Annchen

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If you have had long haul flights, chances are you’ve had to deal with one of every traveler’s worst airport nightmares: the long-ass layover. And honestly, if you aren’t filthy rich, endorsed, expensing your business trip or just plain crazy, chances are they are not that easy to really enjoy. Maybe you pay up and lounge it out, but options are slim if you aren’t looking to spend a whole lot of money.

Upon returning to London from Bangkok last week Joel and I had the longest layover ever (without accommodation). FOURTEEN HOURS at Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. And with a visa-less South African passport that’s quite an amount of time.

I mean, that’s a short lifetime right there.

So when we heard about Qatar Airways’ FREE Doha City Tour, we were ALL OVER IT.

Basically, Qatar Airways are able to take up to 22 of their transit passengers on a complimentary tour of the city’s capital four times a day – it’s as easy as checking in at the city tour booth, and then gathering back there an hour before the tour’s departure time. They organise free visas, an air-conditioned bus (this is essential), an english-speaking tour guide (again, essential) – and all you have to do is show up.

Where they take you depends on the time of day and the traffic, but after we all got through border security and into the bus we were taken to Dhow Harbour, where we stopped for 5 minutes to get out and look at New Doha’s skyline from across the bay and I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Arts on the other side.

After that we were walked through the heart of the Katara Cultural Village, which is a recent development that is  a centre for cultural production with theatres, exhibition centres, public sculptures, gardens, beautiful mosques and some traditional Arabian bird houses.

Doha's promenade and a glimpse of it's amazing skyline

Doha’s promenade and a glimpse of it’s amazing skyline

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Traditional Arabian bird houses in Katara

Traditional Arabian bird houses in Katara

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The beautiful, glossy amphitheatre in Katara

The beautiful, glossy amphitheatre in Katara

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Our little group in front of Turkish architect Zainab Fadil Oglu’s masjid  🙂

 

Taking the 4pm tour had its pros and cons. One of the cons was that we had to drive through the city during rush hour, but a major pro was being out in the city during sunset, when all the lights come on and the uniqueness of this glowing desert city hugging the Persian Gulf really becomes apparent.

So when we finally got to the Souq Waqif, a traditional Arabian market, and the sun gently started setting behind the stone-coloured world, it really beat coming up with something to do on your tenth hour during a layover at Hamad International Airport. We strolled around, trying some Arabian sweets, taking in this new landscape that we got to explore. I even got to have one of my favourite desserts – dondurma, a Turkish speciality that also happens to be the best kind of ice cream in the world – which was a welcome treat in 38°C weather (although I’ve been known to eat dondurma outside while it’s snowing).

Exploring the Souq Waqif

Exploring the Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

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I will ALWAYS say yes to dondurma

I will ALWAYS say yes to dondurma

We drove back to the airport having been able to discover a whole new, vastly different landscape that is Doha, Qatar. What better way to spend your layover getting to explore a new city…for free?

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Souq Waqif at sunset

Souq Waqif at sunset

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P.S. We are not getting paid to say this – we just genuinely thought it was so awesome of Qatar Airways to offer this tour.

After a short flight from London to Reykjavik and one night’s sleep in a cozy AirBnb in the capital, we woke up ready to explore the crazy unique country that everybody has been raving about. We have been dreaming about a trip to Iceland, and when morning came we were more than ready to start our roadtrip by taking on the 300km loop that is the Golden Circle.

GETTING OUT OF THE CITY

Getting out of Reykjavik was so easy, and the transition from city to wilderness happened to suddenly that it seemed so surreal; It was hardly believable as the landscape changed from the grey concrete streets of Reykjavik to snowy hills, with patches of yellowy green moss and black, volcanic earth contrasting the white. And in less than 30 minutes the horizon had disappeared into the white of the cloudy sky, with bright blue frozen pools here-and-there becoming the only distinguishable feature between one stretch of land and the next.

