I was on a back to back trip with Overseas AdventureTravel in October and November 2015 for nearly six weeks. This included about two weeks of solo travel as well as the organized tour. The two trips I took are among the most popular OAT offers in the area. They were Turkey’s Magical Hideaways, with eight days in between Crossroads of the Adriatic (which included Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Slovenia), with a few solo days after. What made this an outstanding trip and not just a really good one, were the interactions I had, with the locals both personal and cultural in nature, some as part of the organized portions of the trip, and some independently.
I left LAX on October 6, 2015 for Istanbul. The tour ended on October 22, and I had three days in in Istanbul on my own before flying to Dubrovnik for the Adriatic tour. I next had four days scheduled in Dubrovnik on my own before starting my next trip, Crossroads of the Adriatic, on October 28. In addition, I had two extra planned days at the end in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I finally departed for LA through Istanbul on November 15 and spent an extra night in Istanbul due to a long layover. The total trip cost for the OAT tours, my independent travel, plus airfare, was approximately $6,000.
A very special encounter in Konya
The OAT tour in Turkey makes an overnight stop in Konya. This is one of the most religiously conservative areas in Turkey, where all the women wear a hajib, and the conservative government has reciprocated this support by building infrastructure that is rarely used, like bike paths and new roads. In the midst of all this newness is Rumi’s tomb, the final resting place for 13th century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, who inspired Sufiism, practiced by the whirling dervishes.
A visit to Rumi’s tomb is exotic to say the least. Between the call to prayer, the piped in music that can be heard simultaneously indoors and out, as well as the beauty of the Islamic architecture and watching observant Sunni Muslims who come to pray, it is an experience to witness like no other. Our guide told us in advance that the people who go into the tomb/mosque to pray can get quite emotional with their prayers, and are often driven to tears and fits of crying over the loss of a loved one, or an illness they cannot cope with for themselves or a family member.
So with shoes off and paper booties on my feet, I entered the mosque to see the tomb. I stood behind those in prayer and just took in the entire experience. Then one woman, deeply troubled and showing her tears, obviously in some sort of pain, walked next to me to leave. Our eyes met, and she was so distraught after her prayers, I naturally offered a small bit of compassion and touched her arm and rubbed it softly. She kept looking at me and reciprocated the gesture. She understood that I was offering a condolence for her pain, whatever it might be. She kept looking at me in spite of her tears, still rubbing my arm softly as she walked away. A Jew and a Muslim, an American and a Turk, the differences between us at that moment did not matter. We were human beings communicating in the same language, in a way that transcended all possible cultural and religious boundaries. The visit to the mosque may have been part of the OAT tour, but this particular moment was mine to remember forever.
Who are these Beatles you speak of?
On my last full day in Istanbul as part of my eight days of solo travel, I had a trip booked to go to Princes Island. I booked it on Viator.com, but the on-ground provider was Plan Tours (http://www.plantours.com/) for about $70. The trip crosses the Marmara to go to one of several outlaying islands using a regular commuter ferry, in this case the island of Büyükada. Cars are prohibited on the island, so tourists are given a ride by horse-drawn carriage, and lunch is included after. This trip is most likely much better in the summer; in cold and rainy late October, it was quite chilly, so those of us on the tour spent more time getting to know each other and staying warm. What a cultural treat that turned out to be!
In our group of eight, I was the only American. The majority were from Pakistan, with two from China. We were a mix of ages, from twenties to sixties. One of the Pakistanis told me that he was going to London after Istanbul, and wanted to know what to see. I made a few suggestions to him, including crossing Abbey Road. That turned out to be a conversation stopper. “What is that?” he asked. The Chinese gal began to sing, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” and he had never heard of it before. Neither had his friend. Neither had any of the other Pakistanis. They did not know each other, some were even grandparents, and they came from all over Pakistan. They had never heard of the Beatles. They wanted to know if I knew of the names of the people in this group called the Beatles. They had no idea what I was talking about, or who these English people were.
They wanted me to type the name of this group into their cell phones so they could read about them later. Would they be able to find them on the internet? It was an amazing conversation, especially since their cell phone lexicon knew exactly the name that would come up next once I entered The Beatles (and I had to laugh, but could not share this with them.. The phone’s Lexicon did not know Ringo!!). When I typed in the word John and Lennon popped up automatically, I explained that he had been shot and killed. One of the Pakistanis looked at me with surprise. “If he was as popular as you say, why someone would try to kill him?” Well, very good question, one we will never have an answer for. I tried to explain to them the cultural influence of the Beatles, and they started at me blankly. They had never heard of such a thing. One of the older people in the group, closer to my age who had grandchildren, said, “I am in the record business in Pakistan. If there really is this music group The Beatles as you call them, surely I would have heard of them.” It was admittedly surreal, but it caused me to think about all the other culture divides we have with others we meet on our travels, many of which we are unaware of . No, I told him; don’t bother with visiting Abbey Road. It will not mean anything to you.
