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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Nobel Hostel: Hostel with a View at Istanbul

Normally hotels that have a stunning view are either 5 star, 4 star or insanely expensive. It is very rare to find a budget backpacker hostel with a view. But, I am so happy that I found that in Nobel Hostel, a budget hostel located in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. I stayed here recently for 4 days and 3 nights and the below is a detailed review based on this recent experience of mine.

Sultanahmet blue mosque from the terrace of Nobel Hostel

1) The Nobel hostel has top location. It is located right behind the Sultanahmet Blue Mosque, a couple of steps away from the Arasta Bazaar and easy walking distance to Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia.

2) The hostel comes with a stunning view. Most of the rooms either offer a view of the Blue Mosque or the Bosphorus. The terrace offers insane views of both. On a clear day, you can enjoy your tea and/or beer at this terrace while soaking in the views.

3) The hostel is just a 5 minute walk from the Sultanahmet tram station, which means that the ferry stations of Eminonu (for the Bosphorus cruises), Taksim area (for shopping, eating and drinking) and the Grand Bazaar (for local shopping) are just a few tram stops away.

4) The hostel offers cosy dormitories and private rooms at budget prices. They charge 10 or 11 Euros per bed for the dormitory. These dormitories come with views, windows, heaters, safety lockers, great soft beds, towels and a shared bathroom that has hot water and heaters.

5) They offer free breakfast in their neighbouring restaurant every morning. They also offer food and drinks on their open terrace restaurant.

6) Supermarkets, ATMs, travel agencies, booking offices and other important traveler needs are all located close by.

7) The hostel offers good speed wi-fi on all its hostel floors.

8) The hostel comes with round the clock security, reception and CCTVs.

9) The hostel doesn’t have a lift and has narrow spiral staircases. This might be a problem if you have to carry heavy suitcases.

10) The hostel reception is very helpful and resourceful with information and tips about everything. I had so many questions directed at Mustafa and he calmly answered them nicely and clearly for me.

11) Since the hostel is located in the touristy area and close to the mosque, do prepare for some sounds especially during prayer time and during the day when traffic moves around.

If you are looking for a good and comfortable budget hostel in the heart of the tourist area of Sultanahmet and would like to see a view every day and night of your stay without paying anything more, then this is the place for you. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay here.

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Sony Xperia Z3: A Sleek, Super Effective and Rugged Travel and Photography Phone

The world of travel has evolved by leaps and bounds. Today, there is hardly anyone who travels without a smart phone. They have become the essence of travel as they are used for everything from booking flight tickets and hotel rooms to navigating on maps, sharing updates and pictures on social media to keeping in touch with family and friends, using it as a camera to using it for watching movies and listening to music and for all other online communication to entertaining us with those many games.

I work on the go as I am continuously traveling and hence my smartphone becomes my inseparable companion. I use it for blogging, managing my startup business, use it as camera, manage my blog’s social media network through it, watch movies, listen to music and so much more. Recently, I upgraded myself to the new Sony Xperia Z3 phone that runs on the Android platform. I have been using it for a good while during my travels across India and Turkey and below is a detailed review of why I think this phone is a great choice for travel, photography, blogging and entertainment.

Sony Xperia Z3 - the latest Android phone by Sony 
A Phone Camera that puts Big Cameras to Shame 
Once I have started using the Sony Xperia Z3 as my phone, I have started using my DSLR camera less. That says a lot about the quality of this phone’s camera. With a mind boggling 20.7 megapixel camera and with great Sony photo and video technology, this phone camera has ensured that I take top quality pictures in good and in low light. Even some of my travel videos have been taken using this phone and I have been pleasantly surprised at its quality and detail. With image stabilization, high ISO, LED Flash, Auto Focus, Geo Tagging, Object Tracking and Red Eye Reduction, this camera has it all.

Waterproof and Dustproof
With most of our smart phones, we are worried about keeping it away from water and that limits us a lot from using it in all situations. However, this phone is waterproof and dustproof. I have used it in rain, sun and snow to great effect and am very happy that nothing happened to the phone. Same with dusty environments, especially in most of our Indian cities.

Blogging on the Go
Earlier, I used to use my laptop to use most of my blogging. These days, the blogging work load is shared between both my laptop and my Sony Xperia Z3 smart phone. It’s 5.2 inch full HD screen along with its SnapDragon 2.5 GHz Qualcomm Quad-Core processor and 3 GB RAM have ensured that it is a pleasure to write a post quickly, effectively and publish it seamlessly through the various blogging apps available on Android. And since most of the photos have been clicked using the phone, I can easily upload them to the cloud and link the post images to their location on the cloud.

Sony Xperia Z3: A stunning looking Smartphone
Entertainment has never been Better
As a frequent traveler, I have a lot of time to kill at airports, flight, train and bus journeys. During this time, I usually catch up with movies, TV shows, my favorite music, audio books, language guides and much more. The very first time, I heard the sound effects and saw the rich video of this phone, I was hooked. I think it has the best sound effects of any phone available in the market and that includes the iPhone 6. Watching a movie on this phone makes me feel like I am in a theater with Dolby Surround Sound. The visuals are also very rich. Listening to music has never been better and more rich. Even reading is a pleasure. And what do I say about playing games on this phone. It takes gaming to a whole new and different level.


Sony Xperia Z3: Great Travel and Photography Companion

Great for Video Calls 
I use Skype for staying in touch with my family, friends and business associates. The Sony Xperia Z3’s large screen, great processor and great front camera ensures that communication has never been better. It also seems to catch better and strong wi-fi connectivity compared to my earlier phones.

Great Battery Life
I do so much with my phone that I need great battery power. This phone offers so much juice (3100 mAh) that I don’t have to use my power backup much and I am very happy about that. I have used it for watching more than 2 movies, listening to lots of music, lots of time on the internet, some gaming, some work, some photography, some blogging, some phone calls and the battery still lasts close to a day and that according to me is pretty impressive.

