Have you guys read about the Olympian Gods? I am well aware of the fact that absolutely all problems came from the fact that Zeus couldn’t keep his pants on…but that’s not why I started the article with that question. Reading about the Olympian Gods made me fall in love with Greece. And secretly wished I had some super powers from time to time.

Greece is one of those countries where you cannot shake a stick without finding so many things to do and places to visit that you don’t know how to actually add them all to a trip. Before you scratch your head and complain that if you book a tour you’d be stuck with the schedule – I completely agree and that’s why I avoid guided tours like plague – look up the option to rent a car . Because the circuit I’m going to talk about is long and amazing. And requires flexibility, thus a car.

Let us start in Athens, the capital of Greece, a city which has fascinated me even before my low cost flight landed on the airport. To visit the most important sights – The Acropolis, The Roman Agora and The Greek Agora – it’s enough to allow a day or two here. Yours truly has managed to spend 4 hours in the Acropolis and although I’ve stayed 5 days in Athens I haven’t been able to visit some of the sites.

Leave Athens and head for the Theatre of Epidaurus. It is located about two hours’ drive from the capital and it is one of the best preserved ancient theatres in Europe. The original amphitheater was constructed in the 4th century BC and later , the Romans, decided to add some rows to it. Nowadays, it is home to the Epidaurus Festival, taking place each year in late spring. Aside from visiting the archaeological site there’s also an interesting museum to check out.


On the same day, make your way to Mycenae, about an hour drive from Epidavros (the village where the theatre is located). Home to Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and once a powerful fortress, the site is best known for the mythology linked to it. The Iliad tells the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and how their love started a war.

Prepare to spend some time here. The city is located on a hill and you can still visit the Acropolis and some remains of the ancient walls. The Lion Gate and the royal tombs are the highlights for the tourists.

Just like in Athens, you can spend quite a lot of time here, especially if you like to check out every corner and take a lot of photos. Just make sure to wear very comfortable shoes -a good advice for absolutely ANY city or historical site you visit in Greece.

You could look up accommodation in Corinth, and while you are here you can check out the ancient city and the remains of the temples.

The next day, start driving to Meteora. Expect to drive for at least 4 ½ hours but, by now you probably figured out that estimates aren’t exactly the most accurate when it comes to Greek traffic.

Kalampaka is the best place to get accommodation in. Meteora is just a stone’s throw away from here and you have a lot of choices when it comes to finding places to eat, as well.

Meteora 2

The monasteries can easily be visited during a day. Not all of them are open all the time and some require a modest entry fee (1 or 2 euros). Pay attention to the dressing code! You should never enter an Orthodox monastery wearing a tank top or shorts.


On the way back to Athens, pay a visit to the Oracle of Delphi (about 3 ½ hours’ drive from Meteora). Once the “bellybutton” of the Ancient World, Delhi’s main attracting is the Sanctuary of Apollo. But the remains of the ancient city also comprise the theatre, the stadium, the gymnasium and the Stoa of the Athenians.

Getting back to the capital should take about two hours from here.

While the circuit can be easily done in three days, I strongly recommend to allow more time ,especially if you love ancient history and adore Greece. As a general rule, bring very good walking shoes, always carry a water bottle – and don’t forget to refill it – and try to avoid staying in the sun during those blazing summer days.

Photo Credits:
phonakins via Compfight cc
Reham Alhelsi via Compfight cc
johncatral via Compfight cc

A place of peace, serenity, and hope. I felt all of these – and a gentle wash of kindness – as I ventured up the path toward the House of the Virgin Mary, or Mother Mary (Meryem Ana), located just a few miles away from the busyness of the ruins at Ephesus, Turkey.

It was a hot day in spring, and we had a very important stop before exploring Ephesus. We were visiting a place of pilgrimage for many global religions – that of the House of Mother Mary.

Visiting the House of the Mother Mary

History has it that when Jesus was on the cross, he tasked his apostle John with taking care of his mother. St. John and Mary relocated to this area, John to spread Christianity, and Mary to spend her last days. John is honored by a basilica over his burial site near Ephesus, the ruins of which you can also visit. Mary lived in a small stone cottage, far up on a mountainside. The structure of this building dates to around the 6 century AD, but the foundations date to around 1AD. It has been restored in the last century.

