Naxos, Greece

We took a ferry from Kea to Naxos. We had planned to stay five nights and use Naxos as a base camp to visit one or two of the small Cyclades Islands. Neither of these plans went accordingly. The first night we were there, we stopped into the travel agency (which is also where you buy ferry tickets). I asked about getting to and from one of the small Cyclades Islands. I was told that, at this time of year, I could not get to and from any of these islands (Iraklia, Schoinousa, Koufonisi, etc.) in the same day. When I tried to ask more questions, I was rebuffed and simply told no. This was not the helpful or positive information I was looking for. Then, on the fifth night of our stay, we discovered there would be a ferry strike for the next two days. However, between these two unfortunate pieces of information, we thoroughly enjoyed the island of Naxos.

We stayed in the Old Town at an Airbnb.com for about $89 a night. While this was more expensive than I would have liked, it was a great location. We felt like we were living in a piece of history as the apartment was built into a structure that is centuries old.

We found some amazing little restaurants and bars in the Old Town of Naxos. One such restaurant has a logo of two fat men drinking. Even though we had dinner there three times, I never learned the name of the restaurant, but it was consistently delicious and I can highly recommend the meatballs and the carbonara pasta. Follow the signs; you’ll be happy you did. We also frequented a bar called Elia. It is in the Old Town and has a red door. It may look closed, but keep trying. The wine options are lovely and not your average young, Greek wines, especially when it comes to the reds. Also, the bakeries around town, even near the port, are great spots to grab a filling snack like spanikopita for around 2-3€.

When we ventured out of the Old Town, we found Nostimon Hellas among many other shops and restaurants. The restaurant takes a creative spin on Greek food and the service was very friendly.

We rented a car for two days while on the island. We drove to a few other towns and spent an afternoon hiking between five towns. We used this link to plan one of the hikes.

naxos hike
A view from our hike around Naxos.
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After hiking, we stumbled upon this abandoned building complex that was covered in extremely beautiful graffiti.

The hiking route was well-marked once we were on the trail. When looking for other hiking trails and information on things to do around the island, these two websites were very helpful.

http://www.greektravel.com/greekislands/naxos/
http://www.thisisnaxos.gr/eng/page.aspx?itemID=SPG1

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Naxos, Greece

Kalamata, Greece

After our Bulgarian adventures, we flew to Athens to meet our friend, Rheanna, for a few days of travel. We rented a car at the airport and headed for the town of Kalamata. We stayed in an apartment rented through Airbnb.com for $75USD a night. The apartment was a 10 minute drive to Kalamata’s town center and five minutes down to the beach. While it was hard to find, it had an amazing view.

The view from our apartment was stunning.
The view from our apartment was stunning.

While in town, we ate at the Oino Cafe. Three of us shared five small dishes and drank wine for about 10€ each. It was delicious and a great change from traditional Greek dishes.

kalamata

Kalamata has a nice pedestrian area for shopping as well as a strip of bars and restaurants for hanging out at night. There are a handful of souvlaki shops with delicious pitas as well as very friendly staff. At about 5€ for a pita and a drink, they are great places for a good, cheap meal out. Kalamata definitely had lots to see and we definitely didn’t see if all. Check out the Kalamata page on Wikitravel.org for more information.

Kalamata, Greece

Bulgaria on a budget

When my husband and I started researching Bulgaria, we were excited about all of the places to see and things to do. We were also delighted at the affordable prices on hotels, rental cars, and attractions. In fact, a lot of fortresses, monasteries, etc. were free to enter. Despite our research, we were shocked at how cheap the costs were once we were on the ground.

We had budgeted $70USD a night for hotels, guesthouses, and apartments on Airbnb.com. The actual cost per night was closer to $40USD. We had budgeted about $60USD per day for food and drinks for both of us; that was a high estimate. Our first few meal portions were so big that we started sharing meals. Instead of each ordering a main dish, we would split a meat dish, add a veggie, and a salad or soup and be completely full at the end. We ended up spending closer to $30USD a day on food and booze. And with bottled beer costing 2-3BGN, we felt like we hit the jackpot. For those who like whiskey (as I do), check out Bulgaria’s Black Ram whiskey. I tend to order it with a Coke. While it’s not served together like a cocktail, they do give a hefty pour of whiskey (50ml is considered the small portion) and a small bottle of Coke. On average, this drink order cost $4BGN; not bad for a good, stiff drink!