Lots of Space
One of the main limitations with a lot of smart phones is the space factor. These days, we consume so much space with movies, photographs, music, books, documents and so much more. I seem to be always space hungry and hence am insanely happy with my phone’s 16 GB internal memory and the 128 GB micro SD card that I put into it additionally. This gives me enough space for all my current and future needs.

The phone also comes with many other great features. It is also incredibly stylish and comes in great colors. If you are a person who works on the move, looking for a good phone camera, looking to blog on the move and or looking for a rugged smart phone, this phone should be one of your top choices.

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55 Random Things about Turkey

It has been 29 days of pure joy traveling across Turkey for me. In these 29 days, I have seen one of the world’s most dynamic cities in Istanbul, some of the world’s oldest civilizations in Ephesus, Aphrodisias and Mesopotamia, some of nature’s best rock formations in Cappadocia, travertines and Roman civilizations in Pamukkale, sensational beaches on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, very original local culture amidst great hospitality at Sanliurfa and Mardin and tasted one of the world’s top cuisines. During this incredible journey, I came across many different aspects about this country that I found very interesting or enlightening and these have been mentioned below to make an interesting read for you. Hope you enjoy it.

1) The language of Turkey (Turkish) finds its roots in Western China, Mongolia and Central Asia.

2) The foods of Turkey and India are very similar. Both of them love their yoghurt, their sweets and their spices.

3) Gasoline price in Turkey is one of the highest in the world.

4) Some of the earliest civilizations can be found in Turkey. 7,000 and 9,000 years old are common for this country.

5) Cost of living is fairly high even for the locals. This is due to its high taxes.

6) People in Turkey are very fashionable. I guess it is their proximity to Europe and frequent travel to Western Europe.

7) At many times, travel by air is cheaper than travel by bus in this massive country.

8) The world’s first place of worship (Gobekli Tepe) is present in today’s Turkey. It was built more than 11,000 years ago.

9) It is compulsory for every male child from the family to serve in the Turkish army for 2 years (if you have an university degree, it is only 6 months). These men are sent off to the army with great gusto and celebrations.

10) Raki is the national drink of Turkey and a Raki sofrasi session is like its pride.

11) A lot of Turkish and Kurdish words are similar to Hindi. This can be due to the fact that all these 3 languages have borrowed heavily from Persian (Farsi) and Arabic.

12) Road infrastructure of Turkey is on par with the rest of the world.

13) Buses in Turkey offer great luxury. They offer in-bus entertainment with internet, free w-fi, toilets (some buses), free in-bus snacks and drinks.

14) Turkey is a very mountainous country, especially in its south and east.

15) Turkey is a great destination to travel as a couple or as a family.

16) Turkey has been home to many ancient civilizations – Roman, Greek, Ottoman, Byzantine, Mesopotamian and much more.

17) Outside of the tourist areas and large cities, people do not speak any language apart from Turkish, Arabic or Kurdish.

18) In the Kurdish areas of the South, the people speak more of Kurdish and less of Turkish.

19) The Southern Eastern part of Turkey is more middle eastern in nature, poorer, cheaper and a little dirtier than the rest of the country. They have stone houses that are similar to those seen in the desert part of the middle east.

20) A lot of places in Turkey receive snow every winter.

21) One can indulge in a lot of adventure sports at Turkey – Hot air balloons, paragliding, scuba diving, snorkeling, yachting and much more.

22) Turkish economy is on a upswing.

23) Clothes and Shoes are surprisingly very cheap in Turkey.

24)  It is a myth that vegetarians cannot survive in Turkey. In fact, the opposite is true. Vegetarians have so much choice that you will have to watch what you eat else your waistline might start bulging.

25) A Sunday Kahvaltsi (breakfast) is one of the grandest breakfasts you can ever do.

26) Istanbul is a far cry from the rest of the country. The rest of the country is more laidback and relaxed.

27) It is very difficult to identify the people of Turkey by their surnames or family names. This is because after they got independent, the government allowed them to choose new surnames. However, it might still be possible to find out if they are left or right wing.

28) Istiklal street of Istanbul gets close to 3 million visitors every day making it one of the busiest streets in the world.

29) Turkey is extremely rich in agriculture. It’s olives, fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices are some of the best in the world.

30) A game of Backgammon and a hot cup of tea is a favorite past time of Turkey.

31) Most of the men and some women of Turkey smoke. Public smoking is not banned and sometimes drivers smoke inside the buses.

32) In spite of Turkey being a Muslim country, most of its citizens consume alcohol.

33) The Muslim women of Western and Northern Turkey dress liberally without any religious hurdles.

34) A lot of men sport a moustache and a beard in Turkey. And that is why barber shops are ubiquitous in this country.

35) Shoe shine vendors can be found almost in every city of this country, especially in the smaller ones.

36) An authentic Turkish Hamam Bath with a good scrub, massage and bubble bath is a rejuvenating experience.

37) There is more Greek history in Turkey than in Greece.

38) There are more cats in Turkey than dogs. In fact, locals tell me that cats are not neutered and their numbers are increasing at an alarming pace.

39) Turkey has snow capped mountain peaks.

40) A lot of houses in Turkey have red tiled roofs.

41) Most of the bank ATMs in Turkey allow you to withdraw Turkish Liras, Euros and US Dollars.

42) Turkey gets a lot of visitors even during its low season.

43) A lot of Turkish people speak Korean and Chinese due to the increasing number of tourists from China and Korea.

44) Most of Turkey has great public transport.

45) Bollywood movies and its Khans are quite popular in Turkey.

46) South Eastern Anatolian region of Turkey is still pretty unspoilt when it comes to big tourist crowds and thus leads to lots of meaningful exchanges with the local population.

47) Kurdish numbering (1 to 10) pronunciation is nearly the same as the numbering in Hindi.