Visiting the House of the Mother Mary

Educational signs, teaching about Mother Mary

Located on Mt. Koressos/Bülbül Dağı (Nightingale Mountain) near Selçuk, Ephesus, and Şirince, Meryem Ana is reached by driving up a narrow winding road. Park, and breathe a sigh of relief for being here at this quiet, historical outpost. Then wander to the outdoor café, where you can rest under beautiful shade trees and have a Turkish coffee – and perhaps a simit stuffed with chocolate, if you’re lucky.

Relaxing at the cafe, at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Snacks at the cafe (including delicious Turkish coffee)

Cafe at the House of the Virgin Mary.

There are both indoor and outdoor tables at the cafe

Refreshed, we made our way up the stone path, through shady trees and blue skies. There was an open area to the left, in which you could look down and see the ruins of a baptismal cistern. We next came upon a small, outdoor chapel with benches. Then a statue of Mother Mary and some large educational signs amidst a beautiful, lush garden on each side of the path.

Pool of Wishes at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Remains of the baptismal cistern

Educational signs at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Educational signs

Statue of Mother Mary at the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Statue of Mother Mary

Small groups of people wandered up the path, taking their time, enjoying the gardens. At the top, everyone stopped and paused to take in the very small building that is the house of Mother Mary, now a chapel. Our guide, who told us much about Mother Mary, reminded us to take no photos inside, and that the chapel was still in use as a place of prayer.

Looking at this small building, with arched doorways and windows, ironwork on the windows, shaded by tall trees, you’d never guess it as a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims (Mary, mother of one of the great prophets, is known as Isa Peygamber to Muslims). We approached the open door, and saw a small room within.

Window of the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Once we stepped inside, though, something was markedly different about the house. The very air changed; it was noticeably still and peaceful, and sounds seemed to fade away. 

A few older, local women kneeled on small benches on the sides of the main room. Their kerchief-covered heads bowed in prayer, they reminded us of the holiness of this place. With quiet, deliberate steps, I walked forward, my footfalls softened and silenced by thick Turkish carpets. Moving slowly through an archway to the main altar, located in the smaller room where Mother Mary slept, I glanced around at the walls, the ceiling, the light streaming in from the windows. I wished I had my camera, but I was also grateful that I didn’t – for no camera can capture the utter peacefulness of these two rooms, the immenseness of millenia of belief, the stone walls holding stories no writer could ever tell as well. At the front, before the altar featuring a statue Mary surrounded by candles, I bowed my own head and paused to soak it all in, and gave thanks for this place.

I exited the house through a small, arched doorway. Once outside, everything seemed clearer, somehow. A few steps more and visitors can light a thin, white candle and place it in sand in large, iron boxes, saying a few words. Stopping to reflect here, I thought about all of the shrines, mosques, and cathedrals I’ve seen around the world. None of them were as peaceful as this small building, perched on a dusty mountain, in view of the Aegean. I like to think that Mother Mary loved being here – loved the view, the landscape, and the people – as I did. This love seeped down into the very rocks of the mountain, I think. We could feel it.

Lighting candles at the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

But the place wasn’t done with me yet. After turning a corner and heading down a few stairs, I came upon a few surprises.

First was a series of three natural springs, which were located in nooks in a tall stone wall. The springs are said to bring health, love, and wealth, so fill your bottle and drink, if you’d like.

Just past the springs is the Wall of Wishes, where I saw thousands of wishes tied to large, rectangular hangings on the wall. I didn’t look closely, because I think wishes are personal, but I was taken aback at the great quantity of them. Just imagine the power of these wishes, carefully tied by pilgrims from all over the world. It’s a startling and important reminder of the power of hope, and of belief.

