Ephesus…. The ruins are superficially far more impressive than most. This is because many of the ruins have been reconstructed. Also many of the original statues have been taken to museums so there are quite a few replicas in their place. While this might annoy some people, I loved it. I could get a far better idea of what the place looked like back in the day. Plus, some of the stones are 2000+ years old so…win!

Some of the more notable structures include…. The most famous building on site: the library. At the time, it was the third largest library in the world, and the entrance was commensurate with its stature. If you Google Ephesus, chances are the first few pictures that come up will be of the library.

Connected to the library by a tunnel was the brothel. “Honey, I’m going to the library.” So if you ever hear your partner say this, you might want to interrogate them a little more to ensure it’s not an ancient euphemism. Some people are old school like that….

We also saw a 2000 year old advertisement. Carved into the marble, on the ground, between the port and the city, was a foot, a woman, and a slot for a coin (a prototype vending machine?). The foot pointed toward the brothel. The woman…well, that’s obvious. And the coin was to bring cash; not paper which did exist at the time (see the history of money).

We also passed through Hercules’ Gate. It currently consists of two pillars which are close together with Hercules wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion carved into one of them. Its purpose was to prevent vehicles from going further into the city. It’s also said that if you touch both pillars with your outstretched arms while passing through the gate, you’ll be granted the strength of the demigod. So now when people ask me why I don’t go to the gym, I’ll just be like “I passed through Hercules’ Gate; I’m good”.

There are two theaters. The larger one has been mostly rebuilt, and hosts modern concerts. These are mostly at night as the area is hot during the summer days. In older times, it was also used as an arena.

We also saw a public bathroom (or toilet if you’re British). The sewage system of the city was advanced for the time, and maintained running water pushing the waste out of the area. There was a separate channel running in front of the toilets for people to use the sponges on sticks to wipe themselves. I was impressed.

The public bathroom was also the noisiest place in the city due to people talking and running water. When people (politicians, shady businessmen) wanted to talk and not be overheard, they would go there. I image that’s where the phrase “step into my office” originated. (For those that are unfamiliar, people will say that when they want someone to accompany them into the bathroom. It’s one of the less common English phrases).

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time there, and would recommend it for anyone that’s interested in Greek or Roman history. A few tips:

  • Start at the upper gate. The city is on a large slope with the bottom being the old port. There are two gates you can enter through: one at the top, the other at the bottom. Unless you like walking a few kilometers uphill, I would start at the top.
  • Bring water. Chances are you’ll be there on a warm day. It was 30 degrees when I went, and I’m very glad I bought a water bottle with me. A couple people in our group had to go to the exit early because they were getting dehydrated and needed to buy some water.
  • Avoid weekends. It was very crowded on the Saturday I went. There won’t be as many people during the week. It’s still one of the most famous sites in the world though so you’ll never have the place to yourself.

Until next time….

Pamukkale: to swim or not to swim?

A couple days ago, I did something a little unusual and spent money on a guided day trip. It was also rather long as it’s a roughly 3 hour drive from where I’m staying (Kuşadası). When we were almost there, we passed through a town and saw an example of why our destination was so unique.

Anyone that’s been to Turkey should be able to tell you that the water here has far more minerals in it than westerners are accustomed to. The locals will say all those minerals make the water taste bad, and you shouldn’t drink it for fear of getting an upset stomach. I haven’t had any trouble with it, but I’m cheap. Bottled water is pretty cheap though so if you’re concerned, there’s always that option.

In the town next to the site (not the small group of tourist buildings; an actual town), there’s a lot of iron in the water. We passed a fountain that is covered in reddish rock. It isn’t colored, that’s the result of iron rich water evaporating and leaving metal/mineral deposits behind. The same principle is in place in Pamukkale, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Pamukkale (the Turkish name which means ‘cotton palace’) is a UNESCO world heritage site. The Greek city of Hierapolis is also there and is what the area was called during Greek and Roman rule. The ancient city was built on hot springs that surface here and there.

The difference in Pamukkale is the water primarily has a lot of calcium in it. Because of this hot, calcium infused water, the city was one of the first examples (over 2000 years ago) of medical tourism. Hot calcium water is good for treating some ailments (arthritis comes to mind). In those times though, they tried to treat everything with it. As a result, many people died there as most serious diseases (like cancer) aren’t treated with mineral water.

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Random shots of Pamukkale, Turkey

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We started off wandering though the ruins of the old city; much of which is still buried. The guide told us a little about the remains of the structures we saw (the walls, a theater, a temple, etc). Fun fact: places of worship were the first buildings to be ‘recycled’. People needed stones for houses, walls, bath houses…but when they changed religions, they no longer ‘needed’ the old temples so they’d use the stones for whatever new thing they needed. OK, maybe not so fun for us today, but it gives an interesting glimpse into what they were thinking and why there aren’t more spectacular, old structures.

