How time flies. Two years ago today I landed in Faro, Portugal to start, what I thought at the time was, a one-year trip around the world. Naively, I thought I could make the nearly 6,800-mile journey from Portugal to Japan in a mere 12 months and return home to “figure out the rest of my life". Fast forward 24 months later and I still haven’t even made it as far east as Laos or Cambodia, but I guess the destination was never really the point anyway. The two-year milestone snuck up on me, but looking back it’s amazing to see how much has changed since I began this “little" adventure of mine back in 2014.
The days following my trip to the Dead Sea went nothing like I imagined. Initially, my plan was to apply for my visa to India, finally tour Tel Aviv, and spending some days leisurely wandering the city before heading south to Eilat along the Red Sea on my way to Petra. Even after traveling for the last seven months, I’m still surprised how frequently I’m wrong when it comes to predicting the future, but I have to say it’s always an adventure. The very first lesson I learned way back in Faro, Portugal was never, ever, ever let an opportunity to travel with good company pass by.
After spending a few days wandering Jerusalem, I took a tour out of the city to visit Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea. Normally, I prefer to do things on my own instead of paying for someone to shuttle me around all day on a tour, but the logistics of getting to Masada, the Dead Sea, and back to Jerusalem via public transportation were extremely time-consuming. It took a little bit of convincing to get me to sign up for the tour, but I met a group of travelers on my first day in Tel Aviv who had great things to say about the Dead Sea tour. After mulling it over a few days, I decided to take to plunge and sign up.
In the days following my trip to Bethlehem for Christmas, I spent my time exploring the rest of Jerusalem. While I greatly enjoyed wandering the city with my friend Ron, now I had a opportunity take leisurely strolls through town, revisit the sights to take all my pictures, and explore distant places we didn’t have time for earlier in the week. Jerusalem is a remarkably fascinating city to learn about and I am repeatedly surprised by how many important religious landmarks are crammed into this relatively small plot of land. To any travelers out there considering a visit to Israel, I highly recommend spending at least a week in Jerusalem, there is far too much to see in just a couple days. Today I want to share my three favorite attractions in Jerusalem: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock.
Six months ago, as I sat waiting for my flight to Portugal to begin my trek across the world, I remember wondering where I would spend Christmas this year. It's a seemingly random thought considering the holiday was months away, but the last time I went traveling (during my exchange in Milan) I ended up missing Christmas with my family for the first time in my life. Thanks to an ill-fated snowstorm, instead of celebrating the holiday with family, I enjoyed some quality alone time in a Frankfurt airport hotel scavenging food from the vending machines. Not quite what you would call "Christmasy," but that's life. This time around, however, I'm voluntarily skipping out on the holidays, but was I destined to spend Christmas 2014 in a lonely airport hotel or in some other exotic location? Of all the possible outcomes I imagined, I never thought I’d be celebrating Christmas this year in the very town of Bethlehem!
After spending only one day in Tel Aviv, I headed out for Jerusalem to meet up with an old friend, Ron, who I met during my travels in Kiev, Ukraine. Many of the travelers I meet along the way ask to reach out if I’m ever in their hometown, but rarely do our schedules align - as in the case of Stephan from Cologne, Germany. I'm always hopeful to cross paths again with the people I meet on the road, but I know it’s always a long shot. When Ron messaged me saying he had a few free days to visit Jerusalem, I scrapped my original plans for Tel Aviv and quickly departed Tel Aviv even though I’d just arrived into the city. Since Ron is originally from in Israel, I couldn’t pass up the chance to travel around with a local.
While my arrival to Israel was remarkably pleasant, I remember hearing horror stories of travelers being detained and questioned for hours on end by the Israeli border officials. Given Israel’s location and checkered history, I understand the necessity for these this kind of security measures, but I was terrified being single man traveling alone with no solid plans would throw up a few red flags. I can’t stress this enough, not a single person I’ve encountered thus far on my trip has ever said anything good about their experience crossing the border into Israel. In fact, several people (and even web sites) said that if you don’t get detained at the border for at least 2 hours, you haven’t had the “true” Israeli experience.
