Some Istanbul Inspiration

We stopped over in Istanbul on our way to and from Canada, back in 2016. It was a good decision. A very good one. Going from Pakistan, Turkey offers a refreshing break midway through an otherwise taxing transatlantic journey.

Equipped with some new, self-acquired photography skills, the city proved to be an ideal subject for a novice as myself. The landscape and architecture on display in Istanbul requires very little effort beyond point-and-shoot. Enjoy and hopefully, be inspired!

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Take a Bosphorous Cruise and return ferry ride to a princes’ island on the cheap

Since the aforementioned are two of the best highlights of Istanbul, a multitude of companies offer organised trips to both which can cost anything between 200 to around 400 Turkish Liras (TYR)  depending on the company you choose.

I am of the opinion that organised trips are not value for money; they are typical tourist traps and best avoided by savvy travellers. In case you didn’t know, both can be done cheaply on a do-it-yourself basis without missing out on much.

1. The Bosphorous Cruise:

Take a day cruise offered by one of the commuter ferry services like Turyol. They have dedicated day cruises on the Bosphorous that last an hour and a half. The ticket is only TRY 15. The last cruise is around sundown, which is the best time to hop on a ferry to appreciate the beauty of the Bosphorous and take memorable pictures in ideal light conditions. There are no belly dancing and dinner combos on offer but I take those as a big plus. Take in the views of the strait without distractions.

You can take the ferry from any point served by Turyol. I took it from the station below the Galata Bridge (forgot station name) and disembarked at the Asian side by choice. The ferry does a round trip so you can return at the point where you boarded it.

2. Princess Island Ferry:

Büyükada is also served by many stations across the city. Take a one way ride and return at will. During summer time, it might be busy but ferries to Istanbul are dispatched around the clock: if you miss one, there’s always another one to take you back.

I took one from Beşiktaş and spent half a day at the island, roamed around at will, took a phaeton ride to the reserve, and bought another one-way ticket back to Istanbul, which made stops at both Kadıköy and then at Eminönü. The one way ticket cost TRY 7/8.

At the end of it all, I had covered the cruise jing bang in 30 TYR instead of a mammoth 400 TYR!

London is Boring

“London is boring. There is nothing to do.”

I am a member of a travel forum and this statement was posted by another participant. I wouldn’t take this personally…except that maybe I do. For one, I owe London a big deal. My son was born in the city while we were temporarily stationed there. He was born with a rare medical condition that required several surgeries over the course of a year. Not a penny was demanded from us. The country’s health system afforded us the luxury of free treatment, and the doctors and staff at the hospital won our hearts. Loving and caring; on top of everything; never discriminating. Some were Londoners; some probably weren’t. And that’s the beauty of the city. It is home to more immigrants than it is to the English people. And that’s why, when you step into the city as a tourist, you immediately feel like you belong.

So then, coming back to: “London is boring. There is nothing to do.”

Approaching the statement very objectively, this is factually wrong. London is abuzz with concerts, shows, theatre, talks, conferences and festivals throughout the year. No matter what your taste, there is something on offer. There is always something to do or see. If you can’t find anything, you are most likely not looking in the right places.

I can maybe concede to the fact that some people might not find London clean or refined. There are as many types of people as there are cities in the world. You like some. You don’t like some. I’m still going to try and convince the pessimists out there.

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Imagine you are standing in London somewhere. Imagine it is the Marble Arch. Where do you go from there. There’s vibrant Notting Hill in one direction, the Arab eateries of Edgware road in another; the finesse of Knightsbridge and South Kensington are conveniently accessible on the other end of Hyde Park for some Harrods therapy or museum loving; fine dining options are dotted all across Mayfair behind Park Lane; and in yet another trajectory from the Marble Arch, lies the mecca of all shopping strips: the Oxford Street. Strolling down, taking in known and unknown high street brands and the iconic Selfridges, you can choose to turn left on Orchard Street to take you right into Baker Street and over to the Sherlock Holmes Museum or Madame Tussaud’s.

And if that is not your cup of tea, keep strolling down Oxford Street. Grab one of Ben’s Cookies along the way. That’s heaven in your mouth. Ed’s Diner, right behind Ben’s Cookies, offers halal hot dogs with black beans. Once you reach Oxford Circus station, you again have 3 options. Turn left for Regent’s Park, or go straight for New Oxford Street. Soho is nestled in somewhere down there. Try the area for a cheeky night out with friends and snicker away.