Having learned about 100 words of Bulgarian (including words for Bulgarian foods) definitely made the trip more affordable and enjoyable. Reading Cyrillic is difficult, but it helped us feel more comfortable walking into an establishment where an English menu or asking questions in English were not options. Furthermore, 100 words of Bulgarian definitely endeared us to locals more than having no Bulgarian words at our disposal (though I am sure we were embarrassing ourselves constantly).

Bulgaria on a budget

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

After two days of hiking, we headed toward Plovdiv. The drive took longer than expected and our fellow drivers were making me nervous (see my blog entry regarding the roads  and drivers of Bulgaria). Instead of making it all the way to Plovdiv, we rerouted and went to the Todoroff Hotel.

The hotel includes a spa, a winery, and a restaurant. We arrived with the idea that we would taste their wines and then maybe spend the night. By the time we got there, the wine tasting had ended for the day but the restaurant was open, so we grabbed a bottle of their Mavrud wine and ordered a few appetizers. As we drank the delicious wine (and realized that we could no longer drive the rental car), we asked about staying the night. We had seen it on Booking.com for $56USD for a double room. We inquired at the front desk and they offered us a “single room” (which included a double bed, not a queen bed) for $43USD including parking and breakfast. We took it. While this may not seem like the frugal option, we wondered where else we could stay at a winery for less than $50USD.

Once we dropped our stuff in the room, we decided that we needed more drinks. We wandered towards the center of town (about a 15 minute walk) and found an establishment with a Coca-Cola sign out front and a bunch of men drinking inside. We decided to go for it. Once inside, we realized that this was not really a bar but more a convenience store/restaurant/bar. We ordered two beers and one rakia. The rakia was the equivalent of four shots. We stumbled out of there having only spent 7BGN.

We only spent two days in Plovdiv so I don’t have a lot of recommendations. We spend most of our time wandering the Old Town. We did, however, pop into a wine bar called Vino Culture one afternoon and loved it so much we went back that evening for more drinks, tapas, and live music. It was such a great little space and I highly recommend a visit. We also visited a bar called Nylon which was a great little find. It felt like a neighborhood hangout and while it seemed like we were the only out-of-town visitors there, we felt welcomed.

The Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv.
The Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv.

There is also a fortress and a monastery near Plovdiv. We did not have the opportunity to visit them though we wish we had. If you have time, visit Asen’s Fortress and the Bachkovo Monastery.

I have read many blogs that compared Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv and chose one town over another. I would argue that both towns are worth a visit. Plovdiv seems like a regular town that has an Old Town area that attracts tourist. But there is a lot of shopping, art, and cultural options there as well. On the other hand, Veliko Tarnovo seems like a town focused on tourism with a real town hidden behind it. While there is a lot of public art, it feels like tourism is the focus. If I would have had more time on this trip, I would have spent more time in both towns to see what else they have to offer. Check out the Plovdiv tourism website as it is helpful and includes an events calendar which is very extensive. Here are other blogs and websites that I found helpful.

http://davidsbeenhere.com/2014/07/11/travel-guide-plovdiv-bulgaria-see/
http://www.freerangetravel.com/things-to-do-and-see-in-plovdiv-bulgaria/
http://wikitravel.org/en/Plovdiv

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Rangeley, Maine

Over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I visited friends in the small town of Rangeley, Maine. Before we made the drive to Rangeley, we started our tour of Maine in Portland. We picked up some friends at the airport and then grabbed drinks and snacks at The Thirsty Pig, where we were greeted by happy hour and an extensive sausage selection.

Happy hour at The Thirty Pig
Happy hour at The Thirty Pig

Afterwards, we piled into the car to make the 2.5 hour drive to lakes region of Maine. We stayed with friends in the village of Oquossoc, just a ten minute drive from the town of Rangeley. Both town and village are on beautiful Rangeley Lake and are a great base for exploring the region. While in Oquossoc, we visited a few bars in town, including the Four Seasons. It was a casual, laid back place with friendly bartenders and great deals. We had high hopes of checking out Moose Alley, the local bowling alley in Rangeley, but we never made it. We’ll have to go there next time as we heard good things about the friendly staff and great food.