My last stop in Turkey, Antalya, is a popular local vacation destination along the country's southern coast. I knew next to nothing about the city prior to my arrival, but Antalya came highly recommended by my fellow travelers and all it took was Google image search to sell me on this idyllic paradise. The pictures reminded me of the ever-intoxicating Croatian coastline, but I assumed the pictures online were either heavily photoshopped or taken at the most beautiful time of the year. It is the middle of December and so far Konya (my previous city) was depressingly rainy, Göreme was insanely cold, and Istanbul was both! I spent hours trying to lower my expectations of Antalya, but much to my surprise it is a spectacular city with easily the best weather I’ve experienced in so far in Turkey!
Since the beginning of my trip, whenever I mention plans to visit Turkey every traveler's immediate response is, "You have to visit Cappadocia!" Oddly enough, many people recommended Cappadocia to me even ahead of Istanbul, but I figured they couldn’t all be wrong - there obviously must be something special about this region of Turkey. I honestly didn’t have even the slightest idea of what I would find, but looking back I’m thrilled I visited. I’ve seen numerous exotic locations so far on my travels, but none compares to the incredibly unique landscape of Cappadocia.
Over the last three weeks in Istanbul I've become quite familiar with the city and it's slowly beginning to feel like "home." After weeks of exploring, I know where to get a good meal in town, where the best bars are in the area, how to bargain a bit (even though I'm still comically inept at it), and even how to navigate the Grand Bazaar without getting lost. I've wandered across the city numerous times, walking over 10 miles on most days, yet there are still parts of this great city I've yet to explore. There’s just too much to do and not nearly enough time to do it, but thankfully I had some help courtesy of a local friend.
Five and a half months of continuous travel takes its toll on any backpacker. While I’ve slowed down my travel schedule to make my lifestyle more sustainable, eventually the constant moving was bound to catch up with me. Many people back home think it’s absurd I need a "vacation from my vacation,” but the reality of the matter is that long-term travel is far more tiring than you'd expect. While travel is absolutely thrilling, it boils down to a lot of logistics planning. Since no two days are ever the same, I am forced to constantly pay attention to my surroundings, figure out solutions to a variety of novel issues on a daily basis, and adjust my short term plans based on a never-ending array of unexpected changes. Thankfully, my three weeks in Istanbul was a return to a “normal” life that I’d long since forgotten and gave me the chance to explore the city at my leisure.
Today marks the third week I've been in Istanbul and I still haven’t seen everything I wanted. The city is massive, full of excellent food to sample, incredible sights to visit, and stellar nightlife to keep you entertained for months on end. While I still have much to see, I hit the ground running and, as promised, here is the rest of my story from my very first full day in Istanbul. Starting from where I left off in my last post, my compatriots, Alex and Zoheb, and I had just finished our prayer in the Sultan Ahmed Mosque were off to continue our exploration of Istanbul.
The city of Istanbul is many things, but boring is not one of them. After two and a half weeks of living in the city, there are still areas I have yet to explore even though I spend my days walking around town for miles at a time. Of all the wondrous things I experienced during my visit, nothing was quite as unique as the view from across the Galata Bridge in the middle of town.
One of the greatest thrills I get out of traveling is the chance to finally see all of the cities, monuments, and attractions that I only heard about on TV or saw in textbook pictures. From Big Ben in London to the Louvre in Paris or the Parthenon in Athens, I’ve experienced the feeling dozens of times before, but there is one building in particular that stands out in my mind as the quintessential monument that I felt would forever remain just a picture - the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. At first glance, it may seem a bit strange that out of all the monuments in the world, this Byzantine church, turned mosque, turned museum holds the number one spot in my mind, but it's all the result of an unexpected class I took years ago back in high school.
My arrival into Istanbul from Plovdiv showed me just how far I've come with regard to traveling; things that terrified me early on in my trip simply rolled off my shoulders. Every time I arrive into a new country there is a flurry of activity, strange new customs, and numerous unknowns that I have to problem solve around until I finally arrive at my next hostel. Ironically, what I am beginning to understand about traveling is that the more issues and unknowns I face, the more entertaining traveling is for me. I know this strategy tends to backfire on me from time to time, but even then at least I have a story.
