It’s been a year today that I sold all of my belongings and set out on an open-ended trip around the world. As expected, a couple of things happened that I could not anticipate, most notably the world closing down in a pandemic. But we have soldiered on and kept travelling.
I had hoped maybe that I would have discovered a new profession or found some new defined path on my travels. Some answers or an epiphany. And sometimes that happens. But usually it’s more of a slow reflection, the development of new skills, new comfort in unfamiliar places, and a broader understanding of the world and the people in it.
I don’t feel like my journey has ended. I need to see more, to experience more, to keep going. Each day travelling loosens who we think we are a bit more, and hopefully one day will undo it completely.
What have I learned so far?
So many things.
I think the most important thing I learned was just to be more comfortable with ambiguity. Showing up in a new town without researching, booking a destination only a day out, throwing myself into local public transportation with only some local currency and a smile. These are the things I wanted to learn and to get more comfortable with. These are the skills that open the world up to you and lets you enjoy it without stressing too much. I tend to research my locations heavily, especially the food, I’m afraid to miss out on anything yummy a place has to offer, so this was especially important to me.
Also, don’t watch the news. The American media paints the world in threatening colors. It tries to make bad guys out of everyone foreign. Even I felt a little uneasy about getting off the tourist track in southern Turkey. But like all of my experiences the people we met were welcoming and friendly. Fear really is the mind killer. What I’ve learned is that people are people no matter where you are. The government might for a short while be unfriendly, but odds are the people living in any country are no different than your neighbors at home.
I have been repeatedly humbled by the kindness of strangers who have struggled in harder times with much less than I have. And yet they haven’t turned hard or humorless. They have not disparaged me for being from a country whose government may have caused them harm. Nor have they verified my religion before offering kindness.
Some Favorite Moments from the Trip So Far (in no particular order)
I have favorite moments from everywhere that we’ve been. Funny realizations and new foods. I didn’t want to just list favorite places, but singular moments that stand out to me and keep coming back. So here are the ones that came to mind first in no particular order.
The orange blossoms in Seville
A New Zealand couple that we met in Serbia said that Seville was their favorite place they had visited. So when we were escaping COVID-19 in northern Italy that’s the first place I had in mind to go. We arrived at the perfect time of year. The weather was still reasonably cool and the orange blossoms were in full bloom. The streets in Seville are lined with bitter orange trees and the smell is sweet and lush. It was inescapable and I can’t think of Seville without those smells. Honestly it was a hard choice: do I remember Seville more for the orange blossoms or the amazing tapas bars. But as a single moment, sitting on the benches around the Seville Cathedral surrounded by orange blossoms and doing absolutely nothing was a magical moment. You can read more about Seville here.
That said, some of my favorite food on the trip has been in Seville too. The packed tapas bars dotted throughout the city had some of the best food in Europe. A more in depth exploration of Seville tapas.
My first night in Venice
When we finally stepped off the ferry from the Venice airport the foggy night sky was dark. Purring through the Grand Canal we disembarked near the Rialto Bridge. Phones in hand we studied the labyrinthian path google had drawn for us. We had splurged on a nice two bedroom AirBnB in a quiet but central part of the city. There were still some tourist crowds along the main canal but once we turned right into the twisting thin walkways we were essentially alone. Zigzagging over one bridge and to the next. Dim lights painting one scene after the next in to an expressionist dream. A long stretch down a claustrophobic alley opening up into a monolithic court yard in front of an ancient church boxed in at all sides with other overlapping buildings. Then another turn, almost not sure, this couldn’t be the way, and then yet another scene of canals as another bridge descends, a tiny boat chugging through the darkness, and alone again. Ornate doors to palaces partially submerged, the water spilling into dimly lit entryways as if you could park a gondola right in the living room. It goes on and on. But you can only see a small bit at time, always curving and turning.