48) The boys and men of Turkey seem to have a fascination for sweaters that have reindeers prints or weaves.

49) The women of South Turkey, especially the South Eastern area are drop dead gorgeous.

50) Hinduism as a religion is a mystery in many parts of Turkey. In fact, a lot of India is still a mystery to most of the country.

51) The man twirling his moustache while maintaining eye contact with a woman indicates that he is interested in the woman and wants a sexual favor.

52) Musical instruments are very cheap in Turkey and gets a lot of customers from neighboring Europe where the same instruments cost a lot of money.

53) Cars are very expensive in Turkey. Due to the high luxury tax, larger cars become more expensive.

54) Tipping is not a common practice in Turkey, but if given, it is well appreciated.

55) Most of the people of this country are very warm and are keen on having a good conversation with you.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Aslan Guest House: Homely Kurdish Styled Hostel in Urfa, Turkey

This guest house is part of a 270 year old Armenian building located in the atmospheric town of Sanliurfa in South Eastern Turkey.  This town is a bit off the typical tourist trail of Turkey and is located close to the border with Syria. It is steeped in a lot of history and still retains an unspoilt and original look and feel. I stayed in this town for 3 days and 2 nights and during my stay parked myself at the Aslan Guest House. The below review is based on my recent experience of staying with them.



1) The hotel has great location. It is located at 10 to 15 minute walk from all the top sights and attractions that include the bazaar, the museums, the mosque, the fish pond, the castle and others.

2) The ambience of staying in an old house done up tastefully in local traditional design is a bonus.

3) The guest house is located right in the middle of a residential area and hence there might be some trouble finding the place, but directions to the guest house can be found at many places and the locals are really helpful.

4) There is a school located right opposite the guest house. Sometimes, sound levels were more, but it did not affect my sleep in any way.

5) The dormitory is located in an ancient cave room which stays warm during the night and cold during the day.

6) Free breakfast is served in their open courtyard. They serve a local delicacy that is like chilly and scrambled eggs, which is absolutely delicious. It is however a bit on the spicier side.

7) Free tea is served all through the day. Water, Beer and cold drinks can be purchased from the kitchen. Lunch and dinner are provided for at an additional cost if ordered during breakfast.

8) The owner Aslan is very helpful with directions, local places to eat, top places to see and the likes. However, he tries to sell tours to every customer, which is not received well by many.

9) Free wi-fi of good quality is available all throughout the guest house.

10) The guest house is a bit far away from the bus station and the airport. But, that is because, they are located in the new city or in the outskirts.

11) Many restaurants, local dessert shops, super markets and shops are located at a walking distance from the guest house.

12) The guest house did not have any maps, but they compensated by giving me excellent directions.

13) The people running the place are very kind and always serve you with a big smile. I really liked talking with them.

14) The place is also very clean and provides all basic and important amenities like heater/air-conditioning, hot water, breakfast, guidance, etc.

If I return to Sanliurfa and which I intend to on my next trip to Turkey to see Gobekli Tepe and Mt.Neemrut, I will definitely stay here again. In my mind, they are a home in Urfa who offer hotel like amenities.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Boomerang Guest House: Lovely Family Run Guest House at Selcuk

If the ruins of Ephesus is on your Turkey holiday itinerary, then in all probability you will be staying at the small laidback town of Selcuk, where I ended up staying for 2 nights at a family run Guest House called the Boomerang Guest House. The below property review is based on this recent experience of mine.

1) Selcuk is a small town. So basically, everything is within walking distance. The bus station is right opposite the property thus giving you easy and quick access to long distance buses and the dolmuses (to Efes, the beach and other neighboring towns like Sirince).

2) The property is run by a Turkish man, his Chinese wife and his family. They used to live in Australia and hence there is a lot of Australian flavor in this guest house. They offer a lot of Australian dishes and even their favorite vegemite.

3) The place is tastefully done up and they take good care of you while you are there. The owners are very resourceful in giving you information and guiding you to the right place. They are also located in a very quiet neighborhood.

4) Ephesus is just a 10 minute mini bus ride away and the rest of the sights of Selcuk town – the castle, the church, the mosque and the temple of Artemis are just a short walk away.

5) The guest house has an in-house restaurant. Their free breakfast is great and so is the rest of their food.

6) They have a nice dormitory with in-suite bathrooms. But, the dormitory is mostly cold through the day and night and does not have any safety lockers. The showers are very warm and the dorms are also very quiet.

7) They have free wi-fi on their property, which works great in all their rooms and restaurant area. The speeds are one of the faster ones I have encountered in Turkey.

8) The property is located close to restaurants, super markets and the train station.

If you are looking for great family run budget accommodation in Selcuk, this place is a great bet.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Travel Photo:Gozleme Cook from Pamukkale, Turkey

The last three weeks in Turkey has been a gastronomic delight for me. The food is so delicious here that sometimes I feel like I should settle here for good. While everyone knows of the kebabs, Turkish delights, Baklava and other desserts, I would like to bring special mention to the humble Gozleme. This Turkish pancake is a lunch favorite and is consumed with hot tea, yoghurt and tomatoes. Made from wheat flour and cooked on a hot concave iron plate, the Gozleme is typically stuffed with cheese, spinach, chillies and potatoes and with the meat option, some dry beef is added to it.

Gozleme - a favorite pancake dish of Turkey

This Turkish pancake is cooked in front of you, is easy to digest, costs very few liras and takes only a short while to be ready. I gorged on these pancakes especially in smaller towns where they seem to be the rage(unlike the larger towns where doners are the preferred fast food). They are easy to eat and make for a very healthy picnic lunch that you can take on treks and explorations. In this photo is the mother of the family who makes these gozlemes for the family restaurant at Pamukkale in the Anatolian part of Turkey.