After spending the last several days in relative isolation in Belgrade, my experience in Sofia, Bulgaria was a breath of fresh air. The city is remarkably well kept and, even though the architectural styles of the communist era leave much to be desired, the buildings throughout town create an excellent atmosphere for aimless strolling. Sofia is an enormous city full of fantastic people, great food, and a thriving nightlife, but best of all, it's dirt cheap and a haven for backpackers trying to stick to a budget. There are plenty of attractions to entertain travelers both young and old alike, and even after spending a week in this great city, I still didn’t have enough time to see everything I wanted.
During my stay in Belgrade I found a variety of great restaurants, bars, and attractions scattered throughout the city, but the most interesting activity for me was a visit was the Nikola Tesla museum. The relatively modest, seven-room museum tells the story of Tesla’s life, his remarkable inventions, and exhibits a rotating collection of his personal effects. I’ve seen more museums than I care to count at this point in my life, but in honor of my Tesla-mad friend, Artyom, who I went hitchhiking with a few months back I felt it prudent to visit.
I’m going to admit, much to my embarrassment, that I knew next to nothing about the history of Serbia (or any other country in the Balkan Peninsula for that matter) prior to my arrival in Belgrade. Back in grade school, the Yugoslav Wars were either glossed over or marginalized to a couple paragraphs in textbooks that teachers tended to skip regardless. This was partly because the conflict was still ongoing and the "history" had yet to be written, but I felt ashamed for my ignorance on the topic considering I was traveling through the region. Thankfully, my tour through Belgrade proved to be an excellent place to learn about the history of the former Yugoslavia.
In my old consulting days, at the end of every project my team would summarize our “lessons learned.” Nobody ever enjoyed the exercise, but it was always an invaluable resource for the next team. I did this for work numerous times, but never once took inventory of my own “lessons learned” in life. Now that I’m traveling, I realize the value of writing them down and I feel this is one of the few ways I can give back to readers of this blog.
Ladies and gentlemen, the time has finally come to reveal the biggest secret I’ve been carrying for the last year of my life – what’s in my backpack? (Yes, the bad pun is intended) Many people, including my fellow backpackers, cannot believe I survive off the contents of a single, 40-liter backpack (typical school backpacks range from 15 to 30 liters). I was a bit skeptical at first, but now that I’ve been on the road for over a year I can finally say with confidence that I know a thing or two about backpacking.
During my last few days in Dubrovnik I dragged my feet deciding what city I should visit next; Bosnia was a short trip to the north, Montenegro to the south, and just beyond lie Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania - so many choices! I wanted to visit them all, but the beautiful coastline of Croatia called to me like a seductive siren's song, luring me to stay just a little longer. The enchanting spell Croatia casted on me was difficult to break, and making plans for what country to visit next meant accepting that that I was intentionally leaving this wondrous landscape - a thought I couldn't bear. While I never planned to visit Montenegro, I crossed paths with two Finnish cyclists, Aarni and Tommy, who were both tired of the droves of tourists in Dubrovnik and were heading south to the towns of Kotor and Tivat. All it took them to convince me to tag along was a promotional flyer for 33% off a hostel in Tivat.
Never in my life have I been so repeatedly surprised by a country as much as Croatia. Since arriving nearly a month ago, each and every city I’ve visited ranks as one of my favorites in the world and Croatia currently holds the #1 spot as my favorite country. The last city on my tour of the Croatian coastline, Dubrovnik, came highly recommended by my fellow travelers, many of who ranked it as their favorite city in the entire country. Considering how amazing Croatia has been so far, the rave reviews from travelers, and my fascination with the Game of Thrones TV series - I had very high hopes for Dubrovnik.
