To Market, To Market (the many markets of Istanbul)

 Gate 1 entrance to the Grand Bazaar

Gate 1 entrance to the Grand Bazaar

Everyone who knows even a little about Istanbul knows about the markets. The most famous of these is the Grand Bazaar in the old city, but really all of Istanbul is a market. For centuries people have traveled here and traded, bringing goods from near and far to visitors from near and far. Today, Istanbul retains it's market place tradition, and holds proudly to the old ways. Not only do the original market halls and bazaars still operate, but nearly all of Istanbul is a chance to buy and sell. On the streets someone is always selling something; tourist booklets, chestnuts or mussels from a cart, a seat at a cafe. 

 The Grand Bazaar is nearly always crowded with people from many places as well as locals from around the corner.

The Grand Bazaar is nearly always crowded with people from many places as well as locals from around the corner.

All that selling and all those people can be intimidating! I found it best to approach the markets with an idea in mind of what I might want. Then when vendors approached me, I could be clear about what I wanted and be clear with them about what I was not interested in. A smile and no thank you suffice for a shop owner beckoning me into a shop with wares that do not interest me. However, sometimes, for things I might want, I will engage with the salesman. They are friendly, even kidding, "Can I help you." And when you say "No thank you" they say "Can you help me by spending your money?" We all have a little laugh.

The key for me is to make it a friendly interaction. Salesmen have the "gift of gab", they are good with people and easy to connect with. I look at their goods, if they are for me, I might offer 1/2 of what they say is the price and negotiate from there (there is less bargaining on food and spices our guides tell us) If I get a fair price, I'll buy, if not I will leave. If I'm not interested in their goods, no matter how friendly and attentive they have been, I leave with a friendly thank you! I really enjoyed the markets and engaging with the salesmen, and I don't think I bought a single thing I didn't want! 

 Gold shop

Gold shop

The Main Street of the Bazaar is filled with gold shops. I learned from our guide that many people give gold as gifts for life events such as children's birthdays or weddings. Some people also invest in gold jewelry rather than a stock market. Many families buy gold in the markets for these reasons. 

 Detail of a carpet shop

Detail of a carpet shop

Lots of people think of Turkish carpets when they think of the Grand Bazaar. Most folks traveling don't have room in their carry ons for a carpet! But they will ship. Also, several salesmen and a fellow traveller told us that most shops can fold a small rug to fit in a checked suitcase. That means you'd have to either also buy a new suitcase, or dump your clothes in the Bosphorus! Of course, like all shopping, you really have to know your product and do your research before you buy to be sure you are getting what you think you are. 

My husband and I admired a beautiful silk rug, woven in Turkey. I knew from the get go, I was not in the market to buy a rug, but I enjoyed viewing the rug as an art piece and asking the salesmen a bit about it; how it was made, and where, how much it would cost. Of course after 10 minutes in his shop, we had to break his poor salesmens heart and tell him, no we would not buy his rug, no matter how beautiful, but that we appreciated his sharing it's beauty with us. As a former salesperson myself, I don't see it as wasting his time because I know the rule that you need 9 "no's" before you get a "yes!". So my "no" gets him one step closer to his goal! 

 Beautiful tea trays with Arabic

Beautiful tea trays with Arabic

Our guide let us off at Gate 1 with plans to meet an hour later. My husband who has a great sense of direction promised to remember our turns and help us return. But of course we got turned around and soon, we couldn't find our way back to the Main Street (a wide boulevard inside lined with mostly gold shops) Luckily, all the salesmen speak excellent English and are very helpful. "Left, right, left" one told us and he was exactly right. In addition to excellent English, nearly every shop will price your goods in whatever currency you have in your pocket, and take credit cards. Though the best bargains happen when you offer cash!

Another major market is the Spice Market. This one is smaller than the Grand Bazaar, but similar in terms of customs. The only difference is there really is not bargaining for spices and foods (with lower margins) unless you are buying in bulk. The Spice Market is called the Egyptian Market by the locals because of course it was the marketplace for Egypt and other far eastern sellers to sell their spices to western traders and visitors. To me both markets had similar "tourist" items as well. 