Our first glimpse of the wilderness beyond the grey capital

Our first glimpse of the wilderness beyond the grey capital

Then it quickly changes to this

And then the nothingness of the white

And then all of a sudden the nothingness of the white, marked by bright blue frozen water

That is until the earth gradually dips down to reveal Iceland’s largest natural lake, the Thingvallavatn lake with its icy dark blue-grey waters reaching a depth of 114 meters. Our first stop lies at its northern shore, so we take some photos before we hop back in our rental and head over to Thingvellir National Park.

The road around Thingvallavatn lake

The road around Thingvallavatn lake

Snow on snow - Iceland in Spring

Snow on snow – Iceland in Spring

THINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK

Iceland’s parliament (Althing) was established in 1930 (this is also the world’s first parliament), about fifty years after a Norwegian chieftain became the first permanent settler. Everyone who lived in Iceland came together for a few weeks during the summer and the laws were read from the Law Rock (Lögberg). Because Thingvellir is located in a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian Tectonic plates meet, it has been subject to enormous change over the past 1000 years (spreading around 2.5cm annually) and no one knows exactly where the law rock was, but the estimated location has been marked with an Icelandic flagpole.

Not only is it historically important and beautifully impressive, but you can get a clear sense of the geological significance if you take a walk next to a rock outcrop marking the Eastern edge of the Mid-Atlantic ridge. Walking here means being able to see, for a few brief moments, what is only visible everywhere else deep underneath the ocean. It is witnessing the movement and breath of our earth, seeing oceanic crust being formed above sea level.

The easternmost edge of the mid-atlantic ridge shows its head above the earth's surface for a few brief miles.

The easternmost edge of the mid-atlantic ridge shows its head above the earth’s surface for a few brief miles.

Joel walking in between two tectonic plates!

The estimated site of Lögberg

The estimated site of Lögberg

GEYSERS

When we got out of car, we weren’t sure if we were still on this earth that we were familiar with. Amidst the dark earth and yellowy-green moss there were pockets of steam rising to the sky as far as we could see, and as we headed across the bubbling earth into the steaming landscape the feeling of otherworldliness intensified.

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When you see pockets of boiling water sputtering on the surface of deep vents and clouds of steam rising from the ground, the realness of this earth is hard to comprehend – it’s surreal. It almost feels like Iceland is the door that leads to the earth’s core, to its beating heart. You become aware of the movement and the activity of the earth, the fact that the countries and continents are fluid and is still developing, that the earth is constantly shifting and moving, laden with pressure, underneath the surface.

Then there’s also the squeals of joy every 3 to 5 minutes as Strokkur erupts, theatrically shooting boiling hot water 30 meters into the air, followed by a billowing cloud of steam.

Visiting the geysers means visiting a magical yet undeniably real place, that is made up of moments of wonder, joy, awe and the awareness of something much bigger than yourself.

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'Little Strokkur' ferociously and ceaselessly bubbling

‘Little Strokkur’ bubbles ferociously and ceaselessly

Strokkur geyser shoots boiling hot water 30 meters into the air every 5ish minutes

Strokkur geyser shoots boiling hot water 30 meters into the air every 5ish minutes

Strokkur geyser shoots boiling hot water 30 meters into the air every 5ish minutes

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GULLFOSS

If the awareness of something much bigger than yourself becomes apparent while traversing a boiling and steaming landscape, it culminates into an undeniable force when you encounter Gullfoss waterfall about 10 minutes’ drive later. Speechless, we edged closer and closer to this mighty waterfall, watching from multiple viewpoints as masses and masses of water cascade down its two tiers, framed by glacial ice formations, seemingly on the edge of breaking apart with a single, deep crack.

We watched the tumbling masses of water for as long as daylight allowed us, before we jumped back in our car (and frantically turned up the heating) and drove off to explore further – with hearts full of nature’s glory and minds fatigued with the newness of Iceland’s crazy and strange landscapes.

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The sun was already slowly setting on our first day in Iceland. We had spent the entire day exploring Þingvellir National Park and were on our way to Vík, where we were sleeping over that night. However, a quick detour into the mountainous valleys on the south coast in search of the secret Seljavallalaug geothermal pool turned out to be one of the best, most special little excursions of our travels yet.

