Hotel Empress Zoe

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul Turkey
The Hagia Sofia, Near the Hotel Empress Zoe

The word’s out about Zoe. A few weeks ago, a friend and I just tried to book into the Hotel Empress Zoe— one of my favorite hotels anywhere on the planet– and it was already sold out for September. Last time I visited, I made a reservation only a week before I arrived.

Because the scarcity is a sign of the hotel’s excellence and an indicator of Istanbul’s growing popularity as a destination,  it just means you have to plan ahead. Further ahead than you may like at certain times of year, but the Hotel Empress Zoe is definitely worth it: wonderfully friendly and helpful staff, a great central location, and unique touches that always remind you that you’re in enchanting Istanbul. 

Situated in the Sultanhamet, staying at the Empress Zoe puts you within walking distance of the iconic and astounding Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and Topkapi Palace, among several other essential Istanbul sites. You’ll be well-fuelled for sightseeing with the excellent coffee and delicious breakfast buffet, which you can eat in the hotel’s lovely garden.

Before or after seeing the sights, you can recline on a a comfortable daybed that’s covered in Turkish textiles. (Many of the hotel’s rooms and suites have daybeds and other unique extras, like marble hamam style bathrooms.) The daybed in my room was perfect for reading the works of Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning author who weaves so much of Istanbul and Turkey into his transformative writing.

Sometimes, you’re sad when a great gem of a hotel gets popular. But other times, you think, well, they deserve the success. The folks who own and run the Hotel Empress Zoe definitely deserve every success. So if you’re fixing to go to Turkey, plan ahead so that you can stay at one of the most welcoming and unique places I’ve ever stayed in my travels.

The Hotel Empress Zoe’s Web Site: http://www.emzoe.com/
More About Orhan Pamuk: http://www.orhanpamuk.net/

Do You Corfu?

Fortress, Corfu Town
Stunning Views in Corfu Town

Before we begin, we would like to wish Prince Philip (aka the Queen of England’s hubby), a very happy birthday. Prince Philip was born on Corfu on the date of this entry’s publication a whopping 4 score and a decade ago. If you believe the newspapers, Prince Philip would probably welcome my greeting by saying something inappropriate to me, but you get to do what you want when you’re 90 and were once, according to lore, smuggled from your island home in a fruit basket as a wee tot.

Fortunately, you do not need to get to and from Corfu in such dire modes of transport. While the rusty little ferry that brings you to Corfu from Igoumenitsa is certainly not confidence-inspiring, the ferries aren’t near as cramped as a fruit basket would be. Of course, with all the budget airlines now, you can also fly to Corfu very  easily and avoid the rust bucket ferries, but getting to an iconic Greek isle by boat– even rusty ones with engines that make ominous grinding sounds– is all part of the adventure.

Though many flock to Corfu for relaxing villa holidays on the island’s somewhat less populated shores, staying in cosmopolitan Corfu Town for a few days provides a nice mix of seaside relaxation with the pleasant bustle of an island town. (It’s a particularly good idea to stay in Corfu Town if you visit during the off-season; the rest of the island can get a little too mellow when it’s not the height of tourist time.) 

As befitting a place on UNESCO’s world heritage list, Corfu’s old town has an interesting mix of architecture that comes from being a point of interest for the numerous empires that perpetually harrassed it (the Venetians, the Turks, and the British, to name a few).  To look back even further into the island’s more mythical past, the Archeological Museum of Corfu offers an impressive collection of artifacts from around the island, and is worth the hour or two it takes to visit. (I particularly liked a very nice reconstructed temple frieze of Medusa, the original femme fatale.) NB: Keep in mind that many Greek establishments regularly keep slightly irregular hours; with the troubles in Greece at present, staffing at even large museums has been a problem. As the museum’s not too far from the town center, it  might be a good idea to visit and see when opening times are. (No matter what’s going on, a lot of museums all over Greece seem to shut after 2ish or 3ish).

For a nice, easy walk from the town center, head out to Villa Mon Repos. The Villa is Prince Philip’s birthplace and is encircled by lovely parkland open to the public. Level footpaths take you around a good assortment of moss-covered ruins that are nestled in a pleasantly shady forest. And the shade is prized; even in the winter months, Corfu can be very hot.