After we dropped our bags at the room and had a bite to eat it was quite late but I was eager to explore. Katy went back to the room and I made my way to St. Mark’s Square, bought a shot of limoncello and a bottle of wine that I had opened then stashed in my jacket, then proceeded to get as lost as I could in the maze of canals and alleyways. By 1am I had drank a second half bottle of local wine I had scored from a small bar and snagged a slice of pizza at a late night walkup, and continued on as far as I could go before I hit the edges of the island.
By the time I made it back past 3am I had taken hundreds of photos. Here’s a visual documentary of that walk.
You can read more about the rest of our trip to Venice here.
Street food crawl in Istanbul
How to sum up Istanbul? How to pick a moment. Just one thing. The city is so ancient, so layered, so bustling with commotion. The architectural wonders, the markets, the people. I had to split it up into four different articles just to scratch the surface.
But if I had to pick one moment, it would be our epic street food crawl starting in Taksim Square walking down Isitiklal Street and exploring the side streets in the Tarlabasi neighborhood. One food stall after the next mixed with desert shops and fish markets and enormous shopping centers. It was almost New Years and the side streets were amassing armored vehicles, gangs of machine gun wielding troops, fingers by the triggers, and massive trucks fitted with snow plows, presumably to plow down heavily populated streets if any trouble arose. But I wasn’t paying much attention to them. We had a mission. Eat all the things! We had way too much to describe here but you can find all the food porn here.
I also created a general walking guide of neighborhoods in central Istanbul here. Another article that highlight some of the major mosques and palaces here. And if you just want a quick overview, I have that too here.
Eating Sauerbraten with Kolsch in Cologne
I loved Cologne. My favorite beer, world class pub food, friendly people, and a serious commitment to partying. What more could you ask for? I spent the majority of my time going to every brewhouse that I could and they all were pretty amazing in their own right. But if I had to pick my favorite moment it would be eating traditional sauerbraten in a working class pub across town.
Sure raw minced pork might raise some eyebrows. Blood sausage is interesting. But I had my heart set on something special. Traditionally sauerbraten is made with horse meat. You can find it everywhere but it’s typically made with beef in the pubs downtown now. But I found a little place that specialized in horse dishes a bit out of the way and we made an evening of tracking it down. We were seated by a surly bar maid with a gruff sort of disposition. The bar was packed with jolly working class locals who definitely noticed when we came in. No English here. No English menus. Luckily I knew exactly what I wanted already. Sauerbraten with horse, keep that Kolsch flowing. I want a bunch of it.
Sunrise balloon ride over Cappadocia
Honestly, before I went, I thought booking a sunrise balloon ride over Cappadocia sounded a little cheesy. We’ve all seen the photos with the modelesque world traveler resting on a fur blanket with the hundreds of hot air balloons filling the skies. It’s almost become a cliché. We didn’t even book ahead. Usually these rides fill up months in advance. But we asked casually while checking into our cave room if they could work something out for us and 5am the next morning we were being whisked off to a frozen field in the predawn darkness under a full moon, the glow of hastily made fires dotted in the distance. The rustle of workers in the darkness. And then one by one the blast of flame and filling of balloons. Up we went, only a bit of wicker between us and thousands of feet to the ground. Snow had fallen on the mountains and the world slowly faded from the full moon to the sun rising ahead. Absolutely breathtaking.
NOMA is the holy grail of dining experiences. The chef, Rene Redzepi, nearly single handedly changed the face of modern gastronomy popularizing regionalism, seasonality, and rediscovering wild ingredients through foraging. It goes further than that. The ideas behind NOMA extend directly to community and understanding where food comes from. The ideas of Farm to Table are drawn directly from New Nordic cuisine and broadly encompass strengthening and celebrating all of a community and what it has to offer by banding those producers together as a single movement. What was once radical is now the new commonplace around the world.
I got my NOMA experience as somewhat of a fluke. I wanted to visit my daughter for Christmas and she chose to meet us in Amsterdam directly from Turkey. While there Katy checked the NOMA website and discovered a rare two-top cancellation and we jumped on it, planning a short trip to Denmark and visiting our friend Louise. Shortly after, the covid crisis reached Europe and I have no idea when it would be possible to go again. You can experience our meal here.