This little destination is not in any of the travel guide books (yet), and so we relied on a myriad of directions from multiple travel blogs. Some described it as a 10 minute walk, others account of how they trudged around through thick snow for 40-odd minutes. Expecting anything between an easy 10 minute and a confusing 40 minute walk, we plugged the exact location into Google Maps and followed the road as far as we could.

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FINDING THE SECRET SWIMMING POOL

Turning left off the main road, we followed the road as it bent to the right, past a couple of lonely houses on the bottom of the mountain slopes. We parked our car at the end of the road, in what seemed like an indiscriminate dirt ‘parking lot’, feeling a little surreal as we bundled our swimsuits, some beers and a towel in our backpack in the 4°C weather. We headed towards the valley, crossing a stream or two on the way. The trick is just to follow the river upstream into the valley, as you can’t see the pool until you’re right by it. It’s a short and easy walk – 10, maybe 15 minutes – and it is so worth it when, all of sudden, the pool materialises before your eyes, set against Iceland’s snow-capped mountains, mossy greens, and crystal-clear, cyan-blue water.

Head into the valley

Head into the valley

Hop over some mountain springs

Hop over some mountain springs

And there it is

And there it is, with the steam rising from the rocks

You can see the steam rising from the rocks as it trickles into the pool, its water ranging between 30 and 40°C (like between lukewarm bathwater and nice & hot bathwater), depending on how close you are to the pipe that leads most of the water into the pool. We changed into our bathing suits in the handy little changing rooms, and shivered as we tiptoed to the pool ladder. Then we submerged our freezing bodies in the wonderfully (and naturally) warm waters with big sighs of relief.

It is something so simple, yet so extraordinary – wading around in geothermal water in Iceland’s oldest pool (built in 1923 so that the locals could learn how to swim), secluded in the quiet solitude of a gorgeous valley that is just breaking into Spring. We will never forget this experience, and we love Iceland for it.

The unbelievable setting

The unbelievable setting. #nofilter. For real.

 

Seljavallalaug pool

Sweet memories of our cold bodies in the naturally warm water

Driving through the West of Turkey was one of the most wonderful travel experiences – without knowing much in terms of what to expect from the landscape, we saw the earth rising up to snow-capped mountainous peaks, dip low into fertile valleys, open up to reveal beautifully placid lakes, and sink into the cyan-blue of the mediterranean sea. All of this intermittently occupied by Roman and Byzantine ruins, dusty little Turkish towns and the wonderfully warm Spring sun, often bathing the landscape in golden hues. Turkey is just a gorgeous country, and a road trip is the best way to see just how diverse and gorgeous it is.

Our free upgrade treated us well :)

Our free upgrade treated us well 🙂

We had lived in Istanbul for a couple of months last year during the off-season and while tourists gradually started wandering up our street looking for the Museum of Innocence towards the end of our stay, we packed our backpacks and took the road when it was still relatively quiet in the rest of the country (which is perhaps one of the best parts of the road trip).

DISCLAIMER: Our quirky cats get to stay at my mom’s house when we do cool things, but for this road trip my mom and her fiancé actually joined us allll the way from South Africa, so they got handed over to a friend. So technically not “two cats at mom’s”, but this itinerary still made the cut. 🙂

Day 1: Into the Woods

Istanbul – Bolu

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We picked up our car and fought our way into Asia and out of Istanbul (a seriously crazy city to drive in or out of) until we found the open road hugging the narrowing East end of the Marmara Sea, mountain peaks with with snow hugging the opposite shore. We were barely out of Istanbul and it was the first taste of the beauty of the Turkish landscape that we would soon encounter in abundance.

A few hours later we arrived at Yedigöller (‘Seven Lakes’) National Park – a beautiful, mountainous area covered with lush forests and wildflowers and lakes and rivers. We followed our noses up the mountain, where it got greener and greener, higher and higher, colder and colder, until we were driving into a magical white flurry. Even higher it started snowing just a bit harder and we felt like this must be the road to heaven. We stopped to admire the freshest, softest, whitest snow, and eventually made our way down the mountain while the snow covered everything we just saw under her veil.