Corfu Town Harbor
Lovely Harbor, Corfu Town

Back in town after our rambles in nature and along the Ionian sea, my husband and I really enjoyed staying at the Hotel Cavalieri. The hotel has a great location right in the town center, next to a slew of cafes and bars that stay open well into dawn. The hotel’s roof bar offers stunning views, making the roof deck popular with locals when it’s open in season. Our neat, clean room also had a lovely view of the sea.  

In addition to lovely vistas, Corfu Town also offers a more meat-tastic highlight– the perfect gyro. In an admittedly obsessive quest to taste the best gyro in Greece, my husband and I found one of the strongest contenders in Corfu Town. We ate the gyro of our dreams (enrobed in some kind of delicious, tangy brown sauce) at the “O Ninoe” taverna at least once a day. The other homestyle Greek food served there was also compelling and drew a fairly large local following, but our hearts were stuck on the gyro.

Of course, there’s lots of seafood to choose from in Corfu as well, which can be enjoyed at numerous seaside restaurants. However, our taste for calamari quickly tapered off after seeing numerous locals catching octopi on our walks. Was it the severed chicken foot used as bait? Was it the sick wet thwacking sound as the fisherman brained the octopus on seaside rocks? One never knows with such sudden culinary aversions. Suffice it to say that this spectacle focused our minds even more on the meaty delights of O Ninoe and all the pleasures that can be found away from the seaside in Corfu’s lovely, well-preserved old town.

Coordinates —

Beer Culture, Prague Style

After arriving in Prague and having the rather dreadful experience of getting ripped off by a prick taxi driver and needing to be saved by the kindly porter at our elegant hotel, my husband and I were naturally wary of what Prague held in store for us. Also rather naturally, we were quite thirsty after the small misadventure and our train trip.

Castle District, Prague
The Sights of Prague (Pre-Pivo)

Though Prague can occasionally frustrate visitors looking for an experience that doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re merely visiting a new section of Epcot’s international village or a run-down suburb of Milwaukee, pretty much anything in Prague involving good Czech beer never lets you down.

And the one place to go in Prague for good Czech beer is the Golden Tiger, or U ZLATEHO TYGRA. (I believe this is truly translated as “At the Golden Tiger” but that’s a bit unwieldy for a bar name, particularly after several steins.) In fact, I’d put my money on the Golden Tiger’s being one of the best beer bars in the world. In terms of the convivial beer hallish variety of beer bars, the Golden Tiger is, thus far, the best I have ever visited and is an epicenter of “Beer Culture.” (More on that later.)

When you go into the Golden Tiger, even if you’re there right when the place opens at 3 p.m., there will already be old guys well into their first stein, shooting the breeze at their regular table. Indeed, some of these old guys may be poets and philosophers, which means that, now, after the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, they may also be politicians. (The extraordinary Vaclav Havel has been known to frequent the Golden Tiger, among other Czech notables.)

As you enter, don’t be alarmed by the very focused man behind the counter who is wielding a knife and smacking it on the tops of the steins. He’s merely knocking the extra head off the top of the beer for your sipping pleasure. Sadly, as an experienced American beer drinker, I’m more accustomed to the popping of can flip-tops than the cheerful slaps of a cool beer head knife.

Some seats will be reserved, and the time the seats are reserved for will be marked on the reserved sign. You can sit in the place if it’s reserved until the time shown. If you get there at 3 p.m., however, you should be able to score a free, unreserved seat. The tables are long and large and meant for all to share, which means that, after a few steins, when the place gets even busier, you’ll get to meet some really cool Czech people, like we did.

A man will come with steins of beer, marvelous beer. And he’ll keep coming until you loudly and forcefully indicate that he should stop bringing you beer. None of this whispered, “Ahem, excuse me…” business.  If you act dainty in your request for no more beer, the beer man will just keep bringing you steins until you are happily boisterous enough to feign passing out while laughing very loudly. (I believe that the beer man does this ritual largely for his own amusement and I relished playing the role of very happy inebriated person so accurately.)    

The more steins are consumed, the louder things get. This is, of course, because everyone starts talking and laughing with everyone else, which is the true meaning of “Beer Culture.” Beer Culture as a concept was explained to us by two really nice Czech chicks. (We were lucky enough to sit with them at a shared table.) 

Here are a few of the Beer Culture commandments. (I think I learned many more, but there is an inverse relationship between quantity of beer consumed and quality of memories retained).   

