Klong Maong

After a week in Ao Luek, we decided to move somewhere closer to a beach.

We were planning on a city called Krabi, which we had heard was a more laid-back version of Phuket.

On the advice of our first host in Thailand, we booked a place in a town about 15 miles outside of Krabi. It turned out to be perfect.

It was a group of fairly modest bungalows right on a private beach.

Even when the place was booked completely, there were never more than a dozen people on the beach.

Starfish at low tide
Beach at Pine Bungalow
Sunset Pine Bungalow
Sunset Pine Bungalow
Great place to relax

Unlike most of our stays, we had no access to a kitchen and so we didn’t prepare a single meal. Fortunately, the food they served was quite good and we didn’t have many complaints even from our pickiest one (Jane, in case you were wondering). She even showed some interest in learning to cook Thai curries!

Delicious veggie panang curry
Julie, the chef at Pine Bungalow, let Ashley come back in the kitchen to see how to prepare all the Thai dishes.

We had planned on staying for a week as we had tickets to fly to northern Thailand already purchased.

But we had a terrible event occur (with a fortunate outcome) that changed our plans.

It happened on Saturday, January 18.

I left our bungalow that morning to go for a run on the beach. I didn’t know it, but Nolan had come to follow me a few minutes after I left.

As I reached the end of the beach, I heard some commotion behind me.

I looked back to see a group of feral dogs surrounding and attacking a little boy wearing black pajamas and I realized it was Nolan.

I ran to him as fast as I could and we were able to get away from the dogs. His pajamas were in shreds and he was pretty beat up, but I could tell he was going to be ok.

We were able to get to help fairly quickly and were taken to the local hospital, where we received excellent care.

Fortunately, he had no bites to his hands or his face.

He had to undergo post-exposure prophylaxis for rabies as the dogs were feral and rabies is a problem in Thailand.

Because of his many bite wounds, he had to stay in the hospital for 5 days on IV antibiotics.

Two and a half weeks later, we made our last visit to the hospital for wound care (we got his last vaccination for rabies in Vietnam).

Nolan is in excellent spirits and still loves Thailand, but I’m sure this was the most terrifying day of his life. It certainly was for me.

Finally asleep after an awful day
Riding home from the hospital in an ambulance.
Nolan with the surgeon who did wound care every other day. We really loved him and he was so sweet to Nolan.
Nolan and one of the nurses. Everyone told Nolan what a good boy he was.

In any case, we were all sad when it was time to leave for northern Thailand. I think that despite the terrible event that occurred here, this particular place has been everyone’s favorite.

From canopy ziplining to cooking classes, we did some really fun things over the two and a half weeks at Pine Bungalow in Klong Muang, Thailand.

Ashley and Margaret on an island hopping excursion.
Finding something Jane will eat is tricky sometimes. But we taught the staff how to make grilled cheese. Turns out, she also likes curry!
No matter where we go, Margaret always finds fans. Everyone wants to hold her and get a photo.
Spent a day boating island to island. They were all incredibly beautiful and filled with other tourists–and we chose the less popular islands.
Beautiful and warm. Great for swimming, but we only hit one spot that was great for snorkeling.
Margaret with the kind of jellyfish that are safe to hold.
A view from one of our long boat rides.
Margaret ready to swim in the sea.
One of the islands we visited.
Jane loved the canopy course and ziplining. She wasn’t scared a bit.
This was the longest and the highest of the ziplines. Jane did great, but I bounced off the tree on the other end and ended up stuck in the middle. Had to hand-over-hand my way to the end again.
Saw a six foot Asian Monitor up pretty close. He was rummaging through a compost pile.

Jane, Margaret and Ashley took a cooking class in Thailand. Ashley says it was one of her favorite things that she has done.

The girls at a cooking class, making fresh curry paste.
Prepping the ingredients
Chicken with thai basil and Tom ka soup. Both delicious.
Panang curry and papaya salad.
Jane making the papaya salad.
Margaret loved getting Thai massages. As cheap as $7 for an hour massage, I got a lot of massages too. Thai massage is like a mix of massage, forced yoga positions, and a chiropractic adjustment. They were awesome.

Travel Tips:

Phuket is the most well-known and traveled city in the south, with Krabi running second. We didn’t go to Phuket, but the few times we went to Krabi, we were glad we stayed in Klong Muang. It was much better for our family–quieter, fewer tourists, and less expensive. Pine Bungalow was a great place to stay and we all would go back.

There are many islands you can visit, the most famous being the Phi Phi islands. We didn’t visit the Phi Phi islands, but we heard they were beautiful but packed with tourists and super loud.

On the advice of some Thais, we chose to go to Hong Island. Still a lot of tourists, but super beautiful and fewer tourists than Phi Phi. Any of the island tours offered are bound to be beautiful though.

The cooking classes were a highlight for Ashley. She took one called KN Lanna Thai Cookery. Jane and I loved the zipline course at Treetop Adventures. I wouldn’t have had fun there by myself, but it was great to watch Jane successfully navigate the course. A great activity for kids at least 10 years old (although they didn’t turn Jane away even though she’s only nine).

Thailand–Ao Luek

We arrived in Thailand after about 17 hours in transit from Prague. While our kids are at the end of their ropes sometimes, they really are world class travelers. As long as they have something they like to eat and a show to watch, a long trip like that goes by without much of a hitch.

Night sky in Ao Luek
View from our house in the jungle
Pond at our jungle home

We chose to go to the Krabi area of southern Thailand, a place that is the less touristy counterpart of Phuket.

I booked us a place on Air BNB that had great reviews but didn’t realize how far away it is from everything. Pretty much a $50 can ride from the main town and beaches. But despite our initial trepidation, it turned out to be an ideal place to spend a week. We stayed at a place called Baan Suan Thip Homestay, and although far from luxurious, it was great.

Road to the homestay. Not a touristy area at all.
We were close to the entrance of one of the National Parks.

We arrived late in the afternoon, and after a nap spent the rest of the day sweating in the heat and humidity and chasing geckos, skinks, and frogs with Nolan (this place is heaven for him).

Nolan found a dirty hot tub full of tadpoles

For our first full day, we took a half day excursion to the local beach, some caves, and a Buddhist temple with a family from the Netherlands.

The kids loved riding in the back of the truck
Kids riding in the back of the truck
Although we did swim, the water here wasn’t great. But it was beautiful.
This cave was used as a school for children 100 years ago.
Nolan and Margaret found a tree that looked like a bird’s nest.
Buddist Temple-still under construction. The temple is completely funded by donations.

That night, we walked into town and had some delicious Thai soup—and what a miracle, every member of our family loved what they got!

Can’t believe we found a place to eat where everyone was happy. $5 total for a family of five to eat, too!

Caught a few toads on the way home, finished home school, and hit the sack.

Took the next day easy, getting some school done and adjusting to the time change (seven hours ahead of Prague). There was a big “kids celebration” in the local town, but I couldn’t get my crew out of bed to go. Seven hours is a big time change.

The next day Ashley did a cooking lesson with the family who owned the soup stand we ate at the night before. They were so excited to teach her how to make the soup. They kept taking selfies with her.

Ashley making noodle soup with morning glory

The next day we took a kayak trip on a river. The river read surrounded by lush tropical jungle.

We paddled through some limestone tunnels……

……….and came out in big lagoon

Then we headed upriver to some caves with paintings from the mangrove cavemen who lived here a thousand or so years ago.

After the kayak trip, we were all famished, so we stopped at a little out of the way place.  It had decent Thai food AND a river to swim in.