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Aztec Connection at Mexico City

If there is a history and culture lover in you, you are bound to love Mexico City, a unique combination of a bustling metropolis and a world heritage city. One of the oldest American cities and the federal hot seat of the Mexican Republic, this city has a lot to offer for the culture lover. And it gets even better if you are looking to explore its rich Aztec history as it is one of those cities with the best Aztec connection. This ancient civilization was discovered and revealed to the Western society by the conquistadores that explored the monumental ruins looking for priceless treasures. For this reason, Aztecs became a symbol of mystery and charm and inspired great adventure movies and even slot games for those who are dreaming about finding the secret of their everlasting splendour. While there are many places to explore the Aztec history, the top 3 are Teotihuacan, Templo Mayor and the Zocalo, which is home to the ancient city ruins of Tenochtitlan.

Teotihuacan – City of the Gods
Known as the ‘City of the Gods’, Teotihuacan is an archaeological site located 40 kms from Mexico city. The Aztecs believed that the gods created this universe in this ancient city that once flourished as the epicenter of culture and commerce during Mesoamerica’s classic period.

Believed to the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, it is home to some of the largest ancient pyramids in the world. While there are many pyramids located in this area, the main pyramids here are the ‘Temple of the Moon’ and ‘The Temple of the Sun’. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl, decorated with manoy stone serpents is one of the most sacred temples in the complex. The museum at the park has outstanding displays and is worth a visit too. A unique way to experience this Aztec city is to see it from inside a hot air balloon early in the morning.

Templo Mayor – The Great Aztec Kingdom
Under the hustle and bustle of modern Mexico city lie the ruins of the pre-Hispanic Aztec capital, once known as Tenochtitlan. At the center of this ancient empire lies the Templo Mayor, the most religious area for the Aztecs. It is here that you can see sections of the two main religious temples (dedicated to the god of war and rain god), serpent carvings, pyramids and shrines. You can also see a ceremonial platform where ancient Aztec rituals were held. All the unearthed structures can be seen at the Templo Mayor museum, which houses clay pots, corals, figurines, urns, masks, skulls, obsidian knives and much more. The historic complex of the Templo Mayor and its museum are part of the UNESCO world heritage site and make for a stunning visit.
 
The Zocalo
The historical heart of the city, the Zocalo is the largest square in Latin America and the third largest in the world after Moscow’s Red Square and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Once the main center of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, this is the heart of this busy city. It is here that you will discover pre-Hispanic ruins and pre-colonial buildings. Home to civic and cultural events, the Zocalo is a great place to study and interact with the local people as you will meet business executives, workers, fashionistas, vendors, buskers, Aztec dancers and many more. The National Palace is located here too at the very spot where the palace of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma once stood. The ideal way to explore the Zocalo is by weaving in and out of its ruins, its restaurants and by soaking in its rich life.

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The Hundred Foot Journey: A Great Travel Read

I was gifted this book (The Hundred Foot Journey) on my birthday by my friend and it turned out to be one of the most entertaining travel books I have read in a long while. A work of fiction, this novel is about the story of a Indian restaurant family from Mumbai who move away from Mumbai due to trouble in Mumbai before finally settling in France. The book is about food, the Indian and the French cultures and a bit of travel.

I am a foodie, love the French culture to an extent and love traveling and hence when I started reading this book, it kept me captivated till I finished it. An easy read, Robert C Morais, the author has done a lot of research into the foods and cultures of India and France and through this book brings out a very alluring story, especially through a rich gastronomical journey.

The Hundred-Foot Journey Book Review
There is drama. There are fights. There is good food. And there is a nice story. The book also offers a great insight into the French culture, its foods, its places and a lot of its culture. The Indian family also travel a bit in this story, so you get a good idea of Western Europe and their favorite foods.

Now that I have read the book, I would like to watch the movie next and see which one is better, the book or the movie. If you have a long flight, a long layover, a long journey or a relaxed holiday, I would definitely recommend you this book. It is so good that you will not be able to put it down. Or at least that was the case with me.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Yildirim Guest House: Excellent Budget Accommodation at Fethiye, Turkey

There are many guest houses, hostels and hotels that are good out there, but a few fall in the category of home away from home. The Yildirim Guest house falls in the later category. During my recent visit to Fethiye on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, I stayed here for 5 nights. I absolutely loved my experience of staying here and extended my initial 2 night plan to 5 nights. Below is a detailed review based on this recent experience of mine.

1) The guest house is located right opposite the marina front along with other guest houses. It is a 15 minute walk from the city center and market area.

2) The guest house is run by a man, who is a traveler himself. Omer is extremely resourceful and helpful. He helped me with details about the Lycian way, local sightseeing information, best restaurants to eat in the town, and much more. He helped others with tours, hamam baths, tickets, etc. Basically, a very resourceful local contact.

3) The guest house has simple and comfortable rooms and dormitory. Both of them come with hot showers. The dormitory doesn’t have safety lockers, but their 24 hour security provides some comfort.

4) They serve free and great Turkish breakfast every morning. Breakfast is of great quality. They also serve free coffee and tea all through the day and night.

5) Free wi-fi is available all through the guest house. However, during bad weather, the wi-fi kept playing hide and seek.

6) The family atmosphere of this guest house is what I really liked. You meet fellow travelers, share travel stories, travel together and get tips from Omer. Sometimes, we even cook together. On one night, I was invited to cook Indian food for the interested customers.

7) The guest house doesn’t have an in-house restaurant and most of the restaurants are at least a 10 minute walk away, but if you manage the walk, you will come across a wide variety of restaurants and bars. Supermarkets and ATMs however, are located very close by.

8) All the tourist attractions are located outside Fethiye and will require you to either rent a motorcycle or car or take the public mini-bus (dolmus). The mini-bus station is a 15 minute walk through the market area of Fethiye.

9) Pick-ups, tours and bookings are arranged by the guest house, in case you wish for help.

10) The guest house provides laundry service, for an additional fee.