  1. Beer should have some head on it; beer without a head is unacceptable, flat piss. This is the reason for the knife-wielding barman: to get the head perfect.
  2. Beer should be drunk only from quality glass steins, never from plastic.
  3. Beer should be fairly cold so as to be refreshing, never warm, and definitely not near freezing.
  4. Beer should be enjoyed only with other people present, preferably in places with shared tables like the Golden Tiger.
  5. Drinking beer in public establishments means you will get beer on tap, the best way to enjoy beer (versus beer in cans or bottles which can never truly have a proper head, see rule #1).
  6. Beer should be brought to you continually until you cannot stop laughing. The beer should be brought by an expert beer server who can professionally assess your level of drunkenness.
  7. Beer is best consumed with a plate of cold or hot sausages.

This is where my recollection of the commandments drops off a bit. Around this point in the evening, I do recall that some very muscular Czech men who were sitting next to us generously shared slices of smoked meat from an enormous platter. From what I can remember, the meat and sausage platter was very tasty, and indeed, a fine accompaniment to our great Czech beer, per the rules of Beer Culture.

Though the meat and the beer were excellent, they didn’t hold a candle to the good people of Prague, who were so generous to share one of their local drinking institutions with us. Chalk one up for Beer Culture.

Coordinates:
At the Golden Tiger/U ZLATEHO TYGRA is easy to find and is right in the town center. Just look for a line of old men gathering outside a pub-like shop front around 3 p.m. when the place opens.

Husova 228/17
110 00 Prague
1 STARE MISTO

Web: Though this site is in Czech, they have a nice map showing you where this temple to Beer Culture is located. http://www.uzlatehotygra.cz/uzlatehotygra.cz/Pivnice.html

Mitteleuropa Trains & Taxis

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
The End of the Tracks – Berlin

For the European leg of our round-the-world trip, I wanted to take my husband to see some of the great sights in Central and Eastern Europe. We were committed to doing as much as we could by train. Our trusty Eurail flexipass was a great purchase, and we definitely got our money’s worth.

Starting out in Budapest, we took the train to Vienna on an Austrian express train. The Austrians, like their German cousins, know trains. Fast, clean, and efficient. Other than a few industrial wasteland blips, this is a beautiful train trip, passing through some nice countryside.

From Vienna, we took the train to Krakow. Poland is where everything starts to fall apart on train trips in this part of the world. In its post-Communist boom, Poland has unfortunately invested in building shiny new airports rather than improving their antiquated train systems. This makes train journeys requiring any changes really confusing and nearly all trips really damn long. A nice Polish girl from Gdansk who worked in Krakow confessed that she didn’t see her family in Gdansk that often since the train trip took up to 16 hours if things didn’t work according to plan. She astutely pointed out that things involving Polish rail never work according to plan.  

I concur. Just plan on being stuck in the unpleasant, dark, coal-stained train station in Katowice for a while if you’re trying to train around this lovely, must-see region of Poland. At the Katowice station, you will be in good company as the Poles seem equally confused by the inaccurate departure boards and equally outraged when the random announcements requiring you to sprint across the station also turn out to be incorrect. I’ve done this trip twice, and this exact experience has happened to me twice. (Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.)

Furhermore, each time I have taken the trip to Krakow (once from Berlin, this last time from Vienna), I have traversed much of the countryside at night. Curiously, each time, I have seen hundreds of large unattended fires burning in the fields around the train tracks. I mean hundreds of fires. So many fires, in fact, that on the night train from Berlin, my normally calm college buddy became mildly alarmed. It looked like we were taking the train right into the set of some old spooky 1930’s black and white horror movie where the villagers burn monsters and witches.

When I inquired about what agricultural practice this may have been related to, my Polish interlocutors shrugged. Either the fires are not related to agricultural practices or their rationale is known only to those dwelling in the fields near the train tracks. (If anyone has a clue, please let me know.)  

Though all these cautionary tales may scare you off taking the train around Poland, you definitely want to get to Krakow somehow. If you do take the train, on arrival, you find yourself in a busy station in the midst of one of Europe’s busiest shopping malls. It’s supremely confusing. (Note: Somewhat counter-intuitively, even though you aren’t underground when you arrive, you go up to catch a taxi.) However, the nice folks at the tourist office in the train station are really helpful, offering you guidance on how to find taxis, how to get to your hotel, and where to eat their favorite kielbasa and pierogi.

After a few wonderful days in Krakow, we left for Prague very early in the morning. Because it was daylight and because there weren’t hundreds of unattended fires burning spookily beside the tracks, this was a more pleasant train trip than our journey to Krakow. Some Communist-era blight is definitely visible, but its an interesting juxtaposition with the lovely countryside.