 Some of my purchases being weighed

Some of my purchases being weighed

If you decide to buy spices, you can buy the whole corn or clove and a mill to grind them yourself, or buy the whole spices ground already. You can also buy spices ground and mixed for easy additions to food. This is for lazy cooks like myself; I ended up with meatball spice and something fun called "mother in law chili", a super hot chili mix meant to discourage your MIL from visiting at dinner. Being partial to hot chili, we bought this one, as much for the fun name as for the hot taste!  All of these are vacumme packed so they sail through US, Euro and Canadian customs- however Aussies and Kiwis know they won't be able to take these back no matter how they are packaged. 

 Whole cloves and peppercorns

Whole cloves and peppercorns

In addition to spices, there are nuts, dried fruits and teas as well as the famous Turkish Delight (a candy made from honey, starch, pistachio and fruit or chocolate) that is for sale everywhere! I have to admit, I wasn't "Turkish Delighted"- I generally like candies, but this didn't do it for me, but it's worth a try! 

 Yours truly with my spice seller, but no Turkish Delight for me! 

Yours truly with my spice seller, but no Turkish Delight for me! 

A fun place to check out is the Pet Market to the left of the Spice Market. This is a fun place to people watch because the stuff sold; birds, pet food, plants, seeds, bulbs and and exotic pets like baby alligators, are not really appreciated by customs officers in too many places! However, there are also buckets of leaches for sale, so you could do a little blood letting in your hotel before you leave! Ok, so maybe not! But it's a great place to see locals shopping, but of course there are far fewer English speaking salespeople here. 

 The local doves thought the pet market seed stalls are a great place to sample the wares.

The local doves thought the pet market seed stalls are a great place to sample the wares.

Did I mention food? Like most big cities, someone is selling food on nearly every corner, and even places where there is no corner at all! We enjoyed the famous kebap. There were two types; sis kebap, which is grilled chunks of meat, and doner kebap, which is huge stacks of meat seasoned and grilled on a vertical brazier, then shaved thinly with a knife (or in busy places with a power saw) and stuffed between bread or rolled up in a flat bread. It's a great, affordable street food (about 7 TL) and available almost everywhere. 

 A cook prepares kebap at a stall

A cook prepares kebap at a stall

So you've got all these salesmen selling to locals and tourists, and then you've got salesmen selling to salesmen! Many shops have a sole propeitor, or the salesmen don't want to step out and miss a sale, so the tea man sells them tea!  They call to order on one of several hotlines into his tiny kiosk (with room only to stand next to his huge cappuccino  machine) and he makes their teas and coffees and has his helper deliver them to the salesmen in the markets.

 Coffee and tea seller in his tiny kiosk 

Coffee and tea seller in his tiny kiosk 

 delivering tea to the salesmen outside the spice market

delivering tea to the salesmen outside the spice market

So what else can you buy? Well, this weekend is Eid Al-Adha (day of sacrifice) Each family (or several together) buys a sheep and sacrifices it and then gives the meat to the poor.  During our wanderings through an ordinary neighborhood in the Old Town with our guide, we came a cross another interesting market. A temporary sheep market set up for the holiday!

 A temporary sheep market set up in a vacant lot in a residential neighborhood

A temporary sheep market set up in a vacant lot in a residential neighborhood

The sheep were packed in a temporary pen set up in a vacant lot. The fellow in the suit jacket was the broker. The sheep had markings on them to indicate which farmer provided them, so the broker could keep track. Men from the neighborhood kept arriving and would choose their sheep. Two young boys would grab it by the horns and drag it to the van where they would deliver it to the yard of the family who bought it. It is quite a sacrifice too! On the day we were there, a ewe was 600 euro and a ram was 800! 

When we saw Istanbul from the air, it was clear this was a crossroads, a narrow spot where poeple move from one place to another. On the ground, seeing so many markets and salespeople showed us that this crossroads is the perfect place to sell ANYTHING!  

Istanbul - A Crossroad for Humanity

 

 With our guide book, and a local Turkish beer, we are fortified to explore Istanbul! 

With our guide book, and a local Turkish beer, we are fortified to explore Istanbul! 

We arrived in Istanbul this morning. We've read our history and guide books and we know that Istanbul sits at a crossroads of Asia and Europe; a way station and meeting place for the 3 continents. Flying into Ataturk Havalimani Airport in Istanbul this is evident when you see from the air that Istanbul is a narrow peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea to the North (we had just sailed down the Danube, almost to the Black Sea on the AMAPrima) and Marmara Sea to the South, with the Bosphorus splitting the city into its Asian and European sides. If you want to travel by land- this is clearly the path of least resistance, but also a choke point!