11) The dormitory is comfortable and warm, but when it rains heavily, you can hear the sound of rain in the room.

I really had a great time staying here and exploring the beautiful Mediterranean coast of Turkey along with its spectacular hikes. If you are looking for quality, homely, budget and comfortable accommodation, then I would recommend that you give this guest house a try.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Weekend breaks in Florence

Florence is a great option if you're looking for somewhere to get away for the weekend. Exuding European charm, culture and history, this is a city that has what it takes to give you a holiday to remember. Among the hundreds of things to do, here are some that will give Florence a place in your heart for years to come.

Weekend breaks in Florence

Climb Giotto's Tower

You should visit Duomo Square anyway – it's a fabulous place to watch the world go by, preferably with an ice cream or two – but, while you're there, make sure you take the chance to see Florence from another angle up Giotto’s Tower. This remarkable bell tower designed by the man whose name it bears, gives you the best of both worlds: a sweeping panorama of the city's streets and an up close and personal look at Brunelleschi's magnificent Dome close by. You do need a head for heights, and there's an admission charge, but you won't get a view like this anywhere else.

Visit the Bargello Museum
The Florence gallery everyone knows about is the Uffizi. Its paintings are undeniably superb, but the long waits to get in make it a poor choice for weekend breaks: you don't want to use up half your precious time in this wonderful city on one attraction. Instead, head for the old prison block that hosts the city's extraordinary collection of sculptures. You can see Donatello's bronze version of the famous David – without the crowds that plague the original – and several remarkable works by Michelangelo himself. A world-class museum without world-class queues? This is it.

Cross the Ponte Vecchio

It's noisy, it's sometimes unbearably busy and much of the merchandise on offer is of poor quality – but there's still something about Florence's most famous bridge that demands a visit. The medieval architecture of the shops that sit upon its stone arches is undeniably splendid, while walking a little way along the river will take you away from the crowds. Go in the early morning, when the bridge has room to breathe and then relax at a nearby café with a cappuccino made as only true Italians can.

Stroll in the gardens

Florence is blessed with several green oases, which make ideal places to get away from the city's crowds for a while. The Bardini Gardens in the Oltrarno Quarter are peaceful and elegant; there's a restaurant on site, but not a lot else – other than some truly spectacular city vistas. If you prefer your greenery combined with something a bit more varied, the larger and better-known Boboli Gardens will see you pass grottoes, fountains and even a porcelain museum as you wander along its sweeping paths. When time is short on a weekend, simply walking around and taking in the gardens, architecture and general atmosphere of Florence will leave you feel rejuvenated and inspired. Promising to come back and see all the attractions later in the year is just another reason to revisit.

Image by Putneypics, used under the Creative Commons license.

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Turkey’s Favorite Alcoholic Drink

A trip to Turkey is not complete without being a part of a raki-sofrasi session. This is when you taste the national drink of Turkey and consume it alongside meze, a great assorted selection of hot and cold appetizers. A raki-sofrasi is like the norm with most Turkish people all over the country. It is a great way to sample this strong alcoholic drink with some great vegetarian and meat appetisers that go so well with this drink.

Raki - Turkey's Favorite Alcoholic Drink
This drink, which is made from grapes and flavored with anise is ideally had dry with normal or sparkling water separately. Some people are also known to mix it with ice and water. When raki is mixed with water, it becomes milky colored and tastes a tad different. Depending on your personal preference, you can try either of these drinking techniques. Irrespective of the technique, all people enjoy the meze that is had along with this drink. Raki is a bit stiff with 45% alcohol content and one needs to acquire a taste to enjoy it. It is one of those few drinks that doesn’t burn your throat. Rather, it makes your ears feel unbelievably warm.

The Mezes of Turkey
If you visit Turkey, I would heavily recommend trying this local drink. If you don’t consume alcohol, you should at least be a part of the raki-sofrasi session, enjoy the moments and the great food. A trip to Turkey is not complete without taking part in this iconic tradition. And when you do take part in this tradition, do remember to say SEREFE!!

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Subrosa Station: Comfortable Budget Hotel in the Sultanahmet Area of Istanbul

If you are a tourist to Istanbul, you are bound to stay either in the Taksim or the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul as they are close to all the key attractions. On my first visit to Istanbul, I stayed in the Sultanahmet area at a hotel called the Subrosa Station. I stayed at this budget hotel for 3 days and 2 nights and the below is my review of this hotel based on this recent experience of mine.

1) The hotel has great location. Situated just 200m from the Sultanahmet tram station and short walking distance to the Blue Mosque, Ay Sofya, Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern, this place is close to all the main attractions of Istanbul. And since the tram station is located close by, all the other places are also easily accessible.

2) The hotel has comfortable rooms that offer heating/cooling, attached bathroom with hot water and great wi-fi.

3) The people running this guest house are great people who are always happy to answer the various questions that the travelers have. They also speak good English.

4) There are many restaurants near the hotel, but most of them are very expensive as they cater primarily to the tourists. If you walk a bit further, you will find authentic and cheaper local restaurants.

5) The hotel is also close to the grand bazaar area and the spice market in case you are interested in shopping.

6) If you have an evening bus, this hotel allows you to use their common room, wi-fi, toilets and also provide you with access to a luggage storage room.

7) In terms of access from the airport, you can do a combination of metro and tram (if you are coming from Attaturk airport) or get a bus (if you are coming from Sabiha airport)

8) Even though the hotel is located right in the middle of the busy area, it is awfully quiet in the night and ensures good sleep. The only problem is the early morning call for prayer, which you can hear almost from everywhere in Turkey.

9) The standard rooms cost about 40 Euros. They don’t offer breakfast or any other meal. But, they offer hot tea, coffee and water all through the day.

If you are looking for a good budget hotel in the tourist hub of Sultanahmet, you should give this place a try. It is simple, clean and comfortable.