Wall of Wishes, House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Wall of wishes

Wall of Wishes, House of Mother Mary, Turkey


Note: Our guide, a local, told us the story of the fire of 2006. It was an enormous forest fire, spreading rapidly across the mountains, burning all those dry trees and scrub in its path. She said that they all worked hard to stop the forest fire from reaching Mother Mary’s house, but it was a close call. The fire, which burned 1,200 hectares, stopped just 3 feet short of the house.


For more information:,39846/house-of-virgin-mary.html


Tips for visiting the House of Mother Mary

Do not walk to Meryem Ana – the road is narrow, winding, and there are cars and buses utilizing it. Hire a taxi, drive your rental car, or take a bus tour there, for safety. You can also take a bus from Kusadasi for Sunday Mass – be sure to reserve your space on the bus; check the official website above for more information. You’ll know you are on the right path when you pass a very large statue of Mother Mary, guiding the way. There is parking here, so you can hop out and take photos.

Statue of Mother Mary, guiding the way to her house. Turkey

While most of the path is wheelchair accessible, there are a few steps in the walkway up to the house, as well as a steep ramp. Upon exiting the house and descending to the springs, there are a dozen or so stone steps.

There is a souvenir shop at the entrance, across from the café.

The entire area is very clean (including the bathrooms) – the caretakers work hard on this, as you can see. I didn’t see anything out of place here.

Cleaning supplies, House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Fun bathroom sign at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey




This article was originally published at:

Note: I was part of a group of White House Travel Bloggers that Turkish Airlines flew in to experience Turkey (thank you, eternally!). Stay tuned for more posts about this special country I’d love for you to explore  – and check out our The Best of Turkey – an A-Z Guide for inspiration from travel writers around the world.


Jessie Voigts has a PhD in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled around the world. She’s published six books about travel and intercultural learning, with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding, and is passionate sharing the world through her site, Wandering Educators. She founded and directs the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program, teaching teens all around the world, and is co-founder of Writing Walking Women.


All photos courtesy and copyright Wandering Educators

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My train crosses into France and I am unarmed. I am plunging knees first into foreign territory. I’ve created a pastime out of living in different countries. Yet, being wrenched out of my comfort zone is utterly traumatizing. I usually spend the first day of any vacation in my pension or hostel with my stomach wrought and shriveled with hunger, brooding over phrases that will convey “I’ll take the fish, please” “May I have the check, please?” “Thank you and goodbye, please”.

As a young woman, I imagine solo travel to be liberating and empowering, but this is has never been the case. Not until Lyon.

In the Lyon station directional signs and advertisements blur past me. French greetings and exclamations swarm my head like flies buzzing around sunbaked roadkill. Dead meat is exactly what I am. I must press on and that entails finding a place to sleep at 23:00 the day after Christmas.

In the morning, I must check out and find somewhere cheaper for the remaining days. I stayed in a hotel next to the station. I found it after circling the block twice, asking room prices, passing in and out of homeless encampments under overpasses stepping lightly if not out of courtesy for the dozing, certainly out of fear of waking them.

Before I locate my next bed, I seek out breakfast. I walk in the direction of the rivers leaving behind dingy Lyon Part Deux. I cross the Rhône and marvel at its power barreling under my feet past grey, parliamentary buildings that stretch for blocks. In the commercial district there are flowers stands, independent bookstores prefaced by people sipping foamy coffee drinks with literature held to their noses, hot caramelized peanut stands spewing steam in the vendors’ faces.

I reach the Saône River lined by a bustling open-air market. The first stands are striped with rows of flowers and bundles of firewood. I am taunted and teased by strips of paper on toothpicks boasting fresh brie goat blue and camembert cheeses. The bakeries on wheels are Sirens that seduce and claw at my line of vision. Behind the cases lie croissants brioches canapés éclairs, all topped with icing fruit or chocolate. I break my gaze to concentrate on what to say.

My heart pounds against my rib cage in protest to my impending self-humiliation, while my stomach purrs out of deprivation and anticipation. Breathe, exhale. Breathe deeper, exhale longer. Be brave, give my order, obtain my prize. The woman looks at me and spits out a sound like “Kes kvoo prawn ay?” Not understanding, I babble back “Oon kwasont, see voo play.” What an accent. Couldn’t I at least fake some sort of a French one? She interrupts my self-degradation by nestling a warm buttery croissant in the palm of my hand. I give her cold pieces of metal and say “Mercy, oh vooar.”

