From the Bosphorus to the Baltic – Summer vacation part 1

Geographically, we are fortunate to live in Turkey. Most of Europe and big chunks of Asia, not to mention Africa, are a few hour’s flight away. So, while we are here, we are reveling in how close we are to so many countries, and taking every opportunity to go abroad. Living a teacher’s lifestyle also gives us big chunks of summer to play with, so this year we took a month off to do a backpack-style tour of Europe, and to pop in on a friend’s wedding.

We planned our trip using the online room-booking service Airbnb.com.  It’s provided some great stays in unusual buildings in the past, and would not let us down this time. We searched for private apartments for less than $100 a night in Europe, and based our trip around our awesome finds. Most of our locations were $30-60 a night total.

Mosque celebrating ramadan from our table

Mosque celebrating ramadan from our table

Our first stay was in the Pera district of Istanbul. This is a funky neighborhood just starting to be gentrified.The apartment blocks in our neighborhood were decrepit and surrounded by fencing and being torn down to be replaced by mixed use buildings; it made for an interesting walk with insight into the current state of Istanbul.

It was Ramadan, a time of year with its own rhythms. The steps on our block were filled with families staying cool in the late day heat, probably waiting for the sun to set so they could break the fast. Kids played outside till late, and the feeling was of a friendly gathering. We woke daily at 3 am to a drummer moving down the street, calling people to get up and prepare a pre-dawn meal before the sunrise before the fast began.

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Melon and Raki

Outside this neighborhood, Istanbul was its usual romantic self. We wandered the crooked streets of Taksim down to the waters of the Golden Horn, where we passed the evening Turkish style: eating cheese and melon while drinking raki in a restaurant under the historic Galata bridge.

One day, on our friends recommendations, we went to the Princes’ Islands. This is a string of islands once used as a retreat for the Ottoman elite that is now a resort destination for Turks and vacationers alike. We stopped at Heybeliada Island – the second largest of them – to go swimming and found ourselves lounging in cafes, national parks, and ice cream parlors.

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Relaxing on the Beach

It was a perfect day. The beaches were different from any we’d been to. They were fenced in, and therefore semi-private. Instead of sandy beaches, our lounge chairs and umbrellas rested on concrete embankments. We splashed around the cool water, then went up the hill behind the beach, where we found a nice hammock and read books in the shade.

And because automobiles are not allowed on the islands, we didn’t have the stress of Turkish traffic to contend with. But there were horse-pulled phaeton carriages, so it wasn’t completely ‘waste’ or ‘aroma-free.’

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The Olympic Stadium at night

Then it was off to England. Two friends we met teaching in Korea were getting married in Gloucester,  so we hopped a plane for London, where we spent a few days before the wedding. AirBnB found us a a funky, intimate (okay, it was small!) house boat on the river Lee, in the shadows of the Olympic Stadium.

Our houseboat was moored with dozens of other boats on the long, winding canals of London’s east end. We took long walks along the canals and watched as houseboats moved through the manual lock and dam system. The neighborhood was full of art studios,  industrial warehouses, and trendy bars, and staying here instead of the more touristy areas gave us a great new perspective on this sprawling city. It turns out, London’s not all crowded tourist districts and overpriced fish and chips! We breakfasted at Mapp’s Cafe, where we found a full English breakfast for £3.50 – a real steal! And it was run by Turks from Cyprus, so we even had a touch of our adopted home country.

Our highlights of London featured indulging in pork, beer, and buying books. We didn’t hit any of the amazing tourist sights, but we did enjoy some of the great restaurants we found last year including the Ethiopian restaurant Addis.

Then it was time for a Korea reunion. We took the train out to Gloucester where we were met by Mrs. Peak, who drove us through the charming town filled with Gothic ruins. On the way to the Yates Farm, she showed us a boarding school that was used as a set for one of the Harry Potter movies! (We looked for signs of magic goings-on, but as muggles, saw nothing.)

Will and Sam drew friends from far away and their parents kindly hosted us, indulging us with rides, jelly babies, lunch buffets, and English breakfast. We loved seeing our friends from Korea in their home town and the wedding was a romantic celebration of their love, woooooooooo.

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The happy couple

There was a great thunderstorm the morning of the wedding, but by midafternoon the skies were clear, and the party in the barn went on late into the night. By the end of the wedding we learned a lot about organza, garden parties with the royal family, who wears wigs in English court rooms, assembling party pagodas, and had two new kiwi friends. A proper wedding.

Thankfully, no marmite was consumed.

We returned to London for a night in a posh hotel near the airport, then took a morning flight to our next destination: the idyllic German countryside around Kassel, somewhere between Frankfurt and Hanover, where our adventure will continue in the next post.

Below we’ve included bonus footage of a touching Jeollanamdo reunion. If you miss the amazing dance moves we all honed at Moe’s Bar in Mokpo, grab a tissue. I present you with a proper wedding dance.

Oh and trip photos.

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