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Fun and Cultural: A Worldly Holiday in Malta

When you visit Malta, you'll be tapping in to at least seven thousand years of history. Traders and soldiers, from Phoenicians and Romans to Muslims and Crusaders, have all helped to create its character, with the influence of diverse cultures still apparent today. You'll find reminders of the past everywhere, right up to relics of World War II, when Malta played a role as a base for Allied forces.

However, it's more than just a historic location, and offers today's tourists a variety of attractions and activities. This Mediterranean archipelago is made up of Malta, Gozo and Comino. The latter, the smallest, is mostly uninhabited, with just one hotel to tempt those in search of solitude. Gozo relies on agriculture, fishing, tourism and crafts, while as the largest, Malta itself is a centre for commerce, culture and administration.

A holiday in Malta

Malta holidays guarantee you a traditional vacation experience with good weather, pretty beaches, lively nightlife, and plenty of sightseeing. Head for Comino's Blue Lagoon, a sheltered cove close to the islet of Cominotto, or try diving and snorkelling around the Azure Window, an arc in the cliffs of Gozo. Nearby is the Blue Hole, a limestone chimney that connects with the sea via an underwater arch. If you prefer to avoid potential crowds around these marvels, check out instead the collapsed cavern of Dwejra Bay, and enjoy stunning views from Qawra Tower. Cruise around Valletta, or if you're around on a Sunday, browse the busy fish market in Marsaxlokks.

St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, built between 1573 and 1578, boasts a couple of paintings by Caravaggio, who fled here to escape punishment in Rome, throwing himself on the mercy of the Knights of the Order of St John. In 1693, an earthquake destroyed Mdina’s Norman cathedral of St Paul's, and Lorenzo Gafa's baroque replacement features serpent and fire motifs on the two bell towers, to commemorate the saint's first miracle here. The same natural disaster felled the Cathedral of the Assumption, also rebuilt by Gafa.

Time your stay to take in one of the many festivals in arts, the baroque, opera, choirs, and July's International Jazz Festival. Music from pop to classical rocks the island, and the clubbing scene thrives. Bands are a local tradition, with each town holding an annual fiesta. Plays, performed either open-air or within the eighteenth century Manoel Theatre, are another popular diversion.

The family-friendly beaches are safe for the little ones, and there are activities for all ages. Kids will also love the Splash and Fun Park with its wave pool, tunnels, water slides, and a "lazy river" to be negotiated on a rubber tube. Malta provides spectacular scenery, quality entertainment, delicious food, and awesome history, all in an ideal climate, making it the perfect destination. And it's that's a little bit different.

Image by Beatriz Garcia, used under Creative Commons license.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Travel Photo: Hierapolis Theatre, Turkey

Seating close to 15,000 people and nearly 2000 years old, the amphitheatre at Hierapolis is a sight that leaves you speechless. It is part of the ancient holy city that is a UNESCO world heritage site and one that is situated among the beautiful hot water springs and travertines. This was the place where plays, gladiator fights and other performances were played in the hey days. It is located on a hill and is designed with great acoustic taste.

Roman Amphitheater at Hierapolis
Even today, if you sing a song here, the sound booms through the theater and which showcases the knowledge of acoustic engineering even in that age. In my mind, that is truly amazing. In fact, every bit of this ancient holy city captures one’s imagination. It is no wonder that this place is immensely popular with all tourists visiting Turkey.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sahlep: Tasty Winter Drink from Turkey

The Turkish tea and the coffee (Kahve) are very popular drinks in this beautiful country, but come winter, another drink joins the popular list. In fact, it is so popular in the winter months that this drink can be bought at every street seller and at every cafe in the country. Made from the tubers of an orchid, milk, water, vanilla, rose water, cinnamon and pistachio nuts, this thick drink called Sahlep is like the perfect drink you can have on a cold day. The only thing to remember is not to drink it too fast (even if you like the drink a lot) as else you might burn your throat and tongue.

Sahlep with Cinnamon powder at istanbul 
Personally, I indulged in them whenever the cold wind picked up speed or the temperatures plummeted. Not only does this drink warm you instantly, it also feels so good to drink and comforts the throat too. The recipe of this drink is believed to have been created during the reign of the Ottoman kings, but its use today is spread across Turkey, Greece, Central Asia and even Europe, which imports this ready to make drink from Turkey.  The locals do not use the ready to make powder to make this drink, but rather prepare it in the painstakingly original way with the raw materials. And, the end result is an of the world taste.

Street seller selling Sahlep at Istanbul, Turkey
If you visit Turkey during the winter months, do not miss to try out this drink especially on a cold and grey day. And if you like it, you can buy a box of Sahlep as a souvenir for your friends and family back home. I am going to indulge in this drink a bit more while I am traveling through Turkey.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Monks Valley from Cappadocia, Turkey

When people talk of Cappadocia, there is an element of awe and wonder in the conversation, but when you see it in person, that awe and wonder increases exponentially. This central Anatolian region has to be one of nature’s rarest and best creations. Take these mushrooms for example that stand in the middle of flat lands at Pasabag or Monk’s valley near the Zelve open air museum area of Cappadocia.

Mushrooms from Pasabag, near Zelve in Cappadocia

During my 4 days in Cappadocia, I did many hikes and this area was one of my favorite as the day was bright and sunny and the views were un-paralleled. I definitely intend to return to this beautiful region of Turkey soon. This area is so good for lonely and yet insanely scenic hikes.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

5 Flavor-Filled Vegetarian Restaurants in Vancouver

Whether you’re a strict vegetarian or like to choose meat-free cuisine as often as possible, it can be difficult to find tasty vegetarian meals when you’re traveling around in an unfamiliar city. Happily, Vancouver is not a spot lacking in dining delights for those who like to abstain from animal products. From cool cafes to happening restaurants, there are venues around the city that are serving up fresh, quality vegetarian meals on a daily basis.