Driving the Going to the Sun Road
I was pretty disappointed to return home after only 6 months of travel in Europe but I was determined to figure something out. After soul searching we bought a small RV and headed out to visit the National Parks. Our first stop was Glacier National Park and as luck would have it we were able to drive the amazing Going To The Sun Road the first day that it opened for the season. Our vehicle was technically 6 inches over length but it worked out fine. I only managed to clip the Rialta on one low hanging rock.
Eating fried anchovies and olives in Granada
Granada was the last city we visited in Europe. It’s near Seville and culturally very similar, the seat of power to Spain during it’s height. Alhambra, the palace Columbus visited to ask for money for his voyage, was certainly spectacular. But what I liked best about Granada, as I did Seville, was the very social pub and tapas culture. And Granada is one of the few place left that serves true tapas.
In Granada when you go to a bar and order a drink, a small plate of food comes with it. This is a tapas. It’s the food you eat with drinks. There are no tapas restaurants, only tapas bars. When you order a second drink, you get another plate of food. For as long as you like. Sometimes you get to pick what you get, sometimes they bring you what they want. But that’s all part of the fun.
It’s a great way to eat if your goal is to spend the entire night chatting up friends in bars. And that’s what people do there every night. That’s how the society works. And it’s extremely affordable to boot.
Wandering the twisting alleyways of Diocletian’s Palace
After unwinding briefly in Barcelona, our first new stop was to Croatia and specifically to the ancient city of Split. This is where the Roman Emperor Diocletian built his palace in the 4th century AD. Over time, over many invasions, the town slowly merged with the palace such that much of old town was once the interior of the palace, the internal passages now pedestrian streets and alleys. We booked a two story AirBnB right inside of the old palace. It’s true that often during the day cruise ships would flood the small area with slack-jawed tourists but at night, we seemed to have the place all to ourselves. Shiny white stone passages edging around ancient temples and spaces now filled with bars and restaurants. It is always magical to explore in places that have survived so long. And Split was surely a magical place to begin our adventure.
Climbing 1350 steps to the Kotor Fortress
After 6 weeks in Croatia we were excited to visit a new country. We boarded a bus in Dubrovnik to the bay of Kotor, passing two border crossings that felt a bit tense. And then a winding water edge road that had the woman beside us puking into her handbag.
Kotor is a charming fortified city at the base of a steep mountain. The entire bay is lined with steep mountains and the city sits at the furthest edge. High above the city looms the impressive Kotor Fortress ruins that once guarded the city from invasion. The only way up is to climb. 1350 stairs. It takes a while. Historically my knees don’t do so well with stairs but I was feeling strong and thought what the hell. Katy had chosen to climb the adjacent trail that went much further up the mountain but the fortress was fine with me.
Along the way I met many of the famous cats of Kotor and got stunning views of the bay.
Exploring the ruins of an ex-dictators private island on a golf cart.
Before the civil war in the 90s, Croatia was part of the country of Yugoslavia which was controlled by the dictator Tito. Tito had taken Brijuni island as his personal residence along with a hotel for visiting diplomats, many historical sites, and a personal safari where Tito kept his many animals gifted to him by other nations. After his death the island was turned into a National Park. After leaving Rovinj we thought it would be fun to bus down and take a ferry across and spend the night there without knowing much about it. What a surprise!
There are no cars on the island but you can rent golf carts! Which I did! We had a blast zipping along small paths to all of the sites. Roman ruins, Greek ruins, fossils, even a giant safari with a certain Jurassic Park feel to it complete with automated gates that you activate from your golf cart. The whole place had a certain 50’s ex-dictator-chic falling apart kind of vibe. We could have definitely spent more time there.
Climbing the citadel in Uchisar
Most of my travels have been in places where I felt relatively safe. Maybe I didn’t speak the language but I wasn’t far from someone who did. Well worn tourist destinations. But when we boarded the small bus in Goreme in the southern portion Turkey, only a few hours from Aleppo, it was the furthest I had been from familiar to date. When the bus dropped us off on the side of the road outside of the small mountain town of Uchisar, I felt immediately this was someplace else. Someplace truly different.