After the ruins, it was time to check out the hot springs, and we got a pleasant surprise. Some of the water runs down 300 meter cliffs. Since there’s a lot of calcium in the water, the ‘mountain’ is white! From a distance, it looks like snow…or cotton which is where the aforementioned ‘cotton palace’ comes from.

Then it was time to decide if I wanted to go swimming in the ‘healthy water’. Ultimately, I decided against it because: 1) I hadn’t brought a swimsuit (though I could have bought one); 2) the water was really crowded (mostly by Russians); 3) it was 32 degrees (90F) and sunny outside, and jumping in even warmer water didn’t seem like a way to cool down but make me even hotter.

Overall, it was a decent trip. However, I’d recommend renting a car and driving out yourself if at all possible. A guide isn’t really necessary, and was fairly expensive. If you do go with the ‘planning it yourself’ option, I’d recommend preparing snacks to keep in your car. And whatever you do, try to avoid buying anything there as everything costs double what it does in the rest of Turkey; the downside of a really popular tourist destination.

I hope you enjoyed this. Next post, Ephesus!

Corinth and Stuff…

OK so it’s not the city of Σπάρτη (Sparta), but it’s within their territory. And the shot is awesome!

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Corinthian Canal

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We began this day trip from Αθήνα (Athens), and drove for about an hour before we came to Διώρυγα της Κοπίνθου (The Corinthian Canal). This 24 meter wide, 8.5 meter deep canal (a meter is about a yard) allows boats to pass Greece without having to go around Πελοπόννησος (The Peloponnesian Peninsula). The high winds and tides make it difficult to navigate, but it’s still far faster to go through it than around.

After that, we visited the museum and ruins of ancient Κόρινθος (Corinth). These guys were crucial to any war between the Greek peninsulas as they controlled the bridge that went between them. The north was typically controlled by Athens while the south was mostly Sparta.

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Mycenae from the top

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Then we went to Μυκήνη (Mycenea). This fortress was integral to the Mycenaean Empire that existed in the first millennium B.C. The stones here were large enough that no one stole them to use in their own buildings. This seems to be a common theme in Greece: in order for something to last, it needs to be made of stones too large to easily carry away.

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Just chillin' on the edge of a cliff

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While here, I also took some selfies…. And the sweet pic at the top.

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Sheep in the road. Rude!

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On the way to our next destination, we ran into some sheep in the road. This is a fairly common occurrence in Greece, but not so much where I’m from. We went around the traffic circle a couple times, but I still didn’t get a decent picture. Damn moving vehicles….

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Fortress Palamidi

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When the sheep fascination ended, we made our way to Παλαμήδι (Palamidi); a massive fortress overlooking the city of Ναύπλιο (Nafplio). Some of the views over the bay are spectacular. It was pretty cool looking at the holes in the walls made for archers and the occasional cannon.

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Nafploi by the bay

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When we finished there, we went to the town below for some food. It’s a good thing too because we were famished. It seems all the government run historical sites close at 15 (3 PM) in the ‘winter’ so we were trying to see everything before they closed. Side note: there’s an ice cream shop in town that has possibly the best stuff I’ve tasted. If you’re ever in the area, make sure you find it and get a couple scoops.

The history here is insane. It was also pretty cool having our history nerd tour guide to fill in a bunch of details. Until next time…

Temple of Poseidon Tour

You know that feeling you get when you post something to Instagram, and immediately realize you totally jacked something up? Yeah, that seems like every picture I posted about this tour so please try not to think I’m a completely illiterate hill-jack…. Anyway, I decided to spend some money (30 Euro) on a day trip to see the Temple of Poseidon (among a few other things).

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So many cats

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Being a historical Greek tour, we did what you’d expect from something as high-brow as this: stopped to feed cats. There’s our intrepid tour guide putting out cat food, and giving the rest of us time to get out of the vehicle without being mobbed. They might be strays, but they definitely expect to be fed any time a human comes close. Such spoiled little creatures….

A few windy roads later, it came into view. What do you mean you can’t see it off in the distance? OK, here’s a better view.

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Temple of Psidon

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And yes, I know I can’t spell Poseidon. Maybe I can use the excuse that every time I looked at it, it was like this: Ποσειδών? Writing in Greek to the rescue!

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Remnants of the Temple of Athena

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While I was there, I also got this sweet shot of what’s left of the Temple of Athena. As the story goes, Athens was pretty much devoted to worshiping Athena, and the people pretty much forgot about Poseidon. Well, there was a week of pretty bad storms in the 400s BC, and they figured it was because the God of the Sea was angry at them. So they built the Temple of Poseidon. And then to make things even, they built a temple to Athena a little further down the hill…which was later moved…because they wanted it somewhere else? I wasn’t there, I’m not sure what their reasoning for moving the temple was.