VancouverWhether you’re keen to sample some veggie burgers, want to taste a fresh salad, or need your fix of Asian cuisine, you’ll find something to suit your appetite in Vancouver. Read on for five top vegetarian restaurants you can add to your itinerary.

1. Tera V Burger
Burgers at Tera V Burger
When you begin to feel the craving for a burger, don’t worry about finding a great vegetarian option in Vancouver. Tera V Burger serves up healthy yet appetizing veggie burgers that aren’t like those found at other fast-food joints. Rather than using patties made from low-grade beef mince or caged-chicken fillets, the restaurant utilizes quality vegetarian ingredients instead. Tera V has a mission to provide diners with great food that not only satisfies strict vegetarians, but also helps turn meat eaters onto the benefits of going meat-free. Even Vegan diners will find great-tasting food options here.

The owner of the venue, Jagmohan Basran, believes in running a business that works to alleviate not only human health problems, but also environmental degradation and cruelty to animals. He aims to expand his single restaurant into a worldwide chain that provides top vegetarian food to people around the globe.

The menu includes a range of burgers, as well as salads, sandwiches, wraps, and smoothies. The restaurant sources local ingredients as much as possible, and makes use of biodegradable and compostable packaging. Tera V has a bright, clean, modern interior that features plenty of wood and a striking photographic mural.

2. Heirloom Vegetarian
Another fresh, exciting location can be found at the Heirloom Vegetarian restaurant. If you’re vacationing in Vancouver and want to dine on items designed by a high-profile chef, this is the place to go. The Heirloom Vegetarian chef has past experience cooking for a variety of notable names, including Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Sting, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, and even Kermit the Frog. At this purely-vegetarian restaurant, you’ll find a menu that features raw, vegan, and gluten-free choices, all made from local, Fair Trade and organic ingredients. The business also provides customers with late-night dining, craft beers, generous portion sizes, a comprehensive wine list, interesting musical playlist, and free Wi-Fi. Vegetarian food from local produce

3. Dharma Kitchen
Vegans will love dining at Vancouver’s Dharma Kitchen. This Buddhist restaurant is completely vegan, and serves up fresh, healthy, uncomplicated food with a focus on Asian cuisine. At Dharma, diners can enjoy “the food of mindfulness,” as they munch on menu items that include curries, burgers, tofu dishes, and their famous homemade chai tea. With a name that comes from the fundamentals behind the Buddhist way of life and philosophies, Dharma is set up to honor sustainable development and good karma.

The restaurant aims to benefit the environment and its customers by mixing ancient wisdom in the ingredients used, with modern cooking techniques. The venue is the perfect place to go for healthy food served in a calming, meditative dining atmosphere with friendly service.

4. Panz Veggie
For good-value, fresh, and tasty vegan Chinese cuisine, head to Panz Veggie. The restaurant uses only local, ethical and healthy ingredients and provides a range of light dishes that are great for sharing. Located in downtown Vancouver, the venue has a Chinese name that translates to the word “compassion,” so you can understand why many diners frequent Panz on a regular basis. The restaurant’s atmosphere is laid-back and relaxing, with staff that do not try to rush customers out the door. Instead, diners are encouraged to sip their tea refills, digest their meal, and finish conversations in an unhurried manner before leaving.

5. 3G Vegetarian Restaurant
If you love a good yum cha meal on a weekend, take a trip to 3G Vegetarian Restaurant in the Cambie Village. The vegan-friendly venue features an all-day dim sum menu with its own vegetarian versions of popular items like pork or shrimp dumplings and pork buns. 3G was voted the “Best Vegetarian Restaurant” in the 2013 Diner’s Choice Awards, and also received top honours in 2012 from VegNews Magazine, when it was ranked as the “Best in the West.”

With all of these delicious restaurants you won’t have to worry about having trouble finding vegetarian meals in Vancouver. The next time you’re looking for a vacation destination where you can maintain your meat-free lifestyle, check prices to Vancouver on Flights.com. Even those in your party that haven’t converted to vegetarianism yet will be able to enjoy the food here, so there’s really no downside.

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Monday, November 03, 2014

Aarti Ceremony at Pashupatinath: A Rich Spiritual Experience

Along with the Muktinath Temple, the Pashupatinath Temple is one of the top religious sites of Nepal and definitely the top Hindu temple in the country. Hence, it is a given that as a tourist, you would visit this temple for sure. However, there is a catch here. Only Hindus are allowed into the temple (they get in for free) and all non-Hindu tourists are not allowed even though they have to shell out NPR 1000 rupees as an entrance fee. And for the entrance fee, you just get to see the temple exteriors, funeral ghats and the river.

Maha Aarti at ghats of Bagmati river, Kathmandu 
If you plan well, you can see all of this for free. All you have to do is reach the other bank of the river Bagmati. From here, you can see the Pashupatinath Temple, see the ghats where the cremations happen, meet the Sadhus and participate in the Aarti ceremony that is held every evening at 7 pm.



Held on the river bank that is opposite to the Pashupatinath Temple, the Aarti ceremony is similar to the Aarti ceremony that happens by the Ganges at Varanasi. The concept is the same. Offerings are made to Goddess Bagmati (the river Bagmati), the Lord Shiva (Pashupatinath), his consort Parvathi and to all the other Hindu gods and goddesses who are at the temple.

Maha Aarti and a cremation in the background at Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu
The best time to get to the other bank is at 6 pm and to find yourself a nice seat from where you can see the entire Aarti ceremony, listen to the chants, hum with the locals, dance with the Sadhus and make a connection with your spiritual self. And before the entire ceremony starts, you can watch the cremation ceremonies taking place at the opposite bank. And if the crowds are less and you are not in any threat to lose your favorite seat, you can even indulge in some photography.  