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Day 2: The Cotton Castle at Sunset

Bolu – Pamukkale

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A very long drive ended in the Denizli district, with the white travertine of Pamukkale glistening against the side of a mountain in the distance. We arrived there just before sunset, at about 18.30, which happened to be just perfect, because all the buses had already left with all the other tourists, it was the perfect time for photographs (the sun reflects very harshly on the white surface of the travertine), and it was open for three more hours.

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Pamukkale, meaning ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish, is a site where natural hot springs and travertines were formed against the side of a mountain. It cascades down in naturally-formed terraces, each filled with pleasantly warm water, appearing brilliantly blue against the white of the limestone. It has been used as a spa ever since the ancient city of Hierapolis was built above it over 2000 years ago. We wandered through these ruins and the wildflowers that grow around them, all bathed in sunlight, and then we dipped our feet in the milky warm waters of the Cotton Castle.

The amphitheatre at Hierapolis

The amphitheatre at Hierapolis

Hierapolis ruins at sunset

Hierapolis ruins at sunset

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Day 3: Secret Turkey

Pamukkale – Fethiye

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We set out to visit Kaklık Caves the next morning (all the while giggling because it sounds a lot like ‘shit’ in our native language), understanding it to be like a small Pamukkale in an underground cave. We arrived at a tiny gravel car park (again, the only car), found some lone person who issued us 5 lira tickets (less than 2 USD!) and we followed the slippery wooden steps downstairs. By downstairs I mean we followed them under the earth. Before we even submerged into the cave we could see the brilliant, aquamarine-blue water glistening in the sun. And then it felt like we had stepped into a sauna as we traversed what seemed like an other-worldly terrain. It was wonderfully maintained and spectacularly beautiful, we were the only people there and we all agreed that Kaklık Caves can definitely hold its own next to its much more famous sister-site.

Descending into the cave

Descending into the cave

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We then headed over to Laodikeia, still in the Denizli area, which is another significant ancient city – it’s claim to fame is that it is home to one of the ‘Seven Churches of Asia’ mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. It is an enormous site – its excavated ruins sprawled over hectares of green grass, framed by snow-capped mountains and overlooking a lush valley dipping into a river below. We roamed around, welcoming the hot Spring sun, before we hit the road again.

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Amphitheatre at Laodikeia

Amphitheatre at Laodikeia

It was a short drive to Fethiye, but one of the most scenic legs of the trip. We followed the windy road through the mountains, stopping halfway at a roadside pitstop to drink some tea on a somewhat rickety porch overhanging yet another breathtaking valley with snowy mountains looming before and behind us.

Feeling lucky and happy.

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scenic tea stop

My happy place: Tea with a view

Day 4: Mediterranean Blue and Abandoned Villages

Fethiye & Kayaköy

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After a scenic drive around Fethiye’s coast, which is as zigzaggy as it is beautiful, we headed over to the ruins of a Greek village abandoned after the Greco-Turkish war in the early 20th century. Tucked away in between steep mountains, the romantically overgrown, roofless houses sit like ghosts on the mountainside. But we were also greeted with the sounds of live folk music and laughter, the wafting smell of grilled lamb burgers and aubergine, and the sight of families picking herbs and flying kites amid the fallen homes. This is a place where a community gets together and we happily joined in, strolling in the bright sun through weeds and wildflowers, with the mediterranean blue in sight from the top of the hill. The memories of this afternoon has become one of my happy places where I escape to from London’s gloomy weather (read a blog post just about our afternoon in Kayaköy). 

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The Kayaköy market

Welcomed by the cheery atmosphere of the Kayaköy market

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Day 5: Good food and great AirBnB hosts makes up for terrible tourist traps

Fethiye – Ephesus

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It was a leisurely drive with a lot of kodak moments, before we ended up at ‘Mary’s House’ in Ephesus. This is supposedly where Mary lived out the last days of her life – a little Catholic shrine tucked away in the mountains around Ephesus. We went because we were there and it was in a guide book. But they make you pay a ton (mandatory ‘donation’) for seeing the tiniest little shrine, and we were all grouchy about it and would say that it is definitely not worth it. All our good-weather luck had also run out, so we mumbled something like ‘screw mary’s house’ and got out of there.