And if that is not your cup of tea, turn right for Regent Street. This curved – an almost concave – structured line of upper scale shops is a sight for sore eyes. This is the home of bespoke tailoring for gentlemen. But forget that. Whatever you do, do not miss Hamley’s Toy Store. It is unimportant if you don’t have any kids in your bandwagon. Just walk in. It’s magic. It puts Hamley’s stores in other cities to shame. I could easily spend an hour inside. At the other end of Regent Street lies the iconic electronic billboards of Piccadilly Circus. Granted it doesn’t quite match up to the vibe of Times Square in New York, it has still served as a fantastic photo op for tourists for decades. Stand across the road and look for props on the screen. There are, yet again, several directions to choose from. China Town, Leicester Square or Trafalgar Square. Lots of music, hullabaloo and street performances encapsulate Leicester Square and China Town on weekend nights.

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And if that is not your cup of tea
, walk towards Trafalgar Square. Admire Nelson’s column, the fountains and lions. The monumental National Gallery on Trafalgar Square is unmissable – and free. What’s your choice of monopoly property here onwards? Towards Charing Cross, right off the Strand, lie the electric Covent Garden on one side and the Waterloo Bridge on the other. Try The Icecreamists for guilty pleasures in Covent Garden. Their Breast Milk ice-cream was a bit too adventurous for us to indulge though (has this place shut down?). The Waterloo Bridge, on the other side, offers beautiful vistas of the city by the Thames.

And if that is not your cup of tea, maybe head down to the Houses of Parliament, the Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey via Whitehall. Say hello to the prime minister at the unassuming 10 Downing Street along the way. The London Eye and South Bank Centre, both situated south of the river, are also iconic landmarks. London’s southbank also hosts one of the biggest iMax screens in the continent.l2

And if that is not your cup of tea, walk down the Mall from Trafalgar for views of Buckingham Palace. St James’ Park is another popular royal park situated in this area. A section of the Buckingham Palace is open to the public for some time in the summer months. Do check. Other popular palaces in the city are Princess Diana’s Kensington Palace or the Hampton Court Palace associated with Henry VIII.

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And if that is not your cup of tea, try the gothic currents of Camden Town, the modernity of Canary Wharf and the O2 Arena, which is a good venue for dinner and a movie at the end of the day. Access their website for upcoming shows. You never know, you might stumble upon Disney on Ice, Sonu Nigam in concert, or a BSB-NKOTB reunion to relive the obsessions of teen years.

It is impossible to wrap all of London in a blog post, I concede. I have been to churches and cathedrals across Europe, but few beat the magnificence of St Paul’s Cathedral. It is jaw-dropping from the inside. A guided audio tour will totally be worth your while, and a hike up the spiral staircase will test your mettle and core strength. Are you up for the dome? Along the way, stop for a breather and some fun at the Whispering Gallery. This was featured in a Hollywood movie which I cannot quite recall. Maybe one of my readers can jog my memory.

Further down the river, lies the Tower Bridge (often mistaken as the London Bridge). Next to it, sits quietly, the Tower of London, which offers history buffs, a solid rendezvous into London’s gory yesteryears. Also nearby, stands the Shard – a modern addition to London’s skyline.

I haven’t as yet fully covered the city centre, and there is so much more in the outer (and conveniently accessible) zones of London.

It is best to spend more than a week in the city if you really want to take it in, but if you’re in a hurry, check my guide on How to Use the London Pass.

Boring is not a word I would associate with this giant metropolis. Tens of day trips from any of its major rail stations are yet another reason why it makes such a good base to see more of England. Something tells me, I will keep going back. And so will many of you.

London is not boring. There is so much to do.

Ghost of Hamlet & The Strait of Øresund

If you are in Copenhagen, an easy and enjoyable way to go to Sweden is to cross the strait of Øresund that divides the Danish islands from the Swedish mainland. Øresund bridge, which has the honour of being the longest rail and road bridge in Europe, connects the two countries. You can take a bus from central Copenhagen that will take you to Malmo (app. one hour) or you can take the quick train. I, however, opted for a ferry ride between the Danish coastal town of Helsingor (Elsinore in English) to the Swedish town of Helsingbor (don’t confuse the names!) from where you can go to Malmo and farther afield.