The beauty of Lake Rangeley
The beauty of Lake Rangeley

While in Rangeley, we were introduced to the owners of the Farmhouse Inn. They have  hostel-like accommodations for hikers trekking the Appalachian Trail as well as private rooms with kitchen facilities. The entire property is so lovingly built and maintained by the owners. They are remodeling the existing structure and building new structures with reclaimed materials when possible. For photos and more information, please check out their Facebook page. Though we did not stay there, I cannot express how impressed I was with the projects they are working on and their warm hospitality during our visit.

We also enjoyed the outdoors as much as we could and took in all of the natural beauty Maine has to offer. We hiked up Bald Mountain (worth the climb). We also hiked Cascade Falls (also locally called The Cascades) and crossed paths with a young moose! Both locations are part of a local land trust and therefore are free of charge.

We had to slowly walk by this young moose to continue on the trail while also keeping an eye out for the mother moose.
We had to slowly walk by this young moose to continue on the trail while also keeping an eye out for the mother moose.

We also took a boat tour on Rangeley Lake with Kevin Sinnett, Captain of the Oquossoc Lady (rangeleylakecruises.com). Lounging on the boat while taking in all the beauty was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Mr. Sinnett also offers a few private suites right on the lake. Check out the website or you can use Airbnb.com to book a suite. When we visit Rangeley again, I know we have lots of options of where to stay to enjoy this awe inspiring part of Maine.

The view from the boat.
The view from the boat.
Rangeley, Maine

Arrowtown, New Zealand

We decided to stay in Arrowtown instead of Queenstown partially due to the fact that we couldn’t find a last minute place to stay in Queenstown. We found a great little house in Arrowtown on Airbnb.com. At $253 USD a night for four people, it was over our regular budget of $50 USD per person per night, but it totally fit our needs. We ate a few meals in to make up for the rental cost. We relaxed on the front porch and took walks down the river path a couple of blocks away. Once again, New Zealand knows how to make nature accessible.

There are restaurants, shops, and winery tasting rooms to visit. One restaurant we spend a lot of time at was the Fork and Tap. It had delicious food and a good drink list. And while it wasn’t cheap, it made for a great birthday celebration spot for our group. The Postmaster’s Residence also looked lovely but we didn’t make it in.

Arrowtown was so laid back and quaint. It didn’t seem as touristy as Queenstown. If I could go back, I would eat my way through this town.
Arrowtown, New Zealand

Jerusalem, Israel

My sister-in-law Kim and I stay in Jerusalem for three nights. We rented an apartment through Airbnb.com just off Jaffa Street (also spelled Yafo Street) about a 15 minute walk northwest of the Old City. We saw the sites of the old city which are mainly free. We also took a tour of the tunnels under the old city that cost about NIS22. It was a wonderful way to learn more about the history of the city.

We also visited the West Bank with Abraham Tours. The tour took all day visiting the River Jordan, Jericho, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the Taybeh Brewery. And at US$105 per person, it wasn’t a bad deal though we expected our guide to share more information than he did.

The West Bank Barrier covered in local art.

Many people who visit Jerusalem might be on a pilgrimage of one type or another. The pilgrimage experience can be sullied if you expect to have a personal, spiritual experience while visiting religious sites. There seem to be crowds everywhere and you should expect long wait times to see the most “holy” shrines like at the Sepulcher Tomb and the Temple Mount. I highly recommend visiting any sites inside the Old City in the early mornings for some peaceful time. Also, visit the West Bank. It’s well worth the journey.

View of the Old City from the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, we took the tram up to the Mahane Yehuda Market. It’s a great place to grab some fresh snacks or a cheap meal. There are a few little restaurants in the market. The one we loved is called Topolino. It’s an Italian place where the pasta is made on site and all dishes are made to order. At about NIS25 per dish, it’s a great deal. To get to the restaurants, enter the Market from Agripas Street. Most of the restaurants are in between the two main aisles.

Wifi is free and available on most major roads in Jerusalem. It is wonderful being able to check email and update social media from so many public places. But because the public wifi is available, the apartment we stayed in and some of the cafes we visited did not offer their own wifi. If the public wifi signal is not strong where you’re staying or eating, you might be out of luck.

We rode the buses and trams around the city and tried to avoid taking taxis, as they get expensive quickly. Keep in mind, all taxis have meters, so don’t ask how much a trip will cost. Taxi drivers will quote you a flat rate which will always be higher than what the meter would run you. 
Jerusalem, Israel