In hindsight feeling bad that we didn't stop that couple from going in there

In hindsight feeling bad that I didn’t stop that couple behind them from going in there

Our spirits were lifted when we arrived at our AirBnB home  – a beautiful, cozy cottage with friendly dogs and cats and a wonderful host. So, with a new cheerier disposition we headed off to explore the tiny, picturesque town of Şirince, whilst eating Dondurma in the rain (the chewiest, bestest, most delicious kind of ice cream ever). Şirince is said to have been occupied after Ephesus was abandoned in the 1400s, supposedly by freed Greek slaves, who named the town Çirkince (‘Ugly’ in Turkish) to deter others from following them. It was renamed in 1926 and it means ‘Pleasant’ instead! 

After picking up some wine in Şirince and Turkish pizza in Selçuk (bigger town closer to Ephesus) we had a cozy night in, already reminiscing about our roadtrip.

Our beautiful AirBnB home for the night

Our beautiful AirBnB home for the night

Buying wine in Sirince is a good idea

Buying wine in Sirince is always a good idea

Massive storks make their nests atop ancient columns in the middle of Selçuk

Massive storks make their nests atop columns in the middle of Selçuk

Day 6: Not being able to believe our eyes

Ephesus – Bursa

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We approached Ephesus tentatively and with much expectation. Apparently the world’s most complete ancient city, with only something like 12% excavated after 150 years of excavations. It is really difficult to fully understand its colossal, ancient magnitude when you’re there, and even more difficult to really relay what it feels like.

Ephesus did not disappoint. It was really an unforgettable couple of hours under the sun. It’s a very rare and special place, and we would highly recommend it.

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Also. There are cats. Everywhere.

Just chilling on ancient things like they’ve been there for ages.

I am not even kidding when I say we saw a cat giving birth right in front of a gift shop. A truly eye-opening and terrifying experience which I try to not think about to much…

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It was also the first time we actually felt like we were encountering tourists (probably because lots of mediterranean cruises stop at Ephesus). So being there in off-season was definitely one of our finest moments.

Day 7: Home Sweet Home

Bursa – Istanbul

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After a quick trip up to the ski resort on Uludağ (‘Sublime Mountain’ in Turkish) into thick fog and deep snow, we headed home to Istanbul, ending our road trip on high note with a game of pool at our local Billiard place in Cihangir. 

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Highlight: Watching my mom and her fiancé smack talk each other at the pool table.

Highlight: Watching my mom and her fiancé smack talk each other at the pool table.

After nearly 2000kms, roughly 30 hours of driving, and a week of on and off-road adventures, we can confidently say that not only is Turkey as beautiful, diverse, and friendly as everyone says it is, it is also a perfect place for an unforgettable roadtrip.

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I have been to Venice once before as a kid – my mom took me and my brother and I remember a warm sunny day, with carnival processions, and markets, and glass-making demonstrations. There was also eating fish, and shopping for souvenirs, and visiting the Romeo and Juliet square in Verona (which blurred into the Venice memories), and feeling a little bit trapped and lost with hundreds of people in tiny little alleyways.

So this year we went to Venice to catch the tail-end of the 56th Biennale, and what we found there was so profoundly different from what I remembered. We went for late-night walks in narrow, labyrinthine alleyways, tracing the maze that is Venice as if we were the only people on the floating city, with patches of light glistening on the wet cobblestones. Sometimes the canals get so hazy in the cold, that the water disappears into the sky without any traces of a horizon. We find an open shop, glowing with gold-like warmth against the dark and quiet street, filled with Venetian masks and the mask-maker, dressed in his white coat with glue or paint or something on his hands. Then we find an open bar, and we watch a gang of old and tipsy Italian ladies whilst sipping on limoncello, spritz, prosecco and wine. And then the sun comes out on Sunday (affirming me that my memories were real) and people dare to hang their clothes out to dry. The water turns clear blue just before we have to take a boat back to Italian mainland, back to cold and windy London, which feels a lot different than cold and windy Venice.

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P.S. The wind is pretty rough

P.S. The wind is pretty rough

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