Because I love traveling and exploring new places, I was busy brainstorming travel ideas for spring break soon after Christmas. Initially, the chance to meet up with some former students and friends influenced my decision to wander through several European cities instead of visiting other parts of Africa or even Asia.
The plan evolved into a multi-city trip, with two one-way flights bookending my stay in Europe and a handful of trains in between. The itinerary read: Dar–>Prague–>Venice–>Naples–>Istanbul (stopover)–>Dar. Unlike most of my previous trips, for this adventure, I didn’t have any friends living in my destination cities, so had to resort to AirBnb, making it a bit more expensive than I had hoped, but still eking out with comfortable city-central lodging for just an average of $27/night. In places like Venice, that’s an accomplishment.
When I booked my tickets, I didn’t notice (or didn’t care enough at the time to remember) that my flight to Europe included a 15-hour overnight stopover in Dubai. Because I’ve done the 2-hour middle-of-the-night city tour of Dubai before, and because I certainly didn’t want to front the cash for a hotel, I initially opted to stay in the airport. More about that later.
For my flight from Dar es Salaam to Prague (via Dubai), I flew on FlyDubai, an airline that I assumed was merely an economy airline, offering cheap tickets and equally cheap service. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Though my tickets specifically note that there would be no meal service on my flights (thus leading to my assumption that this was a low-cost airline), partway through my first flight, I was gently shaken awake by a flight attendant asking if I would like vegetable curry or chicken with rice. Not only did I enjoy delicious hot vegetable curry with rice, the accompany box of treats was filled with organic and all-natural snacks: olives, hummus, breadsticks, rosemary snack bites, a breakfast bar, and even a full size Galaxy chocolate bar! I have eaten my fair share of airplane food, and this was probably the best tasting and highest quality food I’ve had yet (the only exception might be the calzone and ice cream snack on Swiss Air when flying into Chicago!).
14 HOURS IN DUBAI
When I landed in Dubai, my initial thought was to stay in the airport. The Dubai airport is enormous, and I figured wandering through its numerous terminals would give me ample distraction for the evening. That is, until I found myself constrained to one small portion of one terminal, reserved, it seems, for the budget airlines. Within twenty minutes, I had already made at least three laps around the area, and had settled into a cafe to Google my options. After a falafel and cappuccino, I eventually decided to try my luck at leaving the airport. I exchanged $50, got a bus and metro card, and walked outside. While waiting for the bus, I met a Canadian gentleman who lives here in Dubai, who kindly directed me to a faster route to the famed Dubai Mall and commentated on some of Dubai’s landmarks as we passed them on the metro. I spent the next four hours wandering through and ogling at the enormity of the Dubai Mall—complete with ice skating rink, aquarium, cinema, and more. I even treated myself with an ice cream from Coldstone Creameries! Just before the mall’s closing at midnight, I took the metro, and then a taxi, to get back to the airport, where I attempted to get some sleep before my morning flight. The key word is attempted. The Dubai airport was freezing!! Even wrapped in my Masaii shuka, I was too cold to sleep, and only drifted in and out for about three hours before getting up and having another cappuccino and falafel combination.
In the weeks leading up to departure, the plan evolved slightly, as both friends I had planned to meet in Prague bailed, leaving me with three full days for solo adventuring. I arrived around noon, and followed a friend’s instructions to Paladium, a large shopping mall, where she had sent me a gift certificate. I was supposed to use the money to buy a Hannah brand item for my sister and myself, but their selection of Hannah gear was extremely limited, so I ended up buying a rain jacket that was on clearance instead. That jacket saved me this trip, as I only had a hoodie (poor planning…I know). Then, I started wandering the streets in the rain. I arrived near the Airbnb where I was booked to stay a bit early, so chose to eat at the nearby Mexican restaurant to get out of the rain (and because I hadn’t eaten since the airplane meal at 9 am and it was now almost 5 pm). It was surprisingly the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, and I’m actually planning to go back before I leave Prague!