We went a little further up the coast into a little town that I don’t remember the name of (blogger fail), and came across this church. It was dedicated to St. Nicolas (I think…I really suck at names). Anyway, the Luxembourgian girls that were with us spent more time petting the dogs than exploring the church. I’ll let you fill in how this scenario could have distracted me somewhat.

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Bay of Alexander

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On our way to the next stop, we passed ‘Alexander’s Beach’. That’s not the official name, but it’s called that because it’s the last place in Greece Alexander the Great’s feet were. After the fleet sailed out of this bay, he sort of conquered Persia…or something…you know, no big deal. I like to conquer the Persian Empire in my spare time too. It’s what all the cool kids are doing these days.

Then we hit up a thermal spring. It was kind of chilly out so most of us didn’t feel like paying the 7 Euro to swim that day. I say most because the Luxembourgian girls did, and…. What was I talking about again?

Our final stop was to Λυκαβηττός (Mount Lycabettus). I think I’ve mentioned this place before as this makes the third time I’ve been up there. In case not though, here’s a picture.

You get the best views of Athens from up there. If you’re not dying of health problems, I recommend hiking up it. The exercise is fantastic, and it’s not crowded in the winter.

All in all, I was pretty pleased with the tour. Our tour guide was the awesome history nerd Andrew Kelleher. He can be reached by the following methods:

  • Phone: +30 6970408710
  • Email: andrewkelleher@hotmail.com
  • Facebook: Athens Off the Beaten Track
  • Instagram: #athensoffthebeatentrack

I’ll catch you all next time. Probably for the Corinth tour….

Walking Tour Athens

So I decided to spend a little money on a walking tour while in Athens, and I was not disappointed.

Travel hack: do not take a bus tour as you’ll have to get out and walk to see the good stuff. It’s all within easy walking distance anyway. Also, don’t pay the ridiculous fees by local tour guides. I payed 7 euro for an Ausie, and he was amazing!

We started off on in front of the Acropolis Museum where there are still some train tracks in the road. Fun fact: the streets all around the Acropolis are cobblestone and the sidewalks are marble.

After that we saw Hadrian’s (the same Hadrian who built the wall in the British Isles) Arch, and the Temple of Zeus. Fun fact: the similarity between Zeus (Greek) and Jupiter (Roman) is believed to have caused the Romans to let the Temple of Zeus stand. These pillars are massive.

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Temple of Zeus

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We then wandered over to the National Gardens where our guide told us about Queen Amalia, and how she’s responsible for arguably the most picturesque place in all of Athens. It seems that because of this and a few other factors we learned about, she was one of Greece’s most beloved popular figures.

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Entrance to National Guardens

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In the middle of our park wandering, we came across the Ζάππειο Μέγαρο (Zappeion) building. The outside was ‘meh’ by Greek standards, but the inside was pretty cool.

After a tiny bit more park wandering, we came to Παωαθηωαικό Στάδιο (Panatheniac Stadium); the site of the first modern Olympics in 1896 (well, one of the sites). It seems crazy today for this 80,000 capacity stadium to host 4 Olympic events. Apparently, there wasn’t nearly enough seating.

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Site of the first modern olympics

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Then we went to the Presidential Palace just in time to watch the changing of the guard. A lot of people do this at Σύνταγμα (Syntagma: constitution) Square. Pro tip: watch it at the palace; it’s far less crowded. Though you do have to contend with a few cars obstructing your view.

We walked past Σύνταγμα Square, and into the Αγορά (Agora: marketplace) area. This area is huge, and there are vendors all around the Ακρόπολη (Acropolis) though most of the ‘flea market’ like shops are on the north end. After some treking, we came to the ruins of the Ancient Agora.

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The ancient agora (market)

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We wandered around a bit more, and found some graffiti among the narrow alleyways of the buildings just north of the Acropolis. Some of it is pretty good. If you like quiet, Greek-island looking streets, this is the place for you.

To end the trip we ate lunch/dinner at a restaurant at the foot of the Acropolis. We all had various local dishes: mousaka, goat with potatoes, pita with tzatziki. And all in the Greek winter (it was 15C/60F) which is really nice.

Our tour guide was Andrew Kelleher. All through the tour, he peppered us with history lessons. There was a fair bit on World War I, and how events that took place right were we were walking effected Greece’s involvement. If you love history as much as I, definitely get in touch with him if you’re in Athens.

  • Phone: +30 6970408710
  • Email: andrewkelleher@hotmail.com
  • Facebook: Athens Off the Beaten Track
  • Instagram: #athensoffthebeatentrack.