Nolan, ready to discover a new species of freshwater tropical fish.

The following day we went on a boat excursion.

Our first stop was to take a look at an island with some limestone caves and overhangs where local fisherman occasionally spend the night.

Our second stop was at a beautiful island, where we swam and snorkeled.

Our family on the island

Next stop was another beautiful island where we hiked along a small stream into a mangrove forest where the trees were FILLED with flying foxes. Flying foxes are bars that eat fruit and are quite large. These ones were the size of crows. It was pretty neat to see. I looked it up, they don’t transmit rabies.

After fruit bat island, we boated over to an island that disappears during high tide.

And then we took a look at some local aquaculture. They raise fish and lobster for consumption, as well as large tropical fish for aquariums.

And then we set sail for home.

We did a couple more excursions while in this area (Ao Luek).

One day at the jungle pools.

Nolan sliding into a jungle pool

And a trek to another limestone cave with a large pool on our last day.

Everyone wants a photo with Margaret no matter what country we’re in. I’m not sure what this guys name is really, but it’s close to Dzhem. He went with us on most of the excursions.
Riding in the back of the pickup with Dzhem.
Our mode of transportation in Ao Luek.
Farm near our homestay. The goats ate all the fallen palm leaves.

The Ins and Outs of Long-Term Traveling

I’ll preface this post by saying that Jess usually writes the blog posts, but I’ve been wanting to write a post for awhile about all the ins and outs of long-term travel. I’ve had a few friends that are considering doing the same thing we have done. So here is what we have learned.

What to do with your home and stuff-This was one of the biggest decisions/headaches for us. We debated whether to let someone we know stay in our home or rent it through a management company. In the end, we decided to completely move out of our house. We put all of our belongings in storage and rented our house through a management company. For the time being, I am happy we made that decision. The management company takes care of any issues that come up and since we left, I haven’t thought about the house much, except for the unexpected leak that we had to turn into insurance. Trying to coordinate with insurance and the management company overseas was a bit frustrating, but we got through it.

Insurance-Because Jess left his job to go on this trip, we had to find private insurance. If you have ever bought private insurance, you know how expensive this can be. I looked into a few US plans that would cover our family overseas, but found that they were all well over $1200 a month. In the end, I spent a lot of time researching international and travel insurance companies that expats use. There are a few top contenders in my mind: Aetna and Cigna. Cigna ended up being the better value for our family. We pay $250 a month for our family. Our plan is emergency medical only and doesn’t cover any preventative medical care, but we are covered everywhere with our plan. Most international plans won’t let you use the plan in the US, but we found a plan that gives us a very limited coverage in the US if we came back. It also covers us if anything major came up, like one of us getting cancer or some other long-term issue.

Another thing we hadn’t thought about was what would happen with our home owners policy if we rented out our home. Since our home is being rented out and we don’t have another primary residence, we had to change our home owners plan to a rental policy. Without a homeowners policy, our car insurance went up drastically. We also had planned to store our cars with family in another state and found that our insurance wouldn’t cover our cars in that state. We had to switch insurance companies just a few days before we left and it took a lot more time than we expected to sort out all of the details.

Cell Phones and Staying in Touch-Before we left, we switched our TMobile plan to an international plan, but even with an international plan, we only get 2G data in most countries and we are charged .25 cents a min for calls. We can text without any additional fees. Despite the limited data and high cost for international calls, we have found a few ways to stay in touch and get mobile data despite only having 2G. When we are at places that have wifi, we connect to that. We have downloaded Whatsapp. It is free and works with wifi so you don’t have any additional costs to call people overseas who have the same app. I got a cellphone with a dual sim card and we have bought data plans in a few countries. That way we have access to google maps while we are traveling.

School-We have two kids in elementary school. All the public school districts in Utah have a free online school that you can sign up for with the district, but there are other online and homeschooling options. We decided that the only way we could do homeschool is if we had a set program and were accountable to someone. That being said, we don’t like homeschooling. We wish we didn’t have to. It takes a lot of time and is really frustrating. We chose the online program that didn’t require any textbooks, but we frequently have links that don’t work. Jess and I each work one on one with the kids. Initially, Jess taught Jane and I taught Nolan, but we switched a couple of months ago. Doing homeschooling while traveling has been really hard. It eats into the time we wish we could go and do other things. We have also learned, that teaching your kids at home can be very frustrating. Kuddos to anyone who has figured this out, because we don’t always think we do it very well.

Traveling to Europe with just a passport-Most of us in the US don’t think twice about just getting a passport and going to travel, but if you are going to Europe long term there are few things you should know. A majority of Europe is part of the Schengen zone. The picture below shows you which countries are part of the Schengen zone. As a US citizen with just a passport, you can only stay in the Schengen areas for up to 90 days out of any 180 day period. You can’t stay in most of Europe for more than 90 days without getting a visa and unless you have a reason to be there other than travel, visas can be difficult to obtain. We have gotten around this by visiting countries outside the Schengen area. We have spent a lot of time in Asia and Russia.

If you go to areas outside the Schengen zone, you will need to look up each countries specific visa requirements. Many of the countries have a simple online form that you have to fill out and a small fee $10-$20 a person, but some countries, like Russia require a much more extensive application to get a visa and you are charged a hefty fee. The cost for our family to get visas to Russia was almost as much as our plane tickets over to Europe.

Image result for schengen countries map

Adjusting Expectations when traveling with kids-When traveling with kids, I think all expectations should just be thrown out the window. Today I wandered around Prague by myself while Jess took the kids to a park and out to lunch. In one day by myself, I saw and did what it takes our family 4-5 days to do. Our kids are so sick of cathedrals, castles and museums. Even though we don’t go to that many. Kids need downtime. We have spent a lot of time at parks, bounce houses and malls because that is what our kids like to do. We make up games to play when we go to a museum. We make our kids find something small in each room of the museum, like a small figure painted on a vase and at the end they get a prize.

Another thing we do, is get out of big cities as much as possible. We all do better when we have good outdoor space, a nice grocery store close by and a good kitchen. We also find that moving around a lot doesn’t work for us. We are staying longer in each place than we originally anticipated. We stayed in Turkey, Russia, Georgia and Spain all for a month each. I feel like we got a better sense of the culture, country and what it would be like to live there.

Costs-I won’t break down all of our costs here, but I do keep a detailed spreadsheet and would be happy to share with someone who wants to know exactly what we spend each day. But here are a few things to think about. We use airbnb to book all of our accomodations. That way we almost always have a kitchen. Having a kitchen helps save on our eating out costs. We average around $60 a night for accomodations, but have found some gems for under $40. I don’t think a family could stay much cheaper than that. Individuals can do hostels, but we find that a hostel for our family is as much as an airbnb apartment.

We have also found that getting a car in some cases is cheaper than paying to ride the buses, metros and taxis. In Spain, we paid $15 a day for a car. Having a car also lets us get out of the city and the touristy areas and see more of the country. It makes it easier to get groceries and go places.

Packing-We made the decision to all just bring one carry-on and one small item. This way we don’t have to pay for packed luggage. Once you are in Europe and Asia, you can get inexpensive flights from country to country, but the weight and size limit on bags is small. Smaller than a lot of the US airlines. We each only have one pair of tennis shoes and one pair of sandals. We only have a few clothes and the kids each only get a small bag of toys. It helps when you are moving around to not have as much stuff.