If I haven’t stressed this enough through my myriad of posts thus far, permit me to reiterate once more: the only way to travel is without a schedule. I’ve taken trips in the past where I planned every activity down to the hour, but the single greatest aspect of traveling for a year is learning how to genuinely wander - I have absolutely no schedule and no place to be other than where I am right now. I've yet to experience a greater joy on this trip than to spontaneously change my mind at the last minute. Hvar is such an incredible city; simply lounging around town on the beaches, park benches, and in the various cafes is an unbelievable experience and I couldn’t bare to part ways with it. I really didn’t want to leave…
As much as I love Hvar, what made the experience for me were the wonderful people I met in town and the stellar hostels I stayed at. The first hostel, called Helvetia Hostel, I would highly recommend in a heartbeat to any backpacker making their way through Hvar. The building is located right in the middle of the old town, family owned and operated, and has one of the greatest patios I've ever seen in my life! If I ever won the lottery, I would happily spend the entirety of my winnings on an old house like this here in Hvar without hesitation.
Since arriving in Croatia, I've actively pushed myself to not hold expectations for any upcoming cities. So far it hasn't been an issue, but I never want to arrive in a beautiful place and be disappointed that it isn't as gorgeous as the city I just came from. When I boarded my ferry from Bol to Hvar, I went through the motions of trying to remove my expectations and prepared myself mentally for Hvar. I figured by now I was well overdue for a disappointment since every single city I've visited so far is nothing short of extraordinary. Surely every city I visit in Croatia can’t be incredible, there must be a "dud" somewhere. Fortunately, this is not the case for Hvar. It is an absolutely beautiful gem of a city that completely blew me away - Croatia is still bowling a perfect game in my book.
I'm happy to report last night was my first completely issue-free camping experience - no rain, no wind, and no lightening! Unlike my last night outdoors, it was a perfectly quiet evening. The only thing I didn't account for was the lower temperatures thanks to the higher elevation, but I just layered up and everything was fine. I woke up naturally at 6:00 am the following morning and took the long way around to Bol by hiking up the nearby Mount St. Vid. Standing at 778 meters (~2,500 feet), the peak, Vidova Gora, is not only the highest peak on Brač, but also highest island point in the entire Adriatic. The trek was exhausting especially considering I spent over five hours hiking uphill the day before, but it was completely worth it.
By now it should come as no surprise when I say that I absolutely love Croatia. It is actually quite remarkable just how much it leaves all other countries I've visited so far in the dust. I’ve honestly never been this surprised by a country before in my life. From Split, I left the mainland for my first island, Brač, located approximately 17 km (~10 miles) off the coast. Since my plans to visit Greece fell through, I’m no longer in any rush to get through Croatia so I figured why not try and spend the last few days of summer exploring the islands. Given my incredible experiences in Zadar and Split, I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time!
In a word: unpleasant. I arrived in Supetar without any plans or reservations (my typical M.O.) and hoped to find a place to camp for the night somewhere outside of town. From Split, the island of Brač appeared to be covered in trees, so I figured I'd set up my little tent along the beach far away from people and just spend the night along the wonderful coastline. As long as the campsite is secluded and I followed the standard procedures of leave no trace people hardly care, so I figured this was my chance to put my camping stills to use.
Ladies and gentlemen, I must announce today that I have a new all-time favorite country and city in the world. For months Marseille held the crown as my favorite city of this trip so far, but Split now takes the #1 spot while Germany now ranks behind Croatia as my favorite country. I absolutely love everything about Split and I could easily spend weeks of my life in this great city without even a second thought. Unfortunately, since there are only so many days left of “summer” (even though it’s technically October) I have to leave this wonderful city so I can visit the much-hyped Croatian islands before winter sets in. I've seen only a fraction of this great country, but I can already tell you I will be back in my lifetime. It might not be next year, or the one after, but as long as I'm still alive, I'm coming back to Croatia
My god how I've missed the southern coast of Europe and the fantastic Mediterranean weather! While I'm technically on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, I feel I've returned home to the beautiful havens of Lagos, Ibiza and Marseille from the first part of my trip. Over the last few months I've traveled through many northern European countries and I'd forgotten how much I longed for this kind of weather until I arrived in Zadar. This city is a remarkable breath of sensational, salty-sweet fresh air and if my first few hours in Zadar are any indication, my time in Croatia is going to be absolutely spectacular!