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    Spring Break Part 2: Bruges

    After our first few days in Amsterdam, we hopped on a couple trains to Bruges, Belgium. I am so thankful our friends took charge and played travel guides. It was nice to just follow along and go with the flow.

    We made a transfer at Antwerp Station. How stunning is this architecture?!

     

    Antwerp Train Station architecture

     

    We were in Bruges part of Tuesday, Wednesday, and part of Thursday. Bruges has a very different vibe than Amsterdam. It’s more of a small town. The people were super friendly and helpful as we made our way to our hostel. Bruges has beautiful architecture. We felt like we had stepped into a Disney town! Plus, the weather was warmer and there wasn’t as much wind as there was in Amsterdam.

     

    Bruges

     

    We shared an 8-person room at St. Christopher’s Bauhaus and would not recommend it at all. Our room had black mold, there was vomit on the walls and in the sinks of the bathrooms, you had to pay a €10 deposit to rent a towel, the bar adjoining the building decided to move pallets down our hall at 7am… It was fine for the couple of nights we were there, but we advise you avoid this place.

    And on that happy note, see how pretty Bruge’s Market Square is!

     

    Bruges Square

     

    We stopped at the open air market Wednesday morning and got warm, fresh Belgium waffles! They were beyond delicious. David said if those waffles were available in Michigan, it’d put the family out of business! (David’s family produces maple syrup.) They were light and crispy, and kind of tasted like a cinnamon roll, even though there was no frosting on the outside. Delicious! We ordered a waffle with a lot of our meals. You can pay extra to get it with Nutella and strawberries or with ice cream, or just have it with powdered sugar.

     

    Belgium Waffles from the street market

     

    Speaking of food, our favorite place we ate at was Humpty Dumpty, just off of Market Square. They were very reasonably priced with many things to choose from their menu. I ordered the children’s spaghetti; it was the perfect portion and absolutely delicious. I don’t know if it was because I hadn’t had great beef in a while, but their sauce was amazing! They had yummy waffles, too. David loved their paninis.

    We also climbed the Bruges belfry:

     

    Bruges Bell Tower

     

    We followed the steep 366 steps of the winding staircase:

     

    Bruges Bell Tower Stairs

     

    Here we are peaking out of some of the windows in the stairwell:

     

    Inside the Bruges Bell Tower

     

    The view at the top of the tower was fantastic!

     

    View of the city from the Bruges Bell Tower

     

    I’m so glad we went to Bruges. It was a relaxing, beautiful place. They had lots of canals, too:

     

    Bruges canals at night

     

    We were so blessed to travel with such a great group of friends:

     

    Our travel group

     

    We definitely had our share of Belgium waffles, street food, and chocolate!

     

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    Spring Break Part 1: Amsterdam

    Our school’s spring break was the last week in March. David, Daniel, and I traveled with 4 of our friends to the Netherlands and Belgium. We flew into Amsterdam Saturday night and spent 2 days there.

    I was super impressed with how modern and clean Amsterdam was in comparison to Ankara. Europe is so efficient! When we looked up the weather, we saw it was going to be cold. We had no idea it was going to be freezing. I wore tights under my jeans, double layered socks, had a scarf, hat, and gloves, and was still cold most of the time! We road the tram a lot to escape the cold.

     

    Walking in Amsterdam

     

    We shared a 9-person room with a private bathroom at Hotel Van Gogh. The hostel was very modern and provided clean sheets and towels every day. They had a fantastic €5 buffet breakfast. Some of the desk workers were rude, but we  would recommend staying there because of the amenities and location.

    We spent our first full day walking around and checking out shops. Holland is known for its cheese, and we sampled a lot.

     

    Sampling Amsterdam cheese

     

    We never really ate “traditional” Flemish food, aside from a croquette appetizer at one restaurant. However, we thoroughly enjoyed the Mexican, Thai, Italian, and English food! Another place to note was Bagels and Beans. I ordered their avocado, tomato, and lettus bagel sandwich. Their honey and walnut cream cheese rocked my world. I told my friends I wanted an ice cream cone filled with that cream cheese it was so good. (I also loved their branding – just take a look at their menu!)

    We also visited the Van Gogh Museum, which was temporarily in the Hermitage. No pictures were allowed in the exhibit, but we saw many of his most famous works including Sunflowers and Almond Branches in Bloom.

    Amsterdam has bikes, bikes, and more bikes! David read there is roughly an average of 1.5 bicycles per person in Amsterdam. We didn’t rent any because it was so cold, but would have liked to. I thought for certain I’d get hit by one, but luckily  most of them had bells and let you know they were coming.