Katy wanted to hike the Pigeon Valley that started outside of town and back to Goreme where we were staying. Uchisar like much of Turkey is ancient and spreads out around a single peak that’s been carved through with rooms and passages. This citadel was once an important fortification but now is more of a draw for adventurous tourists. Of which there were very little this time of year. Definitely no English menus here. Our best assets were our smiles and patience.
I had injured my knee the previous day climbing in ruined cave dwellings around Goreme. I promised myself I wasn’t going to overdo it. But after watching Katy scale to the top I kept going just one more staircase, just one more level, slowly up, until eventually I was peering over the entire valley, the dots of houses below us, the far away towns and snow-capped mountains. The snow was still on the citadel. Just then the call to prayer began, echoing across the valley. A beautiful and haunting voice. And this glow of a feeling of being someplace truly foreign. Magical.
The shiny streets of Rovinj
The second place we went in Croatia was the small stone city of Rovinj, an ancient fortified fishing village built around a steep hill crested by a cathedral. It’s the kind of place you would imagine Disney building for a movie. Narrow pedestrian walks with tall stone buildings nested on top of each other and white stone streets polished and shiny from ages of use. There’s a certain echoing sound from the stone as you walk the deserted streets. An excited ferret kind of energy for all the things to explore. My eyes must have been huge as we made our way around and around the hill to the top. I loved it.
I documented our time in Rovinj here. Feel free to read more.
I had been to the badlands before. But just passing through. A quick stop to see the vista. But I hadn’t stayed. This time we booked a campsite inside the park and really got to explore. It’s really hard to photograph during the day but at sunset you get a few moments when the contrast is controllable. Endless deep winding canyons from erosion, interesting rock formations, the park is completely open and you can roam and camp wherever you want. I feel a deep connection to the badlands.
Eating ribollita in Florence
Florence is something to experience. The art, the architecture. But my favorite part about the region is Tuscan food. Simple, hearty, unfussy dishes that have been around forever. And my first awakening to it was my first bite of ribollita at Buca Dell’Orafo near the Old Bridge. Ribollita is a simple bread stew made with yesterday’s bread and vegetables. But when prepared correctly is knee melting. Utterly delicious. And this was by far the best version we had in Florence. See all the Tuscan food we had in Florence and experience the city.
The Plitvicka Experience
Plitvicka is a beautiful park with a series of pristine lakes connected by waterfalls. It’s beautiful. Stunning. But the park itself was only a part of the entire experience. In Croatia hotels have an option either a half board (dinner included) and full board (lunch and dinner included) and so since there weren’t any restaurants around we thought we’d try the full board. What we didn’t realize was that these prepaid meals were quite cheap and not like the menu items. Usually some recipe to turn mayonnaise into a food dish then displayed on a plate with a certain rushed and careless yet somehow very old school plating. It was hilarious. I have a whole series of just pictures of plates. It also turns out no one pays for the full board. So they never really had a lunch option prepared for us. So we would get a full dinner at lunch and a full dinner at dinner. Really bizarre. The nature walks and cafeteria level food came together in a certain 60’s lodge summer camp vibe that was quite unique. If you’re curious there’s a section in this post about the food and some stunning photos of the park.
Eating a baby pig’s head in Madrid
I wasn’t that into Madrid. It’s very metropolitan but I think it might be a better place to live than to visit. I had some strange romantic notion of what Madrid would be like. Something old world. But it had it’s own thing going on. And I never found the right rhythm.
I did however find a very interesting Michelin starred restaurant near our apartment that specialized in traditional Spanish food, specifically nose to tail eating and managed to get a lunch reservation the last day we were in town. This meal was unforgettable. And quite honestly a little challenging in parts. The food was excellent and the star of the show, only available on the larger tasting menu, a whole baby pig’s head, roasted then deep fried, on a plate. You had to rip it apart into pieces and eat it like a savage. I’ve had pig’s head before but never with such a smile and cute ears. It was eating Babe’s face. At once both horrific and delicious. Great meal.