Flakes and layers of lace melt between my teeth, slowing my heartrate and appeasing my hunger. I wander the neighborhoods sandwiched between the rivers. In a plaza with gardens there’s a sculpture of a man and woman swimming. The man is muscly and barreling past her, propelling through space. The woman’s features are gracile, she is sliding her hand down his chest, smiling euphorically, letting herself be sucked behind in his wake. Below them is inscribed “Le Rhône et la Saône”. The caption sparks my curiosity. Where do the rivers meet? When they do, does one indeed over overpower the other?

The more I analyze the sculpture, the more I feel compelled to see their meeting point. I search my GPS for the distance. It’s a two-hour walk away. With my belongings and still no bed for the night, I decide this is more important and start marching.

I navigate down the bank of the Saône. One would think no map is needed to follow a riverbank. Roads dead-end. Construction fences block my path, forcing me to lose sight of the water. I wind through backstreets and step onto curbs occupied by workers of nefarious employ. When I get turned around, I must ask for directions. I am nervous, embarrassed, and pressing further.


When I reach the point, I find that both rivers meet and marry peacefully, without turbulence. There are train tracks that continue under the surface of the water. At my feet there is a pile of corks. I imagine how they came to congregate in this spot. Champagne bottles popped on the bridges. Wine corks lazily abandoned on the banks are washed away by rain or kicked into the rapids by children. I pick one and put it in my pocket. I have my answers. I have my prize. I turn back, against the currents, triumphant. I am free of trepidation. Free to be intrepid.

About the Author:

I am 24 years old and have lived in Europe since September 2013, when I moved to Calatayud, Spain to participate in the “North American Language and Culture Assistants in Spain” program. I am now doing a Master’s degree in Inter-American Studies at Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Pont Des Arts Paris
Pont Des Arts

Many bridges in Paris have made it into the annals of worldwide fame: Pont D’Alexander, Pont Neuf, and the modern Pont Solferino, to name a few. One favorite is the Pont Des Arts, loved for many reasons by Parisians and visitors alike. The pedestrian-only bridge, which leads directly from the left bank into the Place de Louvre, draws visitors for many reasons during all times of the year. Here are a few reasons why the Pont Des Arts is the liveliest bridge in Paris.

LouvreThe central location of the Pont Des Arts makes it happily unavoidable during a visit to Paris. When crossing the Pont Des Arts from the left bank to right, behind you will be the Académie française. This impending, domed building is home to les immortels, forty academy members who hold the keys to the french language. These members, who are a part of the Academie for life (unless removed for bad behavior), plublish the official French language dictionary. Intimidating, especially for visitors who are still struggling to grasp basic words in the language!

Across the bridge sits the Musée du Louvre, one of the largest museums in the world. Formerly a fortress and palace, the Louvre and the attached Tulleries Garden are a source of French national pride and worth a visit. On the first Sunday of each month from October to March, admission to the Louvre—and select other museums in Paris—is free of charge.

Evenings on the PontOn warm nights, especially in the summer, the Pont Des Arts becomes a gathering place for Paris’ young adults. You will find university students, au pairs, and artists sitting along the edge of the bridge with a bottle of wine, enjoying a picnic dinner. As the night moves on, music fills the air and the dinner groups began to blend and mingle together. It is the place to see and be seen, and the favorite place to kick off a night of Parisian fun- and maybe make a new friend or two!

During the day, the Pont Des Arts lives up to its name as artists and sellers line the bridge with their canvas works and sculpture. Though not as annoying as the peddlers in the city’s parks, it is important to have your wits about you when dealing with them. However, there are a number of talented painters and sculptors who sell their works from the Pont or on either side of its steps, and their work is worth a second look if you have the time.Artowrk

Romantics particularly love the Pont Des Arts because of the famous “love-lock” tradition. Lovers and friends visit the bridge, armed with a padlock, some paint, and a key. The pair writes their names or a message on the lock, then secure it to the fencing of the bridge and throw the key into the Seine. In 2010, the Paris City Hall banned the use of love-locks on the Pont Des Arts, but recently they have begun to reappear. After a railing collapsed in early 2014, glass or wooden panels have replaced some of the traditional railings and wire fencing on part of Pont des Arts to prevent amorous couples from attaching padlocks inscribed with their names, initials or messages of affection.