     

    Brains travel on bikes

     

    One of my favorite things we saw was the Anne Frank House. This was the annex in her father’s business building where they hid for 2 years. I was surprised how large it was – I had always imagined it as a small, cramped couple of rooms. I was also surprised it was in a row of buildings right beside a canal. It was a moving experience to walk through the house and experience a piece of history.

    Before we started traveling, I purchased The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene. I heard good reviews about the book and several of our students read it this semester. I had no idea that part of the story took place in Amsterdam! It was really cool to read the part about the characters visiting the Anne Frank House after having seen it myself.

     

    Anne Frank House entrance

     

    The canals were so picturesque:

     

    Standing in front of a canal in Amsterdam

     

    The architecture was beautiful, too. This is Amsterdam’s Grand Central Station:

     

    Grand Central Station Amsterdam

     

    I was super disappointed the weather was so cold, because I was hoping to see the tulip fields and the windmills. I doubted the fields were in bloom, and it was really too cold to take the day trip outside the city. We did visit one windmill within the city:

     

    Windmill in Amsterdam

     

    And I did see a few tulips in the tulip market:

     

    Tulips at the tulip market

     

    And the canals were especially beautiful at night:

     

    An Amsterdam canal at night

     

    After a few days in Amsterdam, we took a train to Bruges, Belgium. More to come on that soon!

     

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    An Afternoon in Ulus

    We took a dolmuş to Ulus on Saturday. David and I have been to Ulus a few times before, but Daniel hadn’t gone yet. (Ulus is another neighborhood in Ankara less than 7 miles from where we live.)

    There was a bit of rain, but it was a nice walk up to the castle. It’s the highest point of the city and free to get in. It’s fun and a little scary to walk along the ledges. There are no guard rails to separate you from the drop offs!

     

    Ulus castle

     

    At the Ulus Castle in Ankara

     

    Ulus Castle

     

    After seeing the castle, we stopped at a small restaurant. Daniel and I got manti and David got curry chicken. Manti is a Turkish dumpling… kind of like a ravioli. It is served with an olive oil, tomato, yogurt sauce. Lovely and yummy!

     

    Turkish Manta

     

    We also stopped by a store called Yöre so Daniel could pick up a few souvenirs. All of their lights and pottery are in the basement. It’s a really pretty place!

     

    Lanterns in Yore in Ulus, Ankara

     

    We have just a few more days before spring break. This semester and Daniel’s time in Turkey is flying by fast!

     

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    I Fell in a Hole

    I usually look forward to getting rest during trips. However, once we’re actually traveling, I find myself restless and ready to explore. I think my curiosity is to blame as I’m always looking for an adventure. So, needless to say, I rarely catch up on sleep during breaks.

    During our recent trip to Istanbul, I went out for a walk while the others took naps. I spent some time along the shore sitting on some boulders by the Sea of Marmara. I was having a good time and was enjoying taking pictures.

     

    Istanbul Coast

     

    Sea of Marmara

     

    As I made my way back to the hostel, I stopped at a bakkal (convenience store) to get candy bars. I was looking around the store and reached up to grab something off of a shelf. As I did, the owner called out to me. I turned around to see what the owner had to say. I didn’t notice the big gap in the floor. As I turned around, I stepped back and fell right into the hole. Luckily, my back, head, and thigh hit the metal frame so I didn’t fall all the way down immediately.

     

    Bakkal hole in the floor

     

    Next thing I knew, I was stumbling up a ladder with the store owner. He sat me down for a few minutes and gave me water. After he was sure I knew where I was, I paid for my candy bars and left.

    I’m still a little bruised and scratched.

    Moral of the story: Watch where you walk.

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    Visiting Istanbul with Daniel

    We had Friday off of school last week and used the long weekend to take Daniel to Istanbul. It’s about an hour flight from Ankara and a must-see if you’re visiting Turkey!

    Where we stayed:
    The first time we visited Istanbul was the New Year weekend, and our friends recommended Side Hotel and Pension. It was a very nice place, but we needed to go a little cheaper this trip. We knew we wanted to be in the Sultanahmet Square area again, and did a little searching on HostelBookers.com. Location, cleanliness, and safety were our top priorities. A place called Sur Hotel had good reviews and was almost half the price of most other options we considered.

    We were very pleased with Sur Hotel! It’s around the corner and slightly back behind the main strip of hostels, but a short walk from the square and was well-lit at night. It overlooked some ancient arches and the Marmara Sea.

     

    Sur Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey

     

    The room was quite large and had a queen sized bed, two single beds, and a private bathroom. The only strange thing was that there was nothing separating the floor of the shower from the rest of the bathroom. I think this was because of the location of the drain. (The building was built 120 years ago and last renovated in 1999, so I suppose there’s only so much you can do.)