Shipping stuff home-A few times we have bought gifts and souvenirs and shipped them home. For the most part, we have found that even though you may get cheap and cool souvenirs by the time you pay to have them shipped home you haven’t saved any money and it can be such a hassel to figure out the postal system in another country. My advice, check out all the cool markets, but avoid buying a lot of souvenirs.

Souvenirs-Our family enjoys going to all the markets in each of the countries we have been to and while it is so fun to buy things, we have ended up leaving quite a few things behind because we just don’t have room to bring it with us. Our kids love to get cheap toys and play with them for a little while and then find something new at the next place.

I really wanted to buy a rug in Turkey, but I didn’t have the knowledge to know a good rug from a crappy one and I heard stories of buying a rug and having the store ship a cheaper one to your house for you. In the end, I don’t regret not buying things.

Credit cards and cash- we have found that a lot of countries, including Morocco, Thailand and Turkey use cash almost exclusively. Even places you think would take a credit card don’t. When credit cards are an option we try to use those, we find that we get a better exchange rate than getting money out of an atm with our debit cards. The credit card I use, is the Costco visa card. If you do get money out of an atm, try to get as much out at one time. Doing so will reduce your fees.

If you have any other questions, send me an email and I will try and answer them. Traveling long term can be a very rewarding experience.

Czechia

We arrived in the Czech Republic on New Year’s Eve. This time of year, it was hard to find accommodations–there were just a few air BNB’s available in Prague, all out of our budget. Initially, I had us booked to stay in a rustic little place an hour outside of the city, but it turns out there was no heat in the place so I cancelled that one and booked a place two hours south in a little town called Trebon.

Trebon–Trebon turned out to be a sleepy little town this time of year. I chose it because of it’s proximity to Czesky Krumlov, a picturesque town that is a popular destination.

On New Year’s Eve, we wandered the streets of our sleepy town, stopping to watch the few revelers in the park fire Roman candles at each other (a favorite tradition of young men everywhere you can buy Roman candles).

Cesky Krumlov–On New Year’s Day, we drove into Cesky Krumlov. Despite the cold temperatures and the fact that it was New Year’s day (and thus many attractions were closed) this picturesque little town was fairly well packed with tourists. We wandered the streets, ate some Czech street food, and then headed back to Trebon.

Czesky Krumlov with the river that curls around part of the town
Castle in Cesky Krumlov
Colorful homes along the river

More Trebon–We spent the next day in a “natural area” near Trebon that turned out to be a pond in a strip of trees. While Nolan chopped ice from the puddles near the pond for sale in his “ice shop”, and Jane wandered around listening to an audio book (Ramona Quimby by Beverly Cleary), Margaret and I ice skated in our shoes around the edge of the pond. Turns out that four hours of this monotony was not enough for the kids who all melted down when it was time to leave.

Nolan on ice
Margaret braving the ice
Jane, wandering around with her audio book

Kutna Hora–Our third day in the Czech Republic was spent driving to and exploring Kutna Hora, another quaint and picturesque town (Czechia is filled with them) whose main attraction is an ossuary–a bone depository.

Stop to eat sandwiches on the way to Kutna Hora from Trebon
Pyramid of skulls and femurs in the ossuary (photo from my trip there in 2007)

In the thirteenth century, an Abby of the church on Kutna Hora was sent to the Holy Land. When he returned, he brought with him a container of soil collected from Golgotha which he sprinkled around the small cemetery surrounding the Sedlic Chapel in Kutna Hora. This connection to the Holy Land resulted in thousands of people desiring to be laid to rest in the small cemetery. Over the years, so many people were buried there that the bones of the deceased had to be exterred to make room.

The dilemma of what to do with the bones of an estimated 40-70,000 skeletons resulted in the macabre display within the Sedlic Chapel. The bones were used to create coats of arms, chandeliers, and other decorations within the chapel. Skulls and femurs were stacked into floor-to-ceiling pyramids.

Skulls with crossbones (photo from my trip there in 2007)

As the popularity of the Czech Republic as a tourist destination had increased, so has the popularity of the ossuary at Sedlic Chapel. Over the years things have gotten so out of hand with tourists trying to get the perfect selfie along side the bones that they just flat out banned any photos (the ban going into effect Jan 1, 2020).

Macabre wall decoration (photo from my trip there in 2007)
Graveyard around the ossuary

We checked out a few more of the sites in Kutna Hora, and Jane found a little cafe that served hot chocolate and pancakes. Then we drove into Prague.

St. Barbara’s church in Kutna Hora
St. Barbara’s Church
St. Barbara’s Church

Bohemian Switzerland— For our first day in Prague, we drove out of the city to an area known as Bohemian Switzerland. Two Swiss artists who visited the area named it as such because the geography reminded them of their homeland.

Walking in the mist and rain

We reached the area after another drive through the Czech countryside filled with farm fields and small towns.

We made the hike to a large arch in a narrow sandstone rock formation called Pravčická brána.

Sandstone arch in Bohemian Switzerland

Margaret is getting older, but is still the baby and gets “too tired to walk” after a few steps and ends up being carried up the mountain and back down again.

Margaret at the top, wearing my coat, carried nearly the whole way

The day was gray and we got a little wet, but it was a fun trek.

Snowing and blustering

Prague –We saw a few sites around Prague for our second full day in the city. For a few other days, Ashley and I took turns taking independent excursions into the city while the other entertained the kids who at this point completely lose it at the thought of seeing sculptures, cathedrals, castles, etc.

Playing in the park while Ashley saw Prague
Parade at the close of the holiday season
View from the main square in old town
Statue honoring Kafka, a Prague resident and unknown writer in his lifetime

Prague is a truly beautiful city. It was spared the bombing that destroyed so many old towns in Europe during the second world war.

Over the last twenty years, it has become a popular tourist destination. While summer is the height of tourist season in Prague, the winter holidays also draw quite a crowd. The streets and squares of old Town are filled with Christmas markets and tourists.

The most common scene in Prague during high tourist times
More crowds in old Prague

Ashley and I both walked the town after the Christmas markets had closed and there were much fewer tourists then, which was nice.

Golden street
Saint Vitus Cathedral
Saint Vitus Cathedral
Saint Vitus Cathedral
St Vitnus
Red roofs of Prague

Brno--we drove a few hours to see the second largest city in the Czech Republic. We checked out since local sites and ate some local food, which for Ashley and the kids was chimney cakes, something we first encountered in Georgia, but can be found all over Czechia, and for me was a baked pork knuckle.

1.2 kg pork knuckle
Brno shark statue
Lots of Christmas around Czechia
Brno Cathedral

Czechia was great–lots of fun, easy to drive in, good food, very picturesque. But now we are headed to warmer climes.

As this is expected to be our last time in the cold (we’ll be back in Europe later in the Spring), we offloaded some of our warm clothes and hopped the plane for the long overnight flight to Thailand!!

Spain Part Dos

After a week in Barcelona, we drove south down the coast a few hours to a town called Peñíscola. We intended to stay a few days and move on, potentially driving all the way to Seville.

But the kids act like 2 hours in the car is torture, and our air BNB in Peñíscola was great, and there was a lot to see in the area, and our rental car was due back in Barcelona (so we would have to return north anyway), and the thought of not having to pack up our stuff for a few weeks all combined to keep us in this beautiful little town.

We made a lot of excursions but were still able to take it easy so it worked out great.

Despite being the first Western European country on our trip and arguably the most expensive, our daily expenses (Ashley keeps a detailed log) in Spain proved to be lower than almost all the other countries we’ve visited except Lithuania. Because it was the off season, our lodgings and car rental were significantly cheaper than other times of the year. Our car was only $15/day.