 A view of the Asian side of Istanbul with ferries and shipping traffic from our hotel room

A view of the Asian side of Istanbul with ferries and shipping traffic from our hotel room

Looking a large map, it's clear to see that the easiest way to go East to West or West to East by land is to go through Turkey and cross the Bosphorus.  This is how peoples moved for migration and trade routes since ancient times. Istanbul was a place where people pass through, but also where trade commences. My first impression is how clean, bright, well landscaped and just how huge, and very busy this city is. I'm also surprised by how many huge Turkish flags fly here. There is a lot of local pride.

 Taksim Square; which is actually round with not one but 2 huge Turkish flags flying.

Taksim Square; which is actually round with not one but 2 huge Turkish flags flying.

I wasn't surprised to see that it is still a cross roads for humanity. People are here from every corner of the globe; women in burkas from the Mideast carrying Michael Kors bags, dreadlocked youthful European backpackers, a Chinese couple just off the train (who look like newlyweds and get suckered into the "shoe shine" scam right outside our cafe window. *see below for a description) middle aged Americans (that would be us) and 20 something girls in belly shirts with pierced navels. Even the waiter at the cafe can't sort our where everyone is from- he guesses that Jeff is from Australia. Jeff tells him "close" and then explained he was from Boston, USA. We all had a good laugh over that! 

 Looking down Istiklal Street

Looking down Istiklal Street

But I was surprised at just huge this city is and and just how MANY people are here! At 3 PM on a Tuesday, Istiklal street, the main pedestrian shopping boulevard in the new part of the city, is teeming with so many people that it makes rush hour in my own city seem like a bank holiday. So many people, from so many places, so many stories. The saddest are the newest arrivals; tiny Syrain refugee children begging on the streets, singing in their little voices, hoping for people to notice them and give them some coins. Our guide tells us 500,000 have come to Istanbul recently. This is an amazing place to people watch, a fascinating display of global culture and commerce...and that's just within walkin distance of our hotel...over the next two days we will see far more of the city with our guide Meli. 

 A crowded tram that runs the length of Istiklal Street

A crowded tram that runs the length of Istiklal Street

* Shoe Shine Scam

Our concierge here at the hotel sent us to his favorite spot for lunch, not an hour after landing (well ok, it was more than an hour because it tooks us an hour to cross town in our van because of the traffic- but let's say within a few hours) He walked us to the revolving door with only one warning "if you see a shoe shine boy and he drops his brush, just ignore it." We didn't have time to wonder about this before we had stepped 10 steps out of the hotel and a shoe shine boy passed us dropping a shoe brush as he passed. He expects naive tourists to say, "hey, you've dropped your brush!" and then they pounce with the hard sell to "shine your shoes" (the Chinese fellow had sneakers for heavens sake but once he picked up the brush, the tout was on him brushing his Addidas like they were Bruno Magli's.) Of course all this attention ends with the tout expecting a "tip". In the case of the poor couple we saw targeted; even his young wife came over realizing they had been had and decided to get a picture out of it, but another shoe shines tout started in her shoes! The best advice we got was "ignore them", which is exactly what we did when the brush fell at our feet. We sidestepped it and felt proud that just hours in, we were no longer newbies in this huge complex city.

13 Words You Do Not Want To Hear Immediately After Takeoff


 Sitting over the wing over Istanbul

Sitting over the wing over Istanbul

 

"If there is a doctor onboard, please identify yourself to a flight attendant" 

Ah, The joys of air travel in economy. I promise I'm not going to make this a negative blog, just to get laughs, (and not just because there is no laughing permitted in economy) but when it comes to flying these days, there is not a lot of positive. 

One positive is we are directed to the TSA precheck line at the airport (despite the fact that we have not yet signed up for pre check) but it's a busy Friday night and they are trying to move things along. It's like hitting the TSA jackpot; Congratulations! You've been selected for pre check - you get to preserve your dignity and you can keep your belt, coat, underpants and any metal replacement parts on! As an added bonus you don't have to unpack your private toiletries, (this is my denture cream, preparation H...) or (new this year!) fire up all your electronics. And special tonight- you can even keep your shoes on! 

Our luck continues, here in the terminal building, it's crowded but we find a couple of those little shoe shine chairs with foot rests to sit in when most of the other flights board leaving just Turkish Air and Emirates to leave after 11 PM. I think it's a bad idea, being comfortable in the terminal so close to a flight in economy; better to have the memory of comfort be a distant thing before boarding. 