Later, after a hot shower, and some quick Google research, I booked an advanced mountain bike tour for the next day, then headed out for the evening. I spent most of the evening walking along the river, eventually seeing the St. Charles Bridge, and then heading to Old Town Square. There, I had a traditional sausage before heading back towards my AirBnb, taking photos of the rainy streets as I went. See photos from my first day in Prague here.
On day two, I was up early, walking the streets around Lennon Wall, the Prague Castle, and St. Nicholas’ Church. After nearly four hours of walking, I arrived at BIKO Adventures for my mountain bike ride. We rode for about four hours, including a stop for lunch (DELICIOUS Czech potato and mushroom soup!), and did some of the best mountain biking I’ve ever done. It was flowy, had great views of the city, included a few epic downhills, and of course some tortuous climbs. My guide, Pietr, was about my age, and was accommodating with my lack of fitness for climbing (it’s what happens when you live at sea level and haven’t ridden off-road in over six months), informative about historical/cultural parts of the city we rode past, and (for you Fort Wayne mountain bikers) reminded me a lot of following Al, which made it a fantastic ride! Afterwards, I wandered back towards my Airbnb for a shower and laundry, then walked back into the Old Town Square for a Tredlnik–a traditional Czech pastry that is sort of like a donut cooked on a stick over a fire, dipped in sugar, then, in this case, filled with strawberries and whipped cream. Yum! By this point, I was exhausted from close to six hours of walking, plus a challenging mountain bike ride, so went back to bed early. On the way, I made my now-routine stop at a small supermarket for whole grain bread, meat, cheese, and milk–all for less than 100kn (about $4.00). Some people come to Prague to drink beer, but I drank far more fresh milk. I guess that shows my farm roots. But the beer was delicious too. The bread, cheese, and meat was for my breakfast each morning, which I ate as I walked and throughout the day–essentially meaning I had a good solid breakfast and “lunch” for less than $4.00 a day!
My last full day in Prague was Sunday. I woke up early, made my breakfast/sandwich, and started off into the city. The plan for the day was to do another, much more chill, bike ride around the city, then to do some hunting for Prague street art in the afternoon, before returning to Little Mexico for more delicious quesadillas. I did end up riding around the city, but it was not terribly chill. Filippo, the shop owner (an Italian), myself (an American living in Tanzania), Ben (another American who is in Prague for work for a couple months), and Daniel (a Brazilian studying in Prague for a year) did a pretty awesome mountain bike ride of a number of the parks around the city–complete with some killer climbs and the requisite steep and technical downhills. It was a fantastic ride! And, in tradition with my visits to bike shops, I got offered a job as a guide for BIKO if I ever want to spend a summer in Prague. Tempting. We finished mid-afternoon, then went to a local restaurant for food. I had the classic potato and mushroom soup again, as well as a leg of rabbit. Once again, it was delicious–and only cost about $6, which was pretty reasonable. After eating, I set off for the Old Jewish Cemetery. It was a beautiful day, as the sun was finally shining–and it was warm enough to be comfortable in a t-shirt–so I meandered on my way, taking photos as I went. By time I got there, it was only open for about 35 more minutes, but I paid my ticket and entered anyway (much against my typical policy of paying for “touristy” things). The first building was lined with the names of Jews in the Czech Republic who died under communist/Nazi rule and it was shockingly horrifying. The names just went on and on and on. Names upon names in endless columns on the walls in room after room. Breathtaking. Gripping. Horrifying. Maybe I’m more sensitive after finding out that I am ethnically part Jewish, but the horror of it was tangible as I walked past row after row after row of names. The cemetery itself was no different, as it is actually raised several meters about street level, due to there not being enough space for graves, so the bodies were just buried one on top of the other. My time ran out before making it to all the synagogues, but the solemnity of it all was a change from the revels of mountain biking earlier. From the Jewish quarter, I walked to the National Monument on Vitkov, which is elevated above the city, giving it a great view for sunset, so I decided to chill there rather than rushing around for the last 45 minutes until dark trying to find street art. It can wait till another visit! Finally, for dinner, because Little Mexico was sadly closed on Sundays, I opted for some cheap by-the-slice pizza (two American-size slices for less than $3.00), a Red Bull, and some delicious espresso-bean dark chocolate. I also picked up my third liter of milk (in just less than three days!) and a banana for my early departure to Venice the next morning.