Because we had a car to drive to a decent grocery store and because our Air BNB had a decently equipped kitchen, we ate out relatively little and prepared most meals at home.

And so despite the higher cost of gas, museums, parking, and other services in Spain, we did alright. Even including the speeding ticket I got in Spain, which could have been higher had there been a fine for driving without an international driver’s permit–which was a little bit of a scare when the officer had to call in to find out what to do with an American without the permit. “So many problems” he kept saying and told me several times “I don’t know how it is in your country, but we have rules here.”

But in the end, he discounted the ticket from 300 to 150 Euros and had me pay with a credit card on the spot, so I thanked him and shook his hand and we were on our way (this was still much more expensive than the ticket I got in Georgia for a more serious infraction).

A few more things learned about Spain these few weeks.

Ham (jamon) is a big deal. A really big deal. It does not resemble what Americans refer to as ham at all. It’s dry cured and resembles but is far superior to prosciutto. The most expensive varieties are from a breed of pig called Iberica that is fed almost exclusively acorns. The finest ham can sell for over $200 a pound. Jamon is everywhere. I made sure to eat some every day.

Jamon at one of the markets in Valencia

The Spanish take a different approach to business. Many businesses, even large chains shut down for a few hours every day and have much more limited hours than businesses in any country I have been in. So if it’s 7pm and you need some groceries, you might be out of luck until 9am the following day. Or if your want to eat a meal in a restaurant, you better plan to be there between 2 and 4pm or after 7pm.

Although we call the official language of Spain Spanish, Spaniards call it Castellian, and there are several other languages spoken in Spain. For example, although you can speak Castellian with anyone in Barcelona, all the street signs are printed in the local dialect, Catalán, and it is much closer to French than to what I learned in my high school Spanish class. In Valencia, all the signs are printed in Valencian, which looked to me to be equal parts French and Spanish.

Here’s a quick rundown of the towns we visited after Barcelona.

Peñiscola–a town a few hours south of Barcelona right on the Mediterranean. The castle and old town sit on a small peninsula projecting into the sea. Sometimes called the Mykonos of Spain due to its similarity with the famous Greek town. Clearly a summer resort town, the miles and miles of hotels and condos were nearly empty. The highlights in this town were many days spent taking it easy on the park and on the beach and walking through old town.

View of the old town and fortress from the Peniscola Beach
Pensicola

Tirig–famous for it’s UNESCO site, Les Coves Dr la Valtorta, a series of cliff side shelters with ancient cave paintings. Highlights were hiking to the caves and exploring the old stone homes and shelters among the terraced fields with almond and olive trees.

Almond trees near Tirig

Sant Mateu–a town like so many in this part of Spain with a beautiful central plaza and church and a castle on the hill.

I loved the bright blue buildings in San Mateu

Valencia–the third largest city in Spain, located right on the coast with way more than could be seen in the day we spent there. But we did experience three of the highlights of the town: paella (people here say Valencia is the home city of this dish and still does it best), beautiful modern architecture, and the Valencia cathedral where you can see (from a small distance) the stone cup that according to tradition is the Holy Grail or cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper.

Morella--on the list of “nicest towns in Spain”, we arrived in Morella after a few hours of slowly winding our way through miles a miles of olive groves. Although it was quite cold and windy, the town surrounded by castle walls was one of the prettiest we’ve seen on our whole trip.

Prat de Cabanes-Torreblanca–a nature park where Ashley and I took turns walking the beach while the other sat in the sand and watched the kids catch a dozen or so hermit crabs and put them in the “hermit crab sanctuary” they constructed.

Vilafamés–built into and from the local red sandstone, this town’s castle and stone walls were built by the invading Moors with architecture different from most of the local castles.

Castellón--the provincial capital. We mostly played in a park and walked around admiring the old buildings and the Christmas decorations. We also enjoyed a meal at a tapas restaurant.

Feliz Navidad in Castellon

Vall D’uxó–took a boat ride on “the longest navigable underground river in Europe” in Coves de Sant Josep (no photography allowed).

At the cave entrance in Vall’ D Uxo

Tarragona–another provincial capital that we visited on our drive back to Barcelona. This was one of the larger towns we visited and we didn’t spend much time here, but we did enjoy the few hours we spent wandering the old town. At least tied with Morella and Peñíscola in our minds for the prettiest towns we visited.

It would have been nice to see more of the various areas in Spain, but we had a great time and I’m glad we stayed at a home base for a while. Constant travel is hard on us all and it was nice to change it up a little.

Merry Christmas from Morocco!

Jewish Cemetery in the old part of the town.

While I still need to write a catch up post about the last few weeks in Spain, I thought I’d better get ahead and write about where we are currently.

As I write this, it’s Christmas day in Morocco. It doesn’t feel much like Christmas since it’s sunny and warm and there aren’t any Christmas decorations to be seen.

But we’ve had a great family Christmas. The kids woke up to three small presents each, none of them wrapped.

We ran a few errands, rode in the back of a tuk-tuk (our Moroccan one-horse open sleigh), ate a Christmas lunch at McDonald’s, and played in the park.

We followed that with a tour around the city in a horse-drawn carriage and a fresh-squeezed strawberry lemon-ade.

Despite the small haul, and the general lack of most things that remind them of Christmas, my kids say they’ve had a great day. Maybe it’s because we’ve taken a break from homeschooling this week, but they sure seem pleasant all the time despite being so long away from friends, extended family, and familiar food at home.

We arrived in Morocco a week ago. We booked an Airbnb in a riad in the Medina–a traditional Moroccan home in the old part of the city.

A traditional riad is a multi-level home with a central parlor to which all the floors open.

The alleys that lead to the riads are a labarynth of streets paved with brick that are much too narrow for a car.

What we didn’t realize is that our host lives on the upper floors of this home. We can call up to him or he can call down, so it feels more like being a guest in someone’s home than having a place to our own. He has been very helpful though in showing us around the city and helping arrange taxis and an excursion.

Another thing we hadn’t planned on was having no heat in the house. So even though the days may be sunny and in the 70’s, the nights are cool and the house stays around 55-60 degrees. But there are plenty of blankets so we sleep warm and wear warm clothes in the house.

Out for a stroll with our host’s wife and grandson.

Morocco has been a step back in time. While the horse-drawn carriages that circle the streets are for the benefit of tourists, there are plenty of donkey carts and horse-drawn carts legitimately used for hauling goods piled high with sacks filled with who-knows-what that fight their way through the streets full of cars, taxis, scooters, mo-peds, and bicycles.

Food stands sell everything from hot and fresh donuts and bowls of bean soup to roasted sheepshead and a boiled snails in broth.

That’s a pile of cooked snails each vendor is selling. I have tried a few free samples. Not bad, but I make a face after I eat it so the vendor won’t try to sell me a whole bowl.
Tajine–a typical morrocan dish cooked in a clay pot.
Now that’s what’s left when you eat a sheepshead the proper way!
Hot donuts–delicious!

The market is massive and filled with spice vendors hawking sandalwood, jasmine, royal tea, and secret mixes containing 32 different spices to stores filled with leather bags and slippers.

It’s the most photogenic place I’ve ever been. There are 80-year-old men wearing jilabas peddling rusted bicycles that have to be nearly as old. And women wearing full burkas with just their eyes visible.