On arrival in Prague, the station made sense, and we easily navigated the station’s signs pointing us to the taxi rank. These taxi signs are official. They are made of plastic, mounted in an illuminated box, with very substantial screws anchoring them to the train station ceiling. They look like any other official taxi sign you see in any other city in the world.

Except this is a taxi rank like no other. It is actually a queue of criminals in cars looking for their next mark. Which is you.

We entered the taxi, telling the thick-necked, mustachioed driver the name of our hotel while also showing him the address. The driver proffered a dirty map of Prague over his faux-leather jacketed shoulder, grunting “20 Euros.” As it had been a long time since I had traveled to Prague by train, I assumed I had arrived at the station on the outskirts of town and agreed to the fare.

Precisely two minutes later, after leaving the circular station exit, we arrived at our hotel, which was across the street from the Central Station. The driver cheerily demanded his 20 Euro fare for taking us approximately 50 feet.

My husband, quite understandably, went berserk. As I attempted to place myself between my raging Jesus-lookalike life partner and the shouting thuggish brute of a taxi driver, the kindly (and blessedly strapping) porter of our very nice hotel approached.

After a few words of fairly pointed delivery in Czech from the porter, the mustachioed taxi driver looked sheepishly at his feet, still growling slightly, but clearly broken. Though the man had tried to bilk us out of $30 in a failure that was both professional (taxi drivers should be experts at showing you their towns) and personal (any human should give honest directions to any other human), I felt bad for him as he had clearly been shamed by the porter’s words.

In spite of this minor tinge of pity, I was still fairly angry myself, so threw 5 Euros on the ground in front of the dejected taxi driver. (It probably sounds strange that I paid any money at all, but I like to remove ammo from any cheat’s complaint arsenal about Americans who don’t pay their way, etc.) My husband and I grabbed our suitcases and entered our hotel, leaving the driver to pick up his “hard-earned” cash and wheel briskly away.

On asking the porter what had transpired, he shook his head, shamefaced. In a confessional tone, the porter advised us that the majority of Prague’s taxi drivers are not reputable. He advised us that we should only take a taxi when it had been arranged by the hotel or by the establishment we were trying to leave. When I asked whether this was true of the official cabs, he accurately pointed out that it was an official cab that had just tried to cheat us.

Then, I asked him what he said to the taxi driver to get results so quickly. Apparently, the porter pointed out that, were the taxi driver ever lucky enough to visit America, the porter doubted that anyone in America would shame the nation by cheating its guests.  

Though I informed the porter that this might be an over-estimation of American hospitality and honesty, I had to admit that it was hard to envision such egregious abuse of tourists back in the States. I’ve had American cabs try to take me the long way to add a buck or two to the fare, but I’ve never had any other cab in the world try to charge me 20 Euros for 50 feet.

Though this incident constituted my husband’s first hour in Prague and was thus not a great first impression for him, we had a lovely time in the city and met some amazing Czech people in one of the world’s best beer bars, the illustrious Golden Tiger. On departure, we drove toward the station on the outskirts of Prague where a shiny German train would take us across some lovely countryside to Berlin. We left our hotel in a town car arranged by the kindly porter, of course.

Greece & Istanbul by Train

Cerulean Waters & Sky on the Ferry to Corfu, Greece
Rusty Ferry to Corfu, but Great View

When my husband and I embarked on our trip around the world in 2009, one of our goals for the European leg of our trip was to get from Ireland to Istanbul without taking an airplane. Some countries made achieving this goal easier than others.

Greece was not one of them. Admittedly, we were traveling in the off-season. However, in some respects, traveling via ferry and train around Greece may always constitute an off season, particularly if you’re headed to places slightly off the beaten path. NB: Most places outside of Athens are “off the beaten path” when it comes to Greek public transport.

Getting to Greece from Italy, however, is easy and enjoyable. Superfast Ferries from Italy to Greece are really great. The boat we took from Bari to Igoumenitsa was like a nice cruise ship. (If you have a Eurail pass valid in both Italy and Greece, this passage is free. With our Eurail pass, my husband and I got a discount for booking a private cabin which I strongly recommend if you are over 20 and undertaking this route.)