VENICE & LAKE GARDA
I arrived in Venice around 6:30 pm, and after finding my AirBnb and wandering around a bit chasing the sunset, decided to listen to the hunger pains (literally!) I had been feeling since before getting off the train, and looked for food. Eventually, I decided on a small pizzeria on a back street. When I got there, there was a wait to be seated, but a kind French family (behind me in line, but seated first because there were more of them) invited me to join them at their table. We had a nice conversation about teaching, traveling, and motorcycling. It was their last full day in Venice, so they gave their opinions on some of the sights, which was informative, as, once again, I had no plan for my time in the city. After dinner, I went straight to bed and passed out–I had been too busy looking at the grandeur of the Alps (and other scenery) to sleep on my long journey.
I woke before sunrise the following morning and headed out to St. Mark’s Square, which was supposedly the best place to watch the sunrise. I was less than impressed, but enjoyed walking the streets while they were still mostly empty. I ate the yogurt and blueberries I had bought at the supermarket the night before on a bench looking out towards one of the many islands surrounding Venice, and then spent the rest of the day walking. I did stop at a cafe for a cappuccino and croissant, and to warm up, and also sat down on stairs and empty docks just to watch the activity around me (and to rest my ankle that had suddenly started bothering me). At around 2:30, I went back to my room and took a nap while my phone charged, then set off for the mainland to pick up the Ducati I was renting for the following day. I accidentally (due to not carefully examining the Google directions) took a 7€ water “metro” on the way when I could have walked, but it was still a cool experience. After picking up the motorcycle and navigating parking, I got dinner at a small pizzeria, but, instead of pizza, had a delicious spaghetti pescatora. Then it was early to bed again in preparation for the big day I had planned for Wednesday.
Wednesday morning, I woke up at 5:30 and departed for Lake Garda. It was about an hour walk to get to the parking garage where I left the Ducati, plus a stop for coffee on the way. Just as I was getting ready to leave the parking area, an older gentleman stopped me and started talking excitedly to me in Italian. After a few minutes, I explained that I didn’t speak Italian, and he switched to English. He was thrilled to see the bike, but more interestingly than that, after finding out I was American, thanked me for what “a lot of young American boys did in the World Wars for our freedom.” It’s not often I hear a pro-American sentiment when traveling, so I thought that was pretty cool. Especially considering both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. At any rate, it was a clear, but crisp morning–and about ninety minutes into my journey, I started visibly shaking with the cold. Fortunately, I rented a riding jacket and gloves, but even with those, eventually the cold got to me and by time I made it to Garda Bike Store, I couldn’t control the shaking. But, I was not to be deterred. I changed into my cycling gear, bought a Power Bar of some kind to boost my energy/heat levels, and started off. As we rode in the van to the top, I started to get to know my ride mate, a Canadian orthopedic surgeon who was in Garda with four middle schoolers who were on the Canadian National Sailing team and competing in a regatta the next day. Hearing about their training and travel schedule was very interesting and new to me. Eventually, we got to the top of the mountain, and, to my surprise, there were still large patches of snow on the ground. With no heat in the van, I was still shaking uncontrollably from the cold, and could barely stand to get on my bike. As we started, the wind cut through my jacket like ice, making me want to just shrivel up and die, but for the sheer fun of racing down the side of a mountain on a bicycle.