The scenic countryside

And if you drive out of the city into the country you’ll see the steep hillsides terraced into haphazard 1/4 acre plots of land being worked with teams of donkeys in harness. And donkeys piled high with branches walking ahead of their owners (apparently the donkeys know the way and don’t need to be guided, just urged on with a stick). And kids on donkeys galloping down the road (if you can call it a gallop when it’s done by a donkey). And donkeys in harness standing perfectly still in town with their front legs hobbled, waiting for their owners. And women in burkas with massive bundles of weeds gathered from the mountain sides strapped to their backs to carry home to feed their donkeys. And women washing clothes in the river with the surrounding trees holding up the family’s brightly colored laundry while it dries in the sun. And herds of goats and herds of sheep with their shepherd boys following behind.

My biggest disappointment is that I haven’t been able to get very good photos of all these goings on as they have been viewed from the window of a moving car. But it’s been fun to see them.

Ashley, the organized one (well at least when it comes to planning an itenarary), got us set up on a camel excursion into the desert. The excursion was super touristy but super cool.

Ksar Ait Ben Haddou

Our host helped us arrange for a private driver to take us to a city called Zagoura where we were set to meet up with the camel caravan. Before the six hour ride was over, I think everyone, driver included, was thinking the trip was an error in judgement. The road was rough and wound through snowy mountain passes. Before we were halfway there, each member of our party except me and the driver had stopped to vomit twice. To their credit, as well as to the driver’s, everyone except Margaret managed to direct the business out of the stopped car.

Poor, sick Jane in the car

When we FINALLY arrived, we met our guide, Mohammed, and our three camels.

Margaret and Mohammed
Mohammed watching the sunrise with us.

We rode for about an hour and a half, which is about an hour and fifteen minutes longer than the time it takes to learn that riding a camel is going to leave you a little seasick and a little bruised in the groin. But it was awesome nonetheless.

That night we ate a tanjine dinner, listened to traditional songs by a campfire, climbed the surrounding sand dunes to gaze at the stars on a perfectly clear and moonless night, and slept comfortably in a tent on a bed under a pile of blankets.

Night sky. The bright cluster just right of center is the seven sisters.

The next morning after a quick breakfast, we climbed the highest nearby hill and watched the sunrise over the desert.

Sliding down the dunes at sunrise.

Then it was rush rush to get back on the camels and ride back to the car for another 6 hour car ride (sans vomiting this time and with only moderate nausea) back to Marrakesh.

I certainly could have stood to spend another night in the desert.

Our family at the Bahia Palace in Marrakech

The economy in Marrakesh is highly dependant on tourism. And it shows. Every year the total number of people visiting Marrakesh exceeds the city’s inhabitants. One result is that nearly everyone who sits in a shop or stands outside a restaurant hustling people to eat there speaks Arabic (first language for most Moroccans), French (second language for most Moroccans), English, and Spanish, at least well enough to exchange pleasantries and discuss what they offer.

Another result of the highly tourist-dependent economy is that people are pushy.

The women offering henna tattoos on the main square can be bold enough to grab your hand and start a design and then demand a large sum (happened to Jane).

The men who drag the monkeys around by a leash on their neck will set the monkey on the backs of tourists who look too long and then demand payment to remove the monkey (my kids understood that they weren’t allowed to look directly at any monkeys).

If a hawker hands you something as “a gift”, you know there’s going to be some demands later about it or something else (the kids learned to just shake their heads “no” when someone tried to give them a balloon or toy).

If you have Google maps out on your phone you can be sure someone will welcome you to Morocco and help you find what you’re looking for and then demand payment.

And there are no set prices. Everything is negotiable from handicrafts to groceries (at least in the small shops) to taxis. This gets tiring after a while when you never know if you’re getting ripped off. The price starts at 600 Dirham and when you get out down to 150 you think you’re getting a decent deal when in fact you may still be paying double what a good negotiator would pay.

But the weather in December is nice. The city is hard not to like, filled with a combination of crumbing facades and bright tile work. The people are overall kind and helpful even when it seems disingenuous much of the time. And we never felt unsafe (at least not very unsafe). So it’s a great place to visit although 8 days was plenty for us.

Georgia Part Two

Freedom Square in Tbilisi
Peppers for sale Tbilisi

According to legend, Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, was founded when a prince who was hunting in the area shot a pheasant which fell into a thermal spring. According to one version of the legend, the pheasant was revived, healed, and flew away. According to the another version of the legend, the prince pulled the dead bird from the water and ate it, finding the bird had cooked in the hot water to perfection.
In any case, the prince ordered the building of a city in the location of the thermal springs and named it Tbilisi, which in Georgian means “warm place”.

The sulfur springs area of Tbilisi, called abanotubani or აბანოთუბანი. The Sulfur bath houses are centered in this part of town.


We went many times to the sulfur bath houses located in the old city. In the baths, you can pay a few dollars to enter the public sections of the bath or pay $20 upwards to $200 to rent a private room depending on how posh you want the room.


Nolan, Kolya, and I frequented the public baths at Bathhouse#5 where you could sit and cook your brains in the sauna, relax in a warm sulfur bath (the springs are sulfur springs and smell mildly of rotten eggs), or take a hot sulfur water shower (all for 5 Georgian Lari or about $1.75).
For an additional $3 you can get a “peeling”or a massage. After my experience in the Turkish baths, I had no desire to try a peeling, but I did get a couple of massages which would be better called “aggressive soaping” rather than massages.

Nolan walking into a sulfur bath house

The women’s section of the public baths had only a sulfur shower–no sauna or warm pool–so Ashley and the girls rented a private room a few times. Margaret and Jane loved the soap massage.

After a relaxing sulfur soak
The tiled dome roof of a sulfur bath house

We rented a car in Tbilisi and made a few day trips to surrounding towns. We also stayed a few days in a resort town called Borjomi. It’s famous for its mineral springs and sanitariums.

During Soviet times, trains ran direct from Moscow to the resorts in Borjomi.

Bottled mineral water from a source in this town is sold all over the world. According to locals though, it loses its potency unless you drink or straight from the source–which fortunately we did.

Borjomi water

A small entrance fee gets you into the park where you can drink the famed waters that are known particularity for curing stomach issues.

The water comes out lukewarm and tastes like water with a pinch of baking soda and salt, and a dash of rotten eggs.

Borjomi is a mountain town, and it’s much colder than Tbilisi. We stayed in a house that had a couple of small furnaces mounted to the wall that weren’t quite enough to keep the place warm. Fortunately, there was a fireplace. The kids loved it. We even cooked dinner on the fire a couple of nights.

Potatoes cooking on the coals in the fireplace in our Air BNB

There was a young neighborhood cat that kept sneaking in. We all loved him although we had to officially kick him out in fear of what might happen since there was no litter box in the house. The cat, named “Let It Ring Out” especially took a liking to Ashley

Let it Ring Out curled up on Ashley’s lap

Borjomi is also home to a disappointing thermal spring.


We spent a good chunk of one day hiking to the thermal springs, only to jump in and find out they were only as warm as yesterday’s bath water.

With the ambient temperature a balmy 30 degrees, we were all pretty cold, though Kolya and I managed to stay in for a full hour in the hopes of getting some of the purported healing benefits of the springs.

The thermal pools. Probably more pleasant in summer than in winter.
The water from the pipe was about 80F but quickly cooled once it moved to the rest of the pool. I spent most of the hour in the pool sitting under the pipe.

We followed the tepid thermal springs up with a short trip to Bakuriani, a ski town a little too early in the season for skiing, but beautiful nonetheless

We spent another day horseback in the Borjomi National Forest. It was great fun except that it was bitter cold.