My reason for taking the ferry was to be in Helsingor to see Kronborg Castle, which is the fictional location of William Shakespeare’s drama “Hamlet.” Being an aficionado of literature, I wanted to relive from memory the tragic story of prince Hamlet by being inside the very walls in which Shakespeare had imagined it.

Palaces and castles in Scandinavian countries are quite modest by European standards and this one is no different. This is where the monarchs of Denmark would come to seek leisure during summertime and enjoy beautiful vistas of the strait and be able to see the coast of Sweden on a clear day, as did I on the day I was there.

Don’t miss to visit the dungeons below the castle – a dank and dark labyrinth of cells where prisoners were kept in subhuman conditions. There is a life-sized statue of Ogier the Dane at one end of the dungeons. Legend has it that one day he will wake up from his stony slumber and conquer all of Scandinavia and rule forever!

Photo Essay: Baku, Azerbaijan

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Outside the entrance of the Shirvanshah Palace in the Old City
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Sehrli Tendir: A restaurant famous for its breakfast. This woman is known to make the best bread around this area.
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A beautiful street in the Old City.
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Karvansaray Baku
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Open Museum
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Philharmonia Park: a copy of the Monte Carlo Casino
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Sheki
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Gobustan: Old rock carvings and formations
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Good Morning! The view from Sahil Hostel’s balcony
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Sheki Khan Palace in Sheki
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Inside the Sheki Khan Palace, Sheki
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Ichersheher (Old City)

By Maryam Haq

The contributor is from Pakistan. She loves to travel, and when at home, cooks amazing food.

A Day in Bratislava

It was not until I was mapping my way to build a viable rail itinerary through Italy, Austria, and Hungary that I discovered Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I knew immediately that I would need to make room to explore it, and I did.

Bratislava is only one hour by train from Vienna and can be visited comfortably as a day trip. Trains depart every other hour and return with the same frequency. Having seen the highlights, I believe it deserves at least a couple of days to properly explore the city and its surroundings; even more if you want to go deeper into Slovak territory to see places that are not frequented by tourists on a busy itinerary.

The pièce de résistance is the picture perfect Devin Castle (Hrad Castle) sitting atop a hill that looks as though it was made from marzipan, like the eponymous hotel in the film “Hotel Budapest”, and the well-preserved old town centre with many historical sites to see on both sides of the River Danube that divides the city in two.

Various statues and artworks that dot the city centre provide another attraction to the visitors. Some of them are wacky and intended for fun, especially the signature landmark of “Man at Work.” Visitors take obligatory pics there and those who wish for good fortune are told to rub its nose. I duly observed the ritual!

Crossing Borders in Schengen

While staying in Munich, we decided to take a day trip to Innsbruck. The beauty of travelling through Europe with a Eurail pass is that it affords one the luxury of making spontaneous plans. The beautiful town of Innsbruck is nestled in lush mountains. Its city centre is buzzing – electric just enough to be jovial, and calm just enough to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds it. Within the day, we managed to cover several touristic hot spots including Nordkette, the cable car that took us to a mountain top, offering panoramic views of the Austrian landscape. By evening, as we stood at the platform, waiting for our delayed train to take us back to Munich, a calm prevailed. We were tired but happy. Innsbruck was worth it. We were tired but happy. We were unaware of the anti-climax that awaited us on board the “Munich express”.

At 10 pm, as our carriage prepared to swoosh past Mannheim, two police officers got on board and demanded our passports. Our green booklets of glory, at that time, lay safely tucked inside our Munich hotel room locker. I began to have a panic attack – hot, hot blood gushing to my face, my limbs becoming lifeless. I had a hard time operating my mobile phone, as I tried showing the police officer our return tickets to Pakistan. It was an act of desperation that bore no fruit. He was in no mood to grant us the benefit of the doubt. We were rudely asked to get off the train. As we made our way towards a container in a park behind the train station – a makeshift police station – the heart pounded vociferously. Our 5 year old was both alert and exhausted. He was holding in tears being mature enough to know that nothing about what was going on, was normal.

A lady officer in the station, we felt, was subtly pleading our case with the officer who brought us in. They were speaking German, so we didn’t know the exact exchanges being made, but he said “Pakistan” furiously several times in his conversation, while she’d look toward our kid time and again. To her, we seemed okay to release. Eventually, a call to our hotel was sanctioned. It was past midnight and the “24-hour” front desk wouldn’t pick up. When they finally did, I patiently explained the situation to them, gave them our room number and locker combination. Following 45 minutes of agony, the officers received emailed scans of our visas and passports.