Beer pong in a basement bar in Serbia
I haven’t stayed in a lot of hostels while travelling. I started travelling when I was older and I didn’t really understand what they were about. But after a couple months of travelling Katy thought it would be fun to meet some new people and try out a hostel to get my feet wet. She found a place in the old part of Belgrade that had a private room attached to a hostel which gave us privacy but access to the common space. And just as she promised we immediately met a group of cheerful travelers that welcomed us in and invited us out that night to celebrate a birthday of one of the volunteers. What seemed like only hours into our visit we found ourselves boozing around Belgrade and hitting one cool bar after another eventually ending up in a basement bar specializing in beer pong. Things get fuzzy after that but I remember stumbling home through the streets and scarfing down some big fluffy pizza on the way.
Taking a train through Bulgaria in the off season
Before Uchisar, my most foreign experience was taking a train through Bulgaria in the offseason. The alphabet in Bulgaria is Cyrillic and English is uncommon. In the summer you can book express trains to major cities. These run mostly for tourists. In the off season only local trains are running. Katy is a public transportation aficionado. We try to take as many types of public transportation in foreign cities as much as possible. It’s a lot of work but always illuminating. In this case though we really didn’t have much choice. The local trains are slow. Like really slow. And don’t run direct. The bathrooms are technically bathrooms but the open hole to the track doesn’t inspire much confidence that an ill tempered wasp or a errant bolt won’t shoot up your pooper if you’re not careful. I never sat down on one. I preferred the open cars where we could sit alone. But on another train we were packed into a small room sitting face to face on opposing benches with several other people, none of whom spoke English. It was a tight sort of sausage situation where you’re intermingling knees with strangers. But everyone turned out to be nice people and the many hours of travel eventually chugged by. A very large and imposing man insisted on sharing his breakfast with us and I felt bad I had nothing to offer in return.
The monolithic puppets of Viareggio
This was a right-time-right-place situation. We were leaving Florence right before Carnival and decided to see the parades in Viareggio, an interesting costal town near Pisa, known for massive 6 story paper mache human powered puppets on floats. We didn’t really know what to expect. But we liked the town immediately. Something about the sea air. Or chill vibe. We loved it. But nothing prepared us for the insane parade that they throw. These floats are on par or better than anything that I’ve seen at Burning Man. And not just big, they’re so dynamic and thematic. One float featured a Wizard of Oz theme that transforms into a very meaningful show about the environment with a five story Greta Thunberg lecturing the UN about climate change. It was very moving.
Drinking salep at Čajdžinica Džirlo
The fog and the smog descended on Sarajevo hiding it in a fuzzy cloud, at once magical and concerning. White blooms of headlights passing dangerously close to thin sidewalks as I wove between lightpoles and other people. I had several favorite moments in Sarajevo. Wondering the obliterated remnants of an Olympic bobsled track, fresh pomegranate juice at a Christmas fair, winning a raffle at the premiere of Jumanji 2 but not knowing because no one else spoke English to our embarrassment. But if I’m honest, my favorite memory is visiting a tiny tea shop near a graveyard where the dead from the war were buried. We had heard about this place where a wizard would make you special brews while you chilled. But when we got there we found only a kind woman who kept us company and introduced me to a new beverage that was very popular in Turkey called salep. It’s made from crushed orchid roots and was now illegal to export because of shortages. The roots thicken the creamy beverage and foams as you stir and stir it. It’s drunk kind of like cocoa is here. Very soothing. It coats your mouth and stomach and kind of gives you a hug from the inside. There were only a few tiny seats inside.
The second time we returned the wizard was there (presumably the owner), an older man with long hair and a beard, very talkative and accommodating. This time we pushed past the few seats downstairs to an almost vertical stairway leading to the attic nook above the building where low seats and tables had been arranged. Still very intimate. Great music. A stained glass window. Dim lights. I ordered my salep again and felt very present.