The cold forest

This was the only time poor little Margaret has complained on the trip (not just the horse ride, but the entire trip so far!). She was in the saddle with me and I kept asking if she was cold. She shook her head “no” until we got to the turn around spot and then started crying because she was cold. I bundled her up in my coat and she fell asleep for the ride down.

Margaret, feeling better.

One day, we drove a couple of hours to a town called Vardzia, very near the Turkish border. Like the people of Cappadocia Turkey, Georgians built a complex cave city in the cliffs. Unlike the cave cities in Cappadocia, Vardzia was planned and constructed in a relatively short period of time and was used only as a place of protection during invasions.

The caves were built under the direction of her Majesty, King Tamara (our guide made sure we understood that this woman was a king and not a queen), and featured clay pipe plumbing and a full monastery. In places, the cave city was up to 19 different levels and could house up to 20,000 people.

After our day trip to Vardzia, the cave city, we found an out of the way hot springs “resort” called Hotel Geno (that in no way resembled a hotel or resort) and had a great time swimming in the thermal water and plunging in the ice cold pool

Hotel Geno
Jane braving the icy plunge pool

One day, we drove to see the castle in a town called Akhalsikhe. The area was occupied for many years by the Turks and the castle they built featured a Mosque as well as architecture influenced by Muslim culture.

The kids didn’t appreciate the architecture, but they had a blast playing hide and seek on the castle grounds.

My friend Kolya has been coming to Georgia every year for the last several years. He always stays in the Black Sea town of Batumi and was keen on me seeing that city. So one night at midnight, we boarded a coach bus and for $7, took a 7-hour ride to Batumi.

Once the bus was moving and the lights were off, I quickly stripped down to a t-shirt and long underwear bottoms, hoping to get a little shut-eye. I had a hard time sleeping though.

The seats weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible. The reason I couldn’t sleep was the temperature on the bus. It was easily 90 degrees. I was dying.

I looked around to see how my fellow travelers were faring. They were all fast asleep still wearing their winter gear! Most hadn’t even opened the top button of their coats! Kolya asked the bus driver to turn the heat down, but he was told to sit back down.

That was a long bus ride. Needless to say, we took the train home from Batumi. It was much more pleasant.

Batumi on the Black Sea
Gravel beach in Batumi

I had a great time in Batumi. The morning we arrived, I got to join in a game of beach volleyball. Without kids we fit in a packed itenarary of sight-seeing in the area, and we stayed the night with a family Kolya knows. I even got to take a brisk swim in the Black Sea.

Originally built as a Catholic Church, this is now a Georgian Orthodox Church
Fruit and vegetable market in Batumi
Cheese market. The round cheeses are a Georgian type called suluguni.
Makhuntseti bridge, a 75 foot freestanding stone bridge.
Makhuntseti waterfall
Statue honoring the evangelists Matthew and Andrew who, according to tradition, preached the gospel in Georgia.
Calves outside a Roman fort built neat Batumi
Skyline of the modern downtown in Batumi
This dog walked with us for hours.
Art nouveau architecture near ‘European Square’
View from a cathedral on the hill.

After returning back to Tbilisi, we had just a few days until we left for Spain.

Ashley has a friend from Georgia who studied with her in the U of U MBA program. She met up with her earlier on our trip to Georgia, and before we left Georgia, Nona invited our while family to her house for dessert. On the way to her house, we stopped at the TV studio Nona runs. We all had fun seeing what goes on behind the camera, but Jane really had a good time getting a professional makeup application.

Get ready for the camera.
Jane, waiting for the first guest on her talk show.
Nolan on screen

Our last day in Georgia fell in the fourth Thursday in November, so we boiled some potatoes and picked up some poultry from KFC to celebrate Thanksgiving Day.

Happy Thanksgiving!

On Friday morning 3am the day after Thanksgiving, we dragged the kids out of bed, caught a taxi to the airport, and headed for sunny Spain.

Goodbye, Georgia! A great country to visit.

Barcelona, Barcelona!

Selling shells by the seashore—I can get you a discount if you’re interested.

The first thing you need to know about Barcelona is that it’s pronounced Bar-thay-lo-na.

The next thing you need to know is that when you lose a tooth in Catalonia (the region of Spain in which Barcelona is found), you don’t get a visit from the tooth fairy, but from Ratoncito Perez. So when your kid loses a tooth in Barcelona, you tell him to put it under his pillow and when he falls asleep a little mouse is going to crawl across his face a few times and rummage around under his pillow until he finds the tooth.

dav

The third thing you need to know about Barcelona is that there’s no Santa Clause here. Instead, there’s Cagatió. As Christmas approaches, families bring a large log into their house and paint a face on it. The log is named Cagatio. According to Wikipedia (and some folks here who explained the tradition to us):

Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), one gives the tió (Catalan for “log”)  a little bit to “eat” every night and usually covers him with a blanket so that he will not be cold. The story goes that in the days preceding Christmas, children must take good care of the log, keeping it warm and feeding it, so that it will defecate presents on Christmas Day or Eve (yes, that’s correct, and no, it’s not made up). 

No Santa Clause here! The kids are lining up to take a whack at Cagatió.

On Christmas Day or, in some households on Christmas Eve, one puts the tió partly into the fireplace and orders it to defecate. The fire part of this tradition is no longer as widespread as it once was, since many modern homes do not have a fireplace. To make it defecate, one beats the tió with sticks, while singing various songs of Tió de Nadal. The name Cagatio actually means poop-log (although I read that the Catalan word that is used is a much more coarse expression).

Nolan can’t wait to start this tradition in the US.

We stayed in a little town outside of Barcelona for about a week. It was another miserable night flight to get here, packing up until midnight and then leaving for the airport at 3am, but it’s been great to be here so far.

The weather has been cool but pleasant overall although today has been cold, windy, and rainy.

We’ve had a couple of beach days and park days here, but we’ve also been out and about in Barcelona some.

Barcelona is a beautiful old city with lots of Gothic architecture and narrow streets, sculptures, and fountains.

Barcelona is also a hub of the modernist architectural movement. Her most famous architect is Antoni Gaudi, whose architectural designs are extreme examples of the modern movement.

Although it looks like Gaudi may have been influenced by mind-altering substances when he designed his works, he was in fact a teetotaler and very dedicated Catholic who saw his architecture as a way to express the majesty of God.

As a boy, Gaudi was very feeble and was not expected to live to adulthood. He spent much of his childhood ill and in bed with only his imagination to entertain him.

He became a forming member of the modernist movement in architecture where using forms that reflect nature and using design to tell stories are key elements.

In his early career, he was lucky enough to win the favor of the wealthiest family in Barcelona and construct several houses for them. He quickly became one of the most famous architects in the city. Gaudi became frustrated though catering to the tastes of his patrons and eventually swore off commissions, focusing all his time and personal means on his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, a catholic basilica. Gaudi worked on the cathedral for 40 years, only completing about 10% of the building before his death. Of the slow pace of construction Gaudi said “my client is not in a hurry.” It is still under construction today with an anticipated completion within the next ten years.

This is the house that drove Gaudi to quit commission work. He wanted the house to depict the ocean complete with the waves of the sea in blue and green and seawead and colorful sea creatures. The family that commissioned it wanted the notoriety of a Gaudi house, but wanted a house in traditional style. It ended in a lawsuit.

We also spent one day visiting the Pablo Picaso Museum, the only museum we’ve dragged our kids through in Spain so far (we’ve learned our lesson about museums).

Pablo Picasso is widely considered the greatest painter of the 20th century. Books on art history contain more than twice as many Picasso paintings as any single other painter.