The Sarajevo Haggadah and a real Sarajevo sniper
The second tour I was on during this trip, Crossroads of the Adriatic, makes a number of fantastic stops, one of which includes three days in Sarajevo, Bosnia. We stayed at the Hotel Europe, and had some unique experiences. The first was during some free time, when I wanted to see the Sarajevo Hagaddah, the most highly valued illuminated manuscript in the world. It is really just a child’s Passover Hagaddah, but it has survived the Inquisition, World War Two, and the Bosnian War. In the latter two instances it was found on the floor of houses by Muslim clerics, and rescued. For this reason, it has become a symbol of interfaith cooperation around the world. A fictional account of it is written about in People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.
The Haggadah is currently in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina , which was closed for years. It is now open, and with two day advanced notice, you ca see the Sarajevo Hagaddah for a minimal fee. For $3 you can see if from about 15 feet away. But for $13 with two days advance notice, an archeologist accompanes you and opens the climate controlled room where it is the centerpiece. I was even allowed to take pictures.
Two other illuminated manuscripts are on the walls of the room, one Islamic, and one Christian. Neither of the other two however, have the history of the Hagaddah. All of them together in their own climate controlled casements represent the city of tolerance and religious understanding Sarajevo was once known for before we only understood it as a city of war under siege. The archeologist’s knowledge was pretty much what I had read on Wikipedia. All of the museums workers are volunteers however, which is the only reason this museum remains open today. Getting there and back from the center of old Sarajevo is quite easy on the local and free tram. The tram ride itself along with the locals was an experience n itself. But the uniqueness of all of it put together made for a real highlight.
Another unique but hardly cultural experience occurred in the Hotel Europe itself, one of the finest in the old town, and right by the bridge where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, the catalyst for World War One. The former president of Serbia was staying there when we were, and there had been an assassination attempt on his life. For this reason, there were armed security agents crawling all over the hotel. Some were plain clothed, some were dressed as security agents, some were armed, and each floor had several sitting outside the rooms. At night the armed men sat in the stairwells in between floors, and we were told were even on the top of the hotel at night! I got to meet these lovely men up close and personal when I left my luggage outside my hotel door as instructed on the last day and left to go to breakfast a little early. I was greeted by five of them holding sub machine guns as I tried to enter the elevator.
A Magical Musical Tour
The last stop on this tour was Ljubljana, Slovenia, which literally sits at the crossroads of Austria, Hungary, Italy, and all of the former Yugoslavia, of which it was once a part. Because of its unique geographical location, great classical musicians from all over Europe made a stop in Ljubljana at one time or another, regardless of what country it belonged to at the time. So today that musical heritage is honored with a street that is filled with the busts of classical musicians, and a special music school known as a gymnasium resides in the heart of town where children can be seen coming and going carrying various musical instruments. Music is played literally all over the city at any time of day or night, and I got to experience a fantastic tour while on my last two days during my solo travel learning more about this glorious city and its musical history is the Ljubljana Music Walking Tour,offered exclusively by Ljubljana Guides, I booked the tour on viator.com and paid about $50.
This tour is approximately three hours long, and I was accompanied not only by a guide, but a private violinist! The violinist is a street musician, but performs between 8 and 10 violin solos that pertain to the stop the guide is talking about. The tour also includes a stop in a musically themed restaurant, where the violinist also plays piano, and the small amount of promised snacks turns in to a full party platter. The floor of the restaurant is covered with crunchy authentic autumn leaves during the fall. And the “party platter” is soon replaced with creamed cakes and other pastries from the region. They make a second stop for some wine tasting, as well as tasting the regional specialty of blackberry and honey brandies.
Before the evening is through, the violinist performs a fantastic medley of Slovenian folk songs and classical music, culminating in a portion of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The owner of the company joined the three of us for snacks, and since I was traveling solo this was more of a party and a great way to enjoy local interaction at its finest. I came for the music and left with hugs and new friends. And I was additionally rewarded, because since I had been traveling in the region for nearly six weeks and had seen so much of it, I was able to discuss many of the cities, experiences and food with the locals. It was a fantastic way to end six fantastic weeks.