A taxi was then summoned for us. Of course, the one hour drive through the highways of Germany was on our tab. The lady officer escorted us to the taxi stand, and apologized repeatedly for our sour experience. There was apparently an illegal immigrant problem in the area, and the police there wasn’t equipped with biometric machines. She knew that although bringing us in was within her colleague’s power, not doing so was also an option. Not in so many words, her parting gestures towards us were apologetic in lieu of borderline racist behaviour meted out by him.

All is well that ends well, but we would never want to be in that situation again. Always carry your passports along during cross-border day trips in Europe. Sure, the borders are blurred within the Schengen area, but random checks are a real possibility.

How to use the London Pass

For a first-time traveler, or for anybody who hasn’t mastered the art of maps and time-management, London can be over-whelming. It would suffice to say, there’s a month’s worth of attractions for the avid tourist. And distances are aplenty. How does one manage then? Luckily, the city’s got a great network of underground tube stations. We devised one excellent, super efficient way to use it.

Step 1: Buy a London Pass. Websites like London Town will sell them online. Get a 3-day pass.

Step 2: Have your heart set on marking every possible inch of territory. That’s what we did, when we were in London last June.

Step 3 (hot tip!): Mark all points of attractions by tube lines. On the day that we were taking the Circle line, we marked all places that were close to stations on that yellow line. And on that one day alone, we managed to cover places like the Tower of London, Kensington Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Albert Hall. All of these were adjacent or close to stations on the Circle line, and therefore, it meant that we could cover the maximum attractions without having to waste time changing lines or catching buses.

And of course, get up early! Most of these places will deny you entry after 4 in the afternoon.

Montmartre or Notre Dame?

Paris enchants anybody who ever sets foot on her. My own experiences have been no different. The city seems to grow on me, every time I’m there – not that it didn’t leave an impression the first time around. One of the best things about a city like Paris is that it always has something new to offer, even if it is your fifth or sixth visit. The usuals on any traveler’s itinerary are Champs Elysees, the Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame cathedral. And true, your trip would be incomplete without paying them rich tributes!

On my fourth trip to the city though, I finally set foot in the Latin Quarters, and what a beauty! An uphill trek through crowded streets, selling everything from crepes to Chinese cloth, take you to the point that eyes the rest of the city. There, sitting proudly, the Montmartre Cathedral, tickled my bones. What splendor, what beauty – Roman arrogance, standing in all its might and glory! The Montmartre Cathedral is a sight to behold. I personally found it more enchanting than the almost mythical Notre Dame. You can disagree, but you still shouldn’t miss it! I certainly wouldn’t want anybody to. It’s as white-washed as new, as if showing Catholic pride, and even the neighborhood generates more of an Italian feel with its flea market, than it does Parisian.

And yes, some friends of mine climbed the hundreds of stairs that led upto it. You don’t have to. I repeat, you don’t have to! Once the cathedral comes into view, turn left and take the funicular that awaits you. Or curse Paris forever…haha!

Europe via Rail or by Air?

A question often put forward by eager travelers planning their first trip to Europe. I am proudly biased in favour of rail travel. Here’s why:

  • European airports are situated outside the city centre. You need to get to the airport at least 2 hours prior to your flight. When you add the time and money it takes to get to the airport in the city of departure and from the next airport to the city of arrival, you will have wasted a lot of time.
  • All central and major stations are situated in city centres. They are easily and cheaply accessible.
  • With train travel, there is no requirement to check-in so you can very easily arrive within 10 minutes of departure time.
  • You can even transit in cities on the way. Just leave your luggage at a locker facility on the station, step out to roam the city, and then, catch a later train for your final destination.
  • Seeing Europe by rail also allows you the flexibility of keeping your schedule spontaneous. Buy tickets (or supplements, if required with your Eurail pass) when at the station. For most routes – especially within one country – this is very doable. It keeps the element of surprise alive.
  • For longer routes, it is also possible to take a night train. These will offer flat beds. Since those won’t be as expensive as a hotel room, by next morning, you will have saved money and welcomed a new dawn, a new city.
  • Budget airlines have extremely stingy luggage rules and limitations. With train travel, the weight and/or dimensions of your bags and accessories, are not a hindrance.
  • Eurail pass holders, do not forget that you get perks (like hotel discounts) and complimentary ferry / cruise travel. Be sure to check what is on offer.

Have we missed something? Please use the comments section below.