He’s of course most famous for his cubist works, but the museum showed a progression of his work from pretty traditional realism to expressionism to cubism.

The kids did pretty well in the museum all things considered. We have come up with a pretty fun game for them–in each room, we find some small detail for them to look for. If they find them all, they earn a small prize.

We’ve also found that everyone is more happy if Ashley and I take turns sightseeing in the city while the other adult takes the kids to the beach or a park. So we each had a day alone in Barcelona while the kids had a couple of free days.

Georgia Part One

It’s kind of funny that the name of a country in one language can bear no resemblance to the name used by those who live in that country. So it is with the Georgia, or as Georgians refer to their homeland, Sakartvelo, which in the beautiful and unusual Georgian alphabet is written საქართველო.

We arrived in the Republic of Georgia on November 5th and ended up staying until the day after Thanksgiving, November 29, so getting close to a full month.

Georgia was high on my list of places to visit, but we also thought it would be a good place to slow our pace a little, take it easy, and catch up on home school. To some degree we accomplished all of those goals.

Georgia is also a place a friend of mine named Kolya from Russia visits frequently.

Kolya met us in Tbilisi after we had been there about a week and we spent the rest of our time in Georgia with him.

Kolya with my crew (Ashley taking the photo)

The Republic of Georgia is a relatively small country, about the size of Ireland, situated on the Eastern side of the Black Sea. At a true cultural crossroads, Georgia shares borders with Turkey, Armenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan.

The brown regions show the areas of Georgia currently occupied by Russia (similar to the Russian occupation of Ukraine). Georgia has a complicated relationship with Russia.

The national language is Georgian, a language unrelated to any other major language group and only spoken by 4 million people in the world. The Georgian alphabet is also quite unique and beautiful and also not related to any other.

Georgian alphabet, although the letters can morph quite a bit in various fonts and in handwriting.

A former Soviet republic, Georgia suffered from severe poverty and corruption in the 90’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It pulled itself up by the bootstraps so to speak though, and has since become a fairly popular tourist destination. A large part of the Georgian economy is based on tourism and Georgia hopes to add to that every year. Unfortunately, strained relations with Russia have decreased the number of Russian tourists, which previously made up a large percentage of overall tourists to Georgia.

Mountainous and sparsely forested (at least the parts we have seen) Georgia reminds Ashley and me a lot of Utah. It offers some of the best and the cheapest skiing near Europe.

Confluence of two rivers as viewed from the Jvari monastery.
Mountains near Gadauri

Georgian cuisine is popular as much among neighboring countries as among Georgians. Our Russian friend said when Russians go out to eat, they go get Georgian food. We’ve liked the food in general, but like much of the food in the region, it is meat, cheese, and bread heavy. Well known Georgian dishes include kharcho (seasoned beef soup), khinkali (large meat dumplings), khatchapuri (various preparations of bread and cheese and sometimes meat), churchkhela (nuts on a string covered in dried fruit puree), and lobiani (bread filled with refried beans).

Making bean-filled lobiani
Khinkali
The rich soup kharcho
Colorful churchkhela for sale. It’s always sold hanging in pairs like socks on a laundry line. They call it “Georgian Snickers”.
Honey is also a pretty deal on Georgia. The dark stuff is chestnut honey, the white stuff is honey that has been aged 5 years.
Nolan tipping back a cold one. This is tarragon flavored soda

Aside from food, Georgia is also famous for wine. The earliest historical evidence of wine making was found in Georgia and dates back at least 8000 years. Over 530 varieties of grapes are grown in Georgia.

Most people here with enough of a garden to grow grapes brew their own wine. They also all seem capable of cooking up their own hooch called Chacha which they distill from the crushed grapes left over after making wine. I thought that kind of home distilled strong alcohol could make you blind, but I met a few old gents who drink quite a bit of it and they seemed to see alright. Homebrewed wine and chacha are for sale all over the streets and shops.

A fifty gallon drum of chacha in the making. I took a whiff of some homebrewed chacha and it smelled strongly of alcohol and nail polish remover.

Georgia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity and religious sentiment among Georgians remains very strong. It’s common to see people stop and cross themselves when they pass a church.

The purported tomb of St Matthew near the Black Sea and within the ruins of a Roman fort. He and Andrew are said to have preached th8e Gospel of Jesus Christ in Georgia
Georgians visiting the Church of the Holy Trinity in Tbilisi
Youth choir rehearsal. Sounded incredible in person.

Saint Nino (female) is credited with converting the king and queen, and this the entire country, to Christianity in the 4th century.

Saint Nino and her distinctive cross.

According to tradition, the Virgin Mary gave Nino a cross made from grape vines which Nino secured using her own hair. Since grape vines aren’t very rigid, the arms of the cross sagged and thus the Georgian cross has droopy arms.

In our three months travels, we have seen so many churches, cathedrals, and mosques that is hard to get as excited about them anymore. But since many of the attractions both in and around Tbilisi are monasteries, we’ve ended up seeing our share here as well. The architectural style is almost identical from one to the next–so the buildings differ mainly in size, age, and inside decor. Many of the old monasteries are bare stone on the inside and it makes the feat of building the tall central dome out of cut stone seem more impressive when those stones are not plastered over.

Jvari monastery. This one is particularly old and important.
Kazbegi
Kazbegi
Gergeti Trinity Church in Kazbegi
Not a great photo, but it shows stone arch with arched ceiling.
Church of the Holy Trinity in Batumi
Monastery in Mtskheta that purportedly contains a bone from the foot of St Andrew.
Mtskheta monastery

I wish I had more photos, but many of the monasteries don’t allow photography inside.

Because of its small size and its location between major historic world powers, and on important trade routes, Georgia has experienced many invasions through the centuries and has had to form alliances with larger powers.

A large statue in Tbilisi, Mother of Georgia, depicts a woman holding a sword in one hand to fend off enemies and a bowl of wine in the other hand to welcome her friends.

Mother Georgia from the side with the wine bowl

It’s relationship with Russia now, the Soviet Union previously, and imperial Russia before that has been particularly complicated.

Georgia’s current governing party leans toward Putin and his cohort, while the previous party were outspoken critics of Putin, which drew economic sanctions from Russia that are still in effect. In a similar fashion to the occupation of Crimea in Ukraine, Russia currently occupies two significant regions of Georgia. Georgia is the birthplace of prominent Soviet leader and revolutionary Joseph Stalin. Prior to communism, Georgia was considered a protectorate of imperial Russia.

The birthplace of Joseph Stalin, who changed his name from Ioseb Jughashvili, in the town of Gori
Joseph Stalin still draws admiration from many in Georgia despite his harsh tactics. He was responsible for at least 20 million deaths, upwards of 40 million depending how you assign blame for Soviet casualties in the second world war, as well as a constant paranoia of being sent to the gulags for little or no reason.
Toilet paper did not appear in the Soviet Union until the 1960’s. Prior to that, newspaper was used. It is said that if you were not attentive to what was printed on the paper and used an image of Comrade Stalin for your business, you could end up in a prison camp.
Friendship monument built by the Soviets to commentate the cooperation of Georgia as a republic in the USSR. Under communist rule, Georgia was the only republic allowed to conduct official business in its own language.

The current political climate in Georgia is strained. Many people are fed up with the current ruling party, Georgian Dream, and what they see as its lack of any concern for Georgia or it’s people. Tbilisi had several demonstrations while we were there. Kolya and I walked around then a little and got a feel for the general climate. They were generally peaceful but I know later some of the protesters were dispersed with water cannons.