But given we've booked economy tickets, our luck cannot hold out. We've just boarded, the Turkish airlines airbus is turquoise colorful. The very first sight we see is a chef in a torque - we know immediately that he has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that will be served in our cabin! We arrive at 17a and b; the space between rows gets stunningly smaller every time we fly, but at least we've got two seats together, window and aisle with no one next to us. Of course the people in front of us can recline into our laps so low we could do dental work on them. Watching my 6 for 6 inch husband attempt to arrange himself in this space is a little heartbreaking and I vow to pay for business class for the next flight longer than 6 hours, even though it kills me to spend thousands for a few inches of recline and leg room.  (Having just completed the flight, Jeff admits it's never as bad as it first seems, call it Stockholm syndrome)

In addition to trying to stow our carry on gear and arrange our travel comfort items, we've got to contend with the rubble of amenities meant to appease any seat discomfort; look there's a pillow! a blanket!  (all plastic wrapped and hopefully sanitized) a pair of cozy slippers! a cute bag with lip balm! toothpaste! ear plugs! eye shades! 

Is there a soul back here in steerage who wouldn't trade it all for a few more inches? "Alex, I'll take 6 more inches of leg room for a toothbrushe and lip balm please" 

 

 Poor Jeff- knees to seat! 

Poor Jeff- knees to seat! 

We settle in and finally take off just about on time. We've got a tiight connection when we get to Istanbul - 1 hour and 45 minutes to make the last flight out to Budapest, so when I hear the announcement for a doctor, I can't help but panic. Of course, I hope the afflicted person is ok, but as I watch the two doctors who volunteered (a tall young African American man and a short middle age white man) consult in the aisle about whose specialty best matches the offending body part of the affected person, I can't help but worry our travel plans may be dashed! I see them hustle up to business class (what does it say about our own economy that the doctors are all sitting in economy? Remember when doctors were the rich guys?) and I worry that any moment the captain will come on explaining that we must return to Boston because someone is ill. I begin to dread each "bong" worried it will bring the dreaded announcement. Luckily, after an hour or so the announcement doesn't come. And I stop panicking every time I hear a bong ( and what is with those bongs? What do they mean, why must they go off randomly every 7 or 12 minutes startling everyone out of a sound sleep? No one knows what they mean or why they happen, but we all ignore them like a car alarm in a parking lot) 

But despite sitting on tenterhooks, no announcement comes. I'm Thankful that the podiatrist  or immunologist, or pathologist, or whatever specialty the vacationing doctors have they was able to distinguish between a panic attack and a hear attack,  or a leg cramp and a blood clot and not only is everything all right with the patient, but we will make our connection! 

And look! The guy in the torque is coming down the aisle, asking "pasta or fish"? 

Maybe there is hope for us in economy after all! 

 Our plane was parked next to this one in the "plane parking lot" that stood in for gates in Istanbul.

Our plane was parked next to this one in the "plane parking lot" that stood in for gates in Istanbul.

Pre Trip Planning and Packing 9/19/2014

Our itinerary for this trip:
We worked with Jenny Mikkelson and Kayla Torgeson at Travel Beyond in Wayzata MN to plan this trip. How, you may ask does a couple from the Boston area (and we always have been) get hooked up with a travel agency in Minnesota? Welcome to the web my friends! It's a very good question with a very long answer! Click here to see how we found Travel Beyond.

When we decided we wanted to see this area of the world, a part of Europe that is just a little harder to get around on your own than Western Europe, we knew that river or ocean cruising is a good way to see places where tourist infra structure isn't as developed, since you've got your hotel floating with you.  The convenience of not packing and unpacking every day leaves more time for enjoying your destination. While cruising usually isn't a great way to explore a place in depth, it's a great way to "sample" places and firm up plans to return to favorite places.  

After sending us a pile of brochures for various river cruises (based on Travel Beyond's knowledge of our wants and needs) we selected AMA cruise lines because of their focus on meeting the needs of more active, independent travelers. With on board bicycles, active walker, biking and gentle walker touring groups, and on board gyms, they seemed geared to meet the needs of active travelers like ourselves. All of the river cruise companies offered similar itineraries, and prices are similar with small differences in ship's age, cabin styles, food quality levels or alcohol inclusions at meals. We are brand new to river cruising, so we won't be able to compare lines, but I hope to give a comprehensive review of how we are treated on our AMA cruise. So far, service has been top notch, and as you will see below, we've been impressed with the information we have received pre trip.