Walking the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone
Everyone had the same idea that we did. If we’re trapped by covid let’s go to a national park. The parks were absolutely packed. In Glacier about half the people were wearing masks. In Yellowstone it was much less. I don’t really like wading through swamps of tourists to enjoy my time in nature. So many of the main attractions weren’t that fun like Old Faithful or the Prismatic Springs because of the crowds.
But our first day we entered the park through the north gate which was less popular. We stopped by Mammoth Hot Springs which was pretty cool but then happened upon the Norris Geyser Basin. It wasn’t the biggest or craziest thing but it had a really cool mix of geothermal features, ice blue ponds, and geysers. It was probably my favorite walk in the park over the week in a really impressive list of things to do. My favorite day in the park was driving the ring around the canyon, we had a lot of fun. And we another day of great wildlife viewing in the north east section of the park. But for some reason I think my favorite moment was this walk.
Visiting the George Floyd Plaza in Minneapolis
My good friends Evan and Adam Town live in Duluth, Minnesota. That was our highlight in the area was to visit them. It had been about 4 years since Evan moved away. And we have a few friends from the area. I’d always wanted to see it. Minneapolis on the other hand didn’t really factor into our plans. We had to stop there to service our RV so that gave us a full day to visit the city so we rented a car. We wanted to see the sculpture park, maybe check our Prince’s house, purify ourselves in Lake Minnetonka. But several people recommended the George Floyd plaza where he had been killed.
I didn’t really know what to expect but it was quite moving. The protests had long since quieted but the shrines remained. The signs and offerings. It made me think of our division. The two different sides viewing this issue. I wished that everyone could understand the good intentions that you could clearly see here. The pain, but the reasons behind the pain. An honest hope for a better tomorrow. It wasn’t on my list of things to see initially but I’m really glad I got to see it before it disappeared.
Drinking mulled gin at the Dubrovnik Xmas Festival
I had a blast spending a week in Dubrovnik before heading out to Kotor. But I think my favorite moment there was actually our stop on the way back heading to Mostar. It was the big kick off to their Christmas festival. All of old town was decorated with dozens of street stalls with cauldrons of different kinds of meat and sarma boiling away and lots of alcoholic beverages. There really aren’t any tourists in town this time of year so it’s almost entirely locals. Everyone treated us as if we belonged there. At one point a couple of guys sat at our table and introduced us to people. They were very welcoming. And I discovered one of my new favorite drinks, mulled gin. It’s like mulled wine but with gin instead of wine. Delicious! Over the course of the night and even throughout the Balkans I would drink my weight in these things. The stand where I was buying them from eventually started giving them to me for free! I wrote specifically about the Xmas festival here.
But if you want to read all about Dubrovnik I wrote more about the city here.
Chilling out in Madison Wisconsin
So, Madison, Wisconsin was not as exciting as many of the other places on this list. It’s just your normal Midwest college town. But by sheer coincidence we ended up staying here longer than any other place we traveled to. The RV travel was a bit more exhausting than the international travel, we were moving nearly every day instead of the 1-2 week stops in Europe. So when we got to really settle in for a break and explore I felt very at home and comfortable. We both thought the winters would be too cold for us but for a short time we felt at home. And that’s a good moment.
What were my most memorable meals?
(Most of these meals weren’t the fanciest or most expensive places we ate but places that I felt were the most delicious or introduced me to a new cuisine and usually in a magical environment.)
– Eating peka at Restaurant Orca outside of Rovinj, Croatia
– The mixed plate at Ascinica Balkan in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina
– Dinner at Ciya Sofrasi in the Kadikoy Market on the Asian side of Istanbul.
– The NOMA experience in Copenhagen, Denmark.
– Kolsch and traditional brewpub food at Brauerei Pfaffen in Cologne.
– Having lunch at Buca Dell’Orafo in Florence
– Eating cicchetti at Osteria Ruga de Jaffa in Venice
– The tasting menu at La Tasqueria de Javi Estevez in Madrid
– Eating tapas with sherry in Casa Morales in Seville