I got to ride a Cannondale Trigger, a full-suspension, all-mountain 29’er (size Large). It was an adjustment after riding the smaller (size Medium) Giant Trance (also full-suspension) and Giant Talon (hard tail) 27.5″/650B bikes in Prague. It is a lot harder to get behind the seat on a large frame than it was on the medium frame. But climbing is easier on the large. Go figure. And, sorry, I went into techno-bike-jargon there for a bit….way off track.
Eventually, I did warm up, and had a great time! My orthopedic surgeon cohort was less confident, but it just meant that the guide and I would go through a section, then wait at the bottom, which was fine with me. My ankle had been bothering me for the entire day previously, so I was content to take it easy (though it didn’t actually hurt while I had it on the pedal–only if I had to step down with that leg for some reason). Eventually, we came out on a gravel/dirt trail with an absolutely incredible view of the lake–insane! Once back in Garda, I got my camera out for a few quick photos of the lake, then did a drive-by of Arco (walking was making my ankle hurt considerably), then headed to Vicenza to see Joe Cooper. Because I had to have the Ducati back to Venice by 7 pm, we only were able to have a short visit (with, of course, a gelato!), but it was good to see a familiar face and talk about climbing and other adventures for a few minutes. After I said “see ya later” to Joe, I booked it to Venice, though I still arrived late, due to a run-around trying to get fuel (after living in TZ, I much prefer service, especially when I don’t read Italian), but to no consequence. Then, it was two slices of pizza on-the-go, and back to the apartment for a hot shower and sleep.
I woke up on Thursday morning at 7:30, having “slept in” and intentionally not set an alarm–it was glorious. I was then surprised by a Facebook video call from a friend in the US, before setting out for my last actual day in Venice. My only goal: eat tiramisu and drink expresso. But, because 8 am seemed a little early for tiramisu, I opted to start with a cappuccino and croissant in an outdoor cafe where I could watch life happen on the streets around me. I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of Venice, and eventually pausing for my long-awaited tiramisu and espresso at another cafe with a view of one of the many piazzas (squares?) in Venice. It was delicious! After sitting on an empty dock and waiting for the sunset that was less-than-impressive, I wandered back to the apartment for the night, stopping only to buy a bag of strawberries for the next morning (they were delicious!) from one of the many street vendors selling fruits.
The next morning, I woke up early, gathered my things, and set off for the train station. On the way, a small cafe, Caffe Brasiliana, was already open, so I got a cappuccino and croissant to go. I reached the station in plenty of time, so sat on the steps outside to watch the sunrise and eat my strawberries. Then it was off to Naples / Napoli!
NAPLES, POMPEI, & PROCIDA
I arrived in Naples a bit after noon, and my first thought was to get some food, but as I started walking, I saw insane lines (more like crowds) outside most of the pizza places, so just kept on walking. My first impression of Naples was that if Venice is the Italian version of Zanzibar, then Naples is Dar es Salaam. The streets just outside the train station were narrow and crowded with vendors selling all manner of things, traffic crowded the streets with motorcycles and scooters and people rushing in between. I eventually made my way up to the Castel Sant’Elmo, with its view of the entire city, before meeting my AirBnb host for the weekend. From there, I took the metro to Pompei and spent the evening walking through the ruins before heading back to Naples for the night. There’s something cool about walking through and touching the remnants of past civilizations….and now I want to read a book about people who lived in Pompei or a similar city and era. Any suggestions?