Our cabin allowed us to sleep peacefully in blissful quiet, versus trying to grab some shut-eye amidst the cacophony made by drunk, card-playing Russian sailors in the ferry’s public area. As a result, we were able to arrive in Greece somewhat rested. Having our wits about us on arrival was important since getting the ferry to Corfu from Igoumenitsa at dawn was none too easy, and involved a long walk to a separate ferry terminal amidst speeding semi-trucks on a ferry loading dock, a short yet intensely scary chase by feral dogs, and a complete lack of signage about which rust bucket local ferry was going where.

With peeling sheets of rust, an inordinate amount of grinding noises, and an unwholesome amount of smoke coming from the motor, many of the smaller ferries operating within Greece appear to be of questionable seaworthiness. Many of the ferries operating between islands or to/from the mainland also smell like over-used bathrooms and the sanitizer used to cover that aroma, particularly boats plying the route to Patra. 

The ferries shuttling passengers around the Greek isles and to the Greek mainland claim to operate on strict seasonal schedules, often outlined in colorful glossy brochures or on semi-official looking flyers. Don’t be fooled. These schedules are ignored 50% of the time as the off-season approaches, and 80% of the time during the actual off-season.

In Greece, the best place to find a current schedule for ferries is by going to a ferry company’s portside office and reading the hours that a well-meaning employee has scratched on a napkin taped to the door. If there is no napkin bearing a revised schedule, merely camp out for hours or days at the ferry port until a ship comes. Get on the ship if it’s even remotely going in your desired direction. It may be the last boat visiting the port you’re at for some time. The crew could be stuck on a Greek train, after all.

Greek trains make the British train system look amazingly efficient. (Remember: the UK is a country where trains are frequently delayed due to “leaves on the rail.”) Greek citizens will nervously ask you, the non-Greek speaking tourist, where and when trains are going. I don’t blame them. There are no destination signs in stations or on trains. Clocks in Greek train stations do not tell time. Most Greek trains will make you miss the ferry bathroom smell, as the train cars seem to reek of a dying or long-since-dead-and-now-quite-rotten old goat.  

Even if, after my Cassandra-like warnings about Greek transport, you are as obsessed as we were about taking the train to Istanbul from Greece, first take the train from Athens to Thessaloniki. At Athens Central, a station so small that we wondered if our taxi driver took us to the right place, we encountered a kind, hilarious station agent who had once lived in California. When we told him of our plans to take the train to Istanbul, he asked in all seriousness, “Why take the train when you can fly?”

Aside from the phantom stench of long-dead farm animals that wafted into our first class car, the trip from Athens to Thessaloniki was one of the most beautiful train trips we took in Europe. Thessaloniki also merits a few days’ visit. A magnificent cosmopolitan and cultured port city with a lively cafe and nightlife culture, Thessaloniki was our favorite spot on mainland Greece.

Once you get to Thessaloniki, a day or two in advance in the off-season (much longer if it’s summer), be sure to make your reservations for a sleeper on the overnight train to Turkey at the Thessaloniki station. The Thessaloniki station desk is used to booking this route, so you shouldn’t have any difficulty. (If you have a Eurail pass valid in Greece, there’s only a small supplement for the Turkish portion of the trip.)

Before leaving Thessaloniki, buy things to eat and drink. Dining cars are an uncertain feature. A jolly conductor did cook something in a flimsy hot pot-type contraption full of scalding water and charged people for this, but I don’t think this culinary effort was approved by the rail company. The same man also sold ouzo shots to passengers, but this also may have been a one-time-only entrepreneurial initiative. Before boarding the train, be sure to stock up on lots of water to hydrate and beer or wine to knock yourself out. The raucous late-night celebrations emanating from the ouzo-loving conductors can keep you awake if you don’t have your own alcohol.

Our night train from Thessaloniki to Istanbul seemed to be the exact same SNCF train I took overnight in France in 1989. It also appeared that it hadn’t been cleaned since then. All the signs were still in French, which was a blessing, as I can read French but not Greek. Being able to understand the instructions about operating the emergency brake seemed to be a good idea, in the event a drunk conductor or two fell off the train. (On the bright side, since the hard-partying conductors needed a strong start in the morning, the Greek coffee they made and sold as dawn broke was sublime.)

Should you ultimately decide to undertake the voyage over sea and land, crossing Greece to Istanbul, you will see only other travelers like you, peeping out from their bunks to avoid the smell of their own old socks, living the romance of life on the rails.

You will not see any Greeks or Turks. They are smart enough to fly this route instead.