Whether you’re on your way to the Louvre to ponder La Joconde or simply on a stroll towards the Jardin Luxembourg, try to cross over on the Pont Des Arts- you never know what you might find on the wooden planks of this bridge.

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The Replaced Roses: Belarus

by Klaudyna Szewczyk

I stood far high up above the ground. At least higher than I previously thought. The

distance from the last step off the train to the grass in the ditch below appeared to be at least

3 feet. When the train slowed down, I jumped and suddenly everything stopped. My heavy

backpack hampered my movements. As I hit the ground I dispersed the force of the impact

by collapsing into a crouch: one knee on the ground and my hands touching the cool grass.

I slowly looked up. I could smell the characteristic and familiar smell of the train tracks, a

mixture of rust and steel carried by the wind. A gust of wind swirled around me, carrying a

greeting from this unfamiliar country. I was ready to explore. Silently I accepted the invitation

from Belarus.

Behind me, I heard anxious voices. The train had stopped before arriving at the

platform of the train station. During trips to the East such things cause concern. I also felt that

something was not quite right. I wondered to myself why, without any warning, were we told

to leave the train in such an unorthodox fashion? I looked at the outskirts of the city with its

towering grim buildings surrounded by small clusters of trees. A tingle of fear ran down my

spine. During World War II most of the professors and academics in Poland were captured

and sent to East to work in labor camps or to be executed. Despite my resolve, I could not

help wondering how those who had come here before felt as they were transported to the

labor camps?

The train finally came to a complete stop and I reached out and helped other travelers

down off the train. We trudged to the only bus stop where the bus took us to the center of

the city. The frightened voices of the group flooded over me like a mounting wave. The

sound drilled into my ears until they reached my stomach and fear set in. A thought sprang

up unbidden in my mind, “All important feelings have their origin in the belly.” At the time,

I did not remember whether they were the words of Winnie the Pooh, Garfield, or Snoopy.

However, if they were true then the dinner which I consumed later should have silenced my

fears instead of keeping them and me awake.

The tension continued to grow later as I sat with a group of educators from my

university in a restaurant within the city. The decor of the room gave the a strong impression

of the essence of the works of Jules Verne. The walls were covered with maps, sketches, and

pictures of models of many strange devices such as flying machines and submarines. The

dinner itself felt more like a play in a theater than a meal. The waiters appeared like actors on

the stage. They played their roles well suggesting dishes as if they were mere props. It was

difficult to decide if this was a great performance or Tea with the Mad Hatter? Certainly, the

design of this place was beautiful but the tension in the pit of my stomach still grew.

Later as we walked through the strange city we passed several dozen groups of

gardeners planting fresh flowers in the city’s public flower beds. Just like in “Alice in

Wonderland” roses were being replaced: red for white or white for red, it was difficult to tell.

The streets, monuments, museums, fortresses… everything was perfect like a set designed

expressly for the ceremony accompanying our visit. Involuntarily I looked around expecting

to meet the Queen of Hearts. We had to take a bus to go visit the city’s ancient fortress which

is usually closed to the public. Suddenly the thoughtful silence of the group was shattered by

softly uttered words, “Do you remember how many Polish intellectuals were murdered here

during World War II?” Panicking, I had not realized that I had spoken my thoughts aloud and

in the shocked silence I could almost hear the roar: “Off with her head!” I looked around to

see how others had reacted to this statement. However, no one looked at me. All eyes in the

room stared at the mousy student sitting dejectedly in the corner seat. With a sigh of relief, I

realized that it was he, not I who had actually spoken the words we had all been thinking

since crossing the border into this country. Do you remember November 6th,

at the