Protests in Tbilisi
Protests in Tbilisi. Georgian is a good language to sound angry in.
Protestors and yellow smoke on Rustavelli Avenue in Tbilisi

For such a small country, Georgia has a fairly varied climate. From sub tropical in the west along the Black Sea to more continental in the mountains in the north. You can pick mandarins and persimmons and take a dip in the Black Sea in late November in Batumi (I did both), and go skiing in the mountains in central Georgia (this year though they’ll probably have to wait at least until mid December for more snow).

A view of the Black Sea in Batumi just two days before Thanksgiving.
Mandarins in Batumi. You could buy these sweet little oranges for 15 cents a pound.
Making a snowman in the mountains
Reminds me of Utah mountains
Confluence of the White and Black rivers

The cost of travel to Georgia makes it appealing as well. Georgian currency is the Georgian Lari or GEL. Current exchange rate is about 3GEL/USD. A ride in the metro costs 0.5 GEL or about 15 cents. Most taxis we took around town were $2-3. A filling meal including a local Georgian soda (Georgian soda is delicious) in a typical cafe can be had for $3-4. A visit to the public bath house is $1.75. the nicest place we’ve stayed in by far on our trip was a spacious loft with a view in Old Town Tbilisi that we paid $40/night for, although I bet in the summer it will cost at least twice that.

So, if I haven’t convinced you to come visit Georgia, maybe I will with my next post on Georgia. I think we all had a great time there, and I was happy to visit and leave some money with the local economy.

Istanbul and farewell, Turkey!

Steep cobblestone street with laundry hanging in the Sultahnamet neighborhood

Although Turkey was not a country on our “to-visit” list, we ended up staying almost a month there. We left feeling like there was still so much to see.

Our itenarary ended up being Antalya–Kas–Istanbul–Cappodocia–Istanbul.

Our favorites were Kas and Cappadocia. Still, gotta say that Istanbul is a pretty cool city.

Few cities in the world are more historically significant than Istanbul.

Despite Turkey’s political vicissitudes over the last decade, Istanbul is still a top tourist destination with 2020 expected to have more visitors see the city than it’s population size–and it’s population is 15 million.

Istanbul is a diverse city–a melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups. It’s a city that never sleeps. It’s clean and modern and old and run down all at once. It’s huge and takes forever to get around–which was our least favorite thing about Istanbul. Our first stay in Istanbul was in the historic Sultahnamet district farily close to everything in the historic center. It was a unique experience. Our second stay was just a few metro stops away (or so it seemed when we booked it), but it took us nearly 2 hours to get to the sites in the historic district.

Walking the streets of Istanbul

For our 8 days in Istanbul, we were able to accomplish and see relatively little (at least it seems to me that way).

Here’s what we did see:

The Hagia Sofia. This ancient Christian Church was the architectural treasure of Christianity in the east (Istanbul sits on the very Eastern edge of Europe, on the border between Europe and Asia).

Man selling grilled and steamed corn with the slightly pinkish Hagia Sofia in the background

It’s a huge building composed of a series of domes. The Hagia Sofia is made of cut stone that has been plastered on the outside of the building–it almost looks like cement. To me the overall appearance of the building from the outside is squat and industrial.

Hagia Sofia. The minarets were added after the Ottoman conquest.

But that squat, domed building is very different from the inside. The architectural design allows for a huge open space without any central supports inside the building. The central dome is one hundred and eighty feet from floor to ceiling. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in architecture for a building built entirely of stone almost fifteen hundred years ago.

After the ottoman empire’s conquest of the city in the 1500’s, it was converted into a mosque and its frescoes were plastered over. Now, only a few frescoes can be seen.

One of the frescoes still visible
Mosaic that wasn’t plastered over (or was restored, I guess I don’t know which for sure)

The Blue Mosque. After the ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the sultan wanted to build a mosque that would surpass the Hagia Sofia in beauty. He built the Sultanahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque. The thousands of tiles painted with blue designs that line the interior give it is name. Because it is still an active mosque, it is closed off and on throughout the day for prayer.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque–I thought I ahd a better shot of it than this. This doesn’t really show the domes.

The construction served very similar to me to that on the Hagia Sofia. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take get a true feel for how it looks because the interior was under renovation and we couldn’t see the large central dome from the inside.

One of the many small domes in the Blue Mosque

Topakapi Palace. From the 15th through the 17th cetruries, the Topakapi palace was royal headquarters of the Sultans in the Ottoman Empire. It is the second of three palaces constructed during the Ottoman dynasty. Amended and remodeled over the centuries, it contains several courtyards, a huge kitchen, an armory, and the Harem (which our guide claimed is not what you think it is). It also houses one of the world’s largest cut diamonds and a Topakapi dagger, a dagger made famous in a heist film from the 60’s. This was our last cultural heritage stop in Turkey. It was a cool place, but hard to appreciate after two and a half months of museums and cultural heritage sites.

Despite the beautiful blue tiles of the Topakapi Harem, we were all pretty museumed out at that point.
Inlay wood, abalone, and mother of pearl doors

The Bosphorous. Part of Turkey’s historic (and current) strategic location is its position across the bosphorous—one of two narrow passages of water that ultimately connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea. As such, it is inherently important for both military and commerce.

Bosphorous cruise

We rode one of the many ships that ply the Bosphorous. No free hot chocolate aboard the boat was a real let down for Jane and Nolan, but we did see dophins.

View from the Bosphorous at night

After the boat tour, we stopped for a famous Istanbul staple–belik ekmek or fish sandwich. It was a mackerel fillet fresh caught and grilled on a boat tied to the wharf. I liked it but no one else would try it except Nolan who still talks about how good it was (I don’t think he actually got any fish in his bite, but the idea of eating fresh caught fish is appealing to him).

Belik ekmek

Turkish Hamam. I could write an entire post about my experience in the Turkish Bath. We had planned that I would go first while Ashley was with the kids and then she would go later. After my experience, she decided not to go. It was’t a bad experience though. I’ll briefly describe it.

I had heard that the baths were quite beautiful so I selected a historic bath designed by some illustrious architect. It was lined with white marble and had a domed roof with small round windows to let in natural light.

Inside the Cumberlitas hammam. Photo courtesy goistanbul.com

A Turkish bath starts in a steam room where your sit and warm yourself and bath with warm water from a basin. Next, an attendant calls you from the steam room to the bathing till and bathes you while you sit on a marble slab. Then he uses a loofah mitt to exfoliate you, again while you site on a marble slab. It’s a serious business. During the exfoliation process, you can see the skin peeling off like a sunburn. It was somewhere between mildly and moderately painful. I am pretty sure he forgot to exfoliate my back, but when I asked him about it he assured me he had. He offered to scrub it again, but I worried about the possible consequences of a double scrub in the event that he really had already done it .

After the exfoliation follows a frothy bubble soap down and massage while you lie on a warm marble slab. This was the only relaxing part of the experience.

At the end of it all, I asked the front desk how this differs from a traditional Turkish bath experience. “Since at this bath, 90% of our clients are foreigners, the exfoliation is much gentler.”

I don’t know if I could handle the native experience.

The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. One of the largest and oldest indoor bazaars in the world, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is a maze of small shops selling Turkish delight, jewelry, rugs, ceramics, “genuine fake” watches, and everything else imaginable. I think we made it out of there without anything besides a few toys and trinkets and a little bit of honey.

Nolan getting a personalized crossbow

I plan on writing one more post about Turkey, including one of our neatest experiences with a Turkish family we met. Here are some more photos from around Istanbul.

Trick ice cream