Here is the map of the itinerary we will sail.

 AMAPrima Black Sea Voyage Itinerary

AMAPrima Black Sea Voyage Itinerary

As you can see from the map, our trip will embark in Budapest, Hungary and travel down the lower Danube River through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Once in Romania, we will fly to Istanbul Turkey for 4 nights.  Although the river cruise lines offer packages to include pre and post hotel stays, we decided to make our own way to Budapest and spend 3 nights there, on our own, and join AMA when the river ship embarks on Sept 23rd. 

Since we made our plans, my husband's sister and her husband (K&N) decided to join us in Budapest from their home in Great Britain. This is wonderful since we don't get to see as much of them since they moved to Europe! After our stay in Budapest, they will travel on West via train to Vienna and Prague (countries that are often included in the river cruise itineraries as pre or post stays, but we chose to save them for another trip) while we will embark the river ship and sail East! 

After we return I will include more details such as our planning process and packing lists, details about tours and guides...but for now we will try to live blog a few interesting details, thoughts or impressions along with some of Jeff's photographs. In the interest of enjoying the trip while we are on it, the daily blog may be less robust than the review after the trip, but I promise to include all the details and ephemera that I'm well known for including in other review sites! Also when we return, I'll be happy to answer questions or give advice based on our experiences, but due to limited internet access while on the trip, I may not get a chance to respond to each comment or question during the trip! (If I'm lucky enough to have any of you respond!) 

 

Pre Departure Documents we received from AMAWaterways

 Pre Departure Documents

Pre Departure Documents

 Our docs from AMA came a couple of weeks ago, and I've had time to go through them completely this past weekend. 

I'm very impressed with the quality of info included in the docs; of course there is the usual vouchers, contracts, booklet  (Welcome Aboard) about what to expect on board (tips, services etc)  and luggage tags. There is also a day by day itinerary (Your Detailed Itinerarylike we've received for other high end expedition trips. I like AMA's piece because it also lists in the same doc all of the excursions available at each stop and the descriptions are very thorough including the amount of time on a bus and the amount of time walking on each tour as well as an "difficulty rating". This is succinct and allowed us to make our choices right now, so we won't need to spend time on our vacation with our noses in a book; we will know what we want to book when we board! 

The other piece included that I was impressed with is the Lower Danube Destination Guide. This is specific to the section of the river we are sailing. In addition to Km by Km maps and descriptions of the sights along the shore and brief history of each area, there is also a graphic and double pull out map with Km by Km sights and which side of the ship they are on, as well as info about which area, and country where it's located and what type of sight it is (business, bridge, ruins, nature area, etc) Near the back there are destination guides for the major embarkation and disembarkation cities. In our case, Budapest and Istanbul.

It's tiny so it could be tucked easily into a pocket or camera bag, and it's jam packed with good info. I spent easily more than 100 dollars on guide books and some of them were good...but this little book is specific to our trip, and so compact, and helpful. 

The only guide book I could find that came close to describing the trip Km by Km including the "off river" major sights we planned to tour was "The Danube A River Guide" by Rod Heikell. It was written in 1991 well before the changes and Balkan war and still references Yugoslavia. Heikell travelled down the Danube from North to South (Black Sea) on a small sail boat, shortly after the Danube became more navigable after the damming. It's no longer in print, but I bought a used copy, and found it the most useful in terms of describing what we would see along the way, even though it's dated in describing the names of the countries. 
 

Other guide books and my opinions of them: 

Rick Steves Budapest 
Rick Steves Istanbul

Both of these are useful for organizing independent or private touring. I like Rick's approach about knowing your destination, accepting the culture one is visiting cheerfully and with an open mind!  I generally don't take Rick's guides with me, though his downloadable guide could easily be toted along on a phone or tablet

DK Istanbul 
DK Budapest

I like of both of these for planning touring and to use the maps in the destination. They are richly illustrated city guides with a "just the facts, m'am" approach. But looking through the photos really helps us identify what sights and experiences we'd like to see and have. One reason I do like to bring DK guides- especially in areas where I don't speak or can't easily translate the signs, is because they have wonderful illustrations of the major sights, with inset photos or drawings and descriptions of each. These can serve as museum guides in places where you can't find an English guide, and the maps are sometimes easier to read in English than in the local language! 