One thing I have noticed about Europe, at least all of the cities I’ve been to on this trip, is how dog-friendly they are. Everywhere, people are walking dogs, eating at (even quite nice) restaurants with their dogs, shopping (again, even in very nice places) with their dogs, etc. Because I have a dog that I really quite like, I think perhaps I should try to start this culture in Fort Wayne this fall…
While on the train from Venice, I had compiled a list of places to see in Naples and added them to my “Want to Go” list on Google Maps, so the plan for Saturday was to walk the city from place to place. Impressively, I knocked most of the places out before noon, so I decided to take the advice of a friend and visit one of the nearby islands. After a bit of research, I decided on Procida, booked a round trip ferry ticket, went back to the apartment to get my sunscreen and a jacket, and headed for the port. The ferry ride was about an hour and the water was incredibly bright blue! On the island, I walked from end to end, searching for photographic viewpoints to be able to capture the crystal clear water and the cliffs that jutted out from it. In doing so, I was asked to take a photo for a group of what appeared to be young, rich party kids, and, in exchanged was offered a place on their yacht. Sweet deal, if I wasn’t flying out the next day. In the end, I continued on my way and contented myself with some fresh icy lemonade (there were lemon trees everywhere on the island!)–it was delicious! Upon returning to Napoli, I walked slowly back to the apartment along the waterfront, taking pictures as I went, then went to the pizzeria just a few meters down the street from the apartment for the second night in a row–with delicious pizza at only €5, why would I even bother eating anywhere else?
On Easter morning, I woke up early, packed up the last of my things, and headed for the airport. Google Maps is only occasionally accurate concerning public transportation in Naples, I discovered–not like the precision of it’s directions in London and Paris. So I left myself with plenty of time and walked to the nearest metro station, caught the train to the central station, where I was supposedly able to get a bus that would go to the airport. However, outside the Naples central station, none of the buses listed matched the number of the bus on Google Maps. So I started walking–all 5km. When I got close to the airport, Google’s walking directions weren’t much better than the public transport options, as it kept directing me to walk through the Italian Air Force base that is near the airport, eventually taking me about a kilometer out of my way before I figured out that the entrance to the airport was, in fact, the opposite direction to where Google was leading me. So much for Google Maps. Regardless, I made it to the airport in time, and the bonus of walking to the airport was that I got to see the sunrise on Easter morning!
My stopover in Istanbul was only five hours–the very minimum recommended for being able to leave the airport and make it into the city and back. Regardless, I wanted to try it. To streamline the process, I applied for my visa online prior to the trip, and checked my Osprey pack with everything but my travel documents, headphones, and camera, which I put into my smaller backpack. Still, there was a long line at immigration, and the process of getting into the city seemed to take forever. I landed at 13:40, and didn’t make it to the metro stop for the Hagia Sophia and “Blue Mosque” until 15:15. Knowing that immigration to leave the country could be just as backed up, I planned to be back at the airport two hours before departure (an hour before boarding). Now, as I’m sitting on the plane, I’m thinking it was a good thing I did, as they boarded over an hour before departure and now, thirty minutes before departure, we are starting to leave the gate. With that in mind, I only had about 45 minutes. I unwrapped my camera from the Masaii shuka I had it wrapped in, put the shuka around my head as a makeshift headscarf, and made my way into the mosque. I did not actually enter the mosque itself, in the interest of time, only the courtyard outside, snapped a few quick photos, and continued on to the Hagia Sophia. There was only a short line to enter, so I gambled on it, and purchased a ticket. Though I found the church in Prague was more beautiful, the Hagia Sophia was certainly awe-inspiring, even under restorations. On my way back to the metro, I bought a quick snack on the street, and then headed back to the airport. The metro going back seemed much quicker, and I made it through immigration and security in time to get a coffee and buy some peanut M&Ms at the duty-free shop before boarding. It was a rushed visit, but gave me a glimpse of the city as I passed by on the metro–enough to know that I’d like to return and spend more time in Turkey someday. When I do, I’ll gladly fly Turkish Air again. This was my first time traveling with them and I was impressed on every level: spacious and comfortable seats, good Mediterranean-style meals, and on-time flights. I have no complaints!
And, with that, it’s back to real life in Dar es Salaam, editing the 1500+ photos I took on my adventures, and starting a week full of senior and engagement photo shoots (and teaching!).