The Aarti ceremony lasts about 60 minutes and takes you through the customs and traditions of Hinduism in a very structured way. When I was there for the Aarti ceremony, I felt a stronger connection with the local people who sang their heart out and danced in the steps of Lord Shiva. Let me warn you that you will definitely find the energy levels high and infectious here. And hopefully, you will experience a rich spiritual connection.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Tana Toraja: Scenic Countryside Of Sulawesi

In my earlier article about Tana Toraja, I had spoken about their unique culture and how they celebrate death. In this post, I want to show you how kind mother nature has been to this region of Indonesia’s South-Central Sulawesi.

Scenic Tana Toraja Countryside
Like most of Sulawesi island, Tana Toraja too is blessed with rich volcanic soil and great equatorial weather, which means that greenery is absolutely everywhere and in abundance. It rains almost every day. Hence, there are lovely mountain streams and waterfalls. Some of these waterfalls are deep inside the forests and make for great treks. Some of them are right beside roads and make for great picnic spots.

Terraced Rice Terraces of Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia
A lot of tourists who visit Tana Toraja indulge in nature therapy here before or after understanding their culture. Typically, tourists prefer to stay with the locals in their houses amidst lush green paddy fields and surrounded by equatorial and tropical rainforests. A lot of people simply prefer to put their feet up and enjoy a hut cup of Torajan coffee, while the adventurous few decide to explore the region.

A Tana Toraja paddyfield landscape at Lemo
If you are one of the adventurous bunch, you can explore the terrain by foot, bicycle or motorcycle. You can chart a route depending on your interest. If you were to ask me, I would build a route that is a mix n match of culture and nature. This means that I would visit remote burial sites, smaller villages, great view points, rice terraces, waterfalls and much more.

Beautiful view of Rantepao from Batutumonga
If you are exploring the region by motorcycle, keep Rantepao as a base and explore the area to the north on one day, the south on the other and keep juggling. If you are exploring by bicycle, you will need to stay in villages. This will be more interesting as you will get to see the true rural countryside and spend the night with the locals, who are very friendly and helpful. If you are exploring on foot, you will take the lesser known trails over mountains and crossing streams to the remotest and most beautiful corners of Tana Toraja. This will require you to have at least a week if not more and you should find a Torajan local to guide you as you might get lost.

Rice fields of Tana Toraja
Irrespective of the mode of exploration, do make sure that you carry a good pair of shoes, a rain cover, torches or headlamps and some warm wear with you at all times. Torajan weather is pretty unpredictable and the last thing you want is to fall sick in the middle of pristine nature.

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Saturday, November 01, 2014

Changu Narayan: A Story of a Beautiful Temple and Lovely Valley Views

There are many sensationally beautiful places in the Kathmandu valley. Changu Narayan is one of them. What it lacks in size (it is a very small town), it makes up for in character. It is home to one of the oldest temples of Nepal and offers some very beautiful valley views from its hilltop view point. I think it is one of the most scenic heritage sites in the Kathmandu valley.

Hindu priest at the entrance of Changgu Narayan Temple, Nepal
Perched on top of a hill and overlooking the Bhaktapur valley is located the small village of Changu or Dholagiri. This village is home to the Changu Narayan Temple, one of the heritage sites of Nepal and one that features pillars and statues from the 5th to the 7th century.

Green rice valley as seen from Changgu Narayan Temple view point
Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the Changu Narayan temple, a traditional Nepali temple is revered a lot by the Hindus and is quite an experience to see up close. When I was there recently, I was blown away by the statues of the various incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Till before this place, even in India, I hadn’t come across so many beautiful and ancient sculptures of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu anywhere.

Beautiful Vishwaroopam statue at Changgu Narayan Temple, Nepal
Here, you can see Vishwaroop, Trivikram Vishnu, Vaikunta Vishnu, Sridhar Vishnu, Garuda, Garuda Narayan and Narasimha all located a few feet from each other. Most of these sculptures date back to the 7th century and still exist in pristine condition even today.

Different Avatars of Maha Vishnu at Changgu Narayan Temple, Nepal
Whether you are a temple lover, a history lover, a believer in Hinduism, Changu Narayan will offer you enough and more. Even if you are a regular tourist out to see interesting things, Changu Narayan will offer you some breathtaking views from around its temple.

Large garuda statue in front of Changgu Narayan Temple
This means that once you finish your temple tour, you can find a view point, order yourself a hot cup of tea or coffee and soak in the lovely green views of the valley below and the Himalayan mountains surrounding them.

Maha Vishnu in Ananatasayanam mode at Changgu Narayan Temple, Nepal
All tourists are allowed into the temple and can photograph any area of the temple from the courtyard. However, only Hindus are allowed to enter the temple sanctum and no photography is allowed inside.

Maha Vishnu with Maha Lakshmi at Changgu Narayan Temple, Nepal
An entrance fee of NPR 50 (SAARC) and NPR 150 (Foreign tourists) is charged to enter the temple. It is a short 5 minute climb from the entrance booth to the temple. The stairs to the top are wide enough and you have lots of shops to keep you company in case you run out of breath or need to hydrate yourself.

Sculptures of Hindu gods at Changgu Narayan Temple, Nepal
In terms of access, one can either reach Changu Narayan by bus from Kathmandu and/or Bhaktapur or trod the hilly path to the temple. I opted to trek the way to the top from Bhaktapur. The climb took me 2 and a half hours and on my way back I took the bus to Kathmandu. Buses ply every 30 minutes from the bus station near the entrance booth.

Lovely valley view as seen from Changgu Narayan Temple
Since this area gets a lot of sun and rains, it is advisable to carry an umbrella with you at all times. Infrastructure is scarce here. However, you can find yourself basic food, beverages and souvenirs here. The nearest stay option would be in Bhaktapur.

Various avatars of Lord Vishn at Changgu Narayan Temple, Nepal
If you are culturally inclined, interested in Hinduism or simply want to enjoy some beautiful views, Changu Narayan is the place for you. Its rustic setting, remote access and less crowds are just the icing on the cake.

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