We also looked through general travel guides for all the countries we plan to visit; Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, as well as some regional guides (Central Europe, Eastern Europe, etc) What we found was the areas we planned to visit on a river cruise were only mentioned in at most with a paragraph or two.  And we would have had to purchase several books to cover the area we were touring. This did not seem worth it to us. 

But the AMA provided Destination Guide is a wonderful (and easily packable) resource specific to our trip, and I'm delighted to have it! (The guide we got would also cover a cruise from Vienna to Budapest, as well as our Black Sea Budapest to Bucharest cruise) One warning: it's so tiny that I bought a magnifying bookmark to carry with it!

My one nitpick- I think it should be sent out at least 2-3 months (or in my case 6 or more months!!) before sailing rather than 4 weeks (minus shipping time to my TA, minus a day shipping time from my TA to me) In other words, it's one of the best resources about the region specific to the itinerary, and I would like to have had it much earlier to make my plans for pre and post tours as well as any private tours I might choose to do on our own. In our case, a guide we tried to hire in Budapest was booked 9 months in advance, so having a plan in place for touring several months before sailing is not unusual and my best resource for deciding what I might like to see and do where didn't arrive in my home until about a month before the trip. I understand that specific itinerary information or tickets cannot be issued much earlier, but I would like to see this general Destination Guide provided after booking rather than with the final documents. 

Packing

So before we can go anywhere, we need to pack! Jeff and I very different packing styles. I pack weeks (ok, months!) in advance; I stage clothing I'll need for the trip somewhere and shop if I need additional items. Usually about 2-4 weeks before the trip, I will have more or less everything I need set aside in the bag and ready to go! Jeff tends to pack a few days before we leave. His rule is pack with just enough time to order anything missing from Amazon with free 2 day shipping before he leaves. Two different styles; but we both usually have what we need packed in a very organized way!

Usually, we are both pretty light packers, having discovered during an Alaska trip the pitfalls of over packing (that's another long tale, which I can share one day when we aren't traveling and I haven't got anything more interesting to write about!) Oftentimes, we will simply use a carry on roller bag and I carry my favorite backpack (another topic for a slow day!) for a trip to a warm destination or one where we can reasonably expect to do laundry.

 My favorite travel back pack...it was a freebie from Jeff's former employer, but its loaded with pockets!

My favorite travel back pack...it was a freebie from Jeff's former employer, but its loaded with pockets!

Jeff carries a brief case style Tenba camera bag which holds almost all of his equipment and whatever he needs on board the plane to be comfortable.  He has occasionally taken 2-3 business trips with simply the brief case bag and nothing else.

 

 The Tenba bag that has worked for a 3 day business trip!!

The Tenba bag that has worked for a 3 day business trip!!

For this trip, we decided to each pack a checked bag. We are flying Istanbul Air and are allowed one checked bag each. Give the interesting markets on our itinerary in Istanbul and Budapest, we felt we did not want to be packed so tightly that we could not bring home some treasures if we find any!  Sometimes we will check just one bag for two of us, but the splurge is taking two checked bags. Since both bags roll, we are hoping we can still easily manage to walk to the ship in Budapest from our hotel. 

 Kathy's carry on bag

Kathy's carry on bag

 Kathy's suitcase...with the Eagle Creek cubes

Kathy's suitcase...with the Eagle Creek cubes

We recently discovered the Eagle Creek packing system.  I resisted this for years thinking I could pack much more cheaply in large plastic zip bags. I bought some cubes for our daughter to take on a two week trip to Europe and since we've started using them, we are sold on them! The plastic bags helped organize things, but they were slippery and things tended to get rounded in the middle, making them hard to stack.  The cubes work beautifully because you can layer, and with the clothing rolled, you can fit quite a bit in even the littlest cubes! Using the packing cubes is one of those tips I've read for years on Cruise Critic and just dismissed as a waste of money...until I tried it! 

 ...with an extra pocket left empty in case we find any treasures in the markets!

...with an extra pocket left empty in case we find any treasures in the markets!

So we are packed and ready to go! Jeff will post a little about his camera "kit" for this trip, for people interested in photography and then our next post will be from the road. We have complimentary internet at all our hotels and on the AMAPrima, so I'm hopeful we can continue adding to the blog as we travel!

Independence: no one we mention in this blog has paid or provided product or services to us to mention them (in the case of the camera gear- I wish!!) ...at this point we are completely independent, with no sponsors asking us to promote products...we buy all our own travel and stuff and our opinions are based on our own experiences.