     

    Sur Hotel in Istanbul

     

    Breakfast was included, and was a typical Turkish spread of meat, cheeses, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, pastries, and hard boiled eggs. They served scrambled eggs one morning and French toast on another. Yum!

     

    Sur Hotel Turkish breakfast

     

    The staff was all very friendly and even let us have breakfast the morning we checked in. We definitely recommend Sur Hotel and would stay here again.

     

    What we saw:
    Istanbul is such a cool city. It was a lot of fun for us to watch Daniel take it all in. Our first stop was the Hagia Sofia. This was one of the sights we missed last time. The inside of this structure is beautiful! It was first a church, then an a mosque, and now it’s a museum. The boys figured out that 2 of their dad’s silos stacked on top of each other could fit inside. The construction was remarkable, especially for its time because of the round dome on top of a square building. Even today, the dome does not require additional support.

     

    Inside the Hagia Sophia

     

    The mosaics and frescos were amazing:

     

    Mosaics in Hagia Sophia

     

    Inside the Blue Mosque

     

    Since it’s free, we also went inside the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque):

     

    Inside the Blue Mosque

     

    And of course, we had to make a visit to the Grand Bazaar! We stopped at Fez Cafe, a place we loved last time. Daniel had his first Turkish coffee:

     

    Turkish Coffee at the Fez Cafe in the Grand Bazaar

     

    We also visited the Spice Bazaar. What a colorful (and crowded) place!

     

    Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

     

    The last thing we saw was the Archeology Museum near Topkapı Palace. Surprisingly, there was an exhibit of pieces from Egypt. I found the details of the Alexander Sarcophagus to be especially well preserved and impressive:

     

    Archeology Museum in Istanbul

     

    Where we ate:
    Last time, everywhere we ate was wonderful. This time, we struck out a few times. The fresh fish sandwiches near the Galata Bridge were fantastic, though!

     

    FIsh sandwiches at Galata Bridge

     

    One of our colleagues and his friend were in Istanbul, too, and they invisted us to join them at a Korean restaurant close to Taksim Square. It was the first time Daniel, David, and I had tried Korean food. We failed at chopsticks, but the food was delicious! Also, the waffles and ice cream at Charley Temmel  in Beyoğlu are worth a mention.

     

    Other Istanbul travel notes:

    • If you fly into Sabiha Gökçen Airport, save money and take the Havataş bus to Taksim. It’s only 12TL and buses run every half hour. From there, you can take the Metro to Sultanahmet.
    • Istanbul is a tourist trap and appetizers like salad, bread, salça, and yogurt sauce are not always free. It is advisable to check and see if the meze is complimentary or not.
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    Weekend Getaway in Bolu

    Our secondary students took their finals at school last week, and everyone got the day off on Friday. With the long weekend, we wanted to find a cheap place nearby to escape the city. Fortunately, a cabin was available at a mountain retreat in Bolu. Bolu is a two-hour bus ride northwest of Ankara. Some of our friends visited there last year and loved it.

     

    Ankara to Bolu, Turkey on a map

     

    The place we stayed at is called Sakintepe. The eight of us shared one of their four-bedroom cabins. We spent most of the time chilling in the living room and kitchenette area. The heated floors made our stay extra warm and cozy!

     

    Sakintepe in Bolu

     

    The view of the snowcapped mountains was wonderful.

     

    Bolu Scenery

     

    We also loved hanging out with Bear, their German Shepherd puppy and his mom Georgia and dad Montana.

     

    German Shepherd puppy named Bear

     

    It was a weekend of both rest and work. Our grades for the semester were due Saturday at midnight. Several of us had new classes for the spring semester and were able to get a good amount of prep work done. It was nice to work by the wood burning fireplace.

     

    Working by the fireplace

     

    We were sure to take a break and walk around the forest.

     

    Hiking in Bolu

     

    Hiking in Bolu, Turkey

     

    The dogs loved having new friends to play with. The guys spent a lot of time throwing snowballs to Georgia and Montana.

     

    Throwing snow at the Sakintepe dogs

     

    Montana was a funny dog. He carried around rocks as though they were chew toys. He also had a game where he took a rock, rolled it around to create a snowball, then pawed at it till he got back down to the rock.

     

    Sakintepe's dog Montana rolling a rock

     

    On our last night, the caretakers of Sakintepe let us borrow their projector. The ceiling was a perfectly slanted canvas. We kicked back and enjoyed a couple of movies.

     

    Sakintepe cabin

     

    We highly recommend the cabins at Sakintepe and hope to visit Bolu again.

    But for now, it’s back to school and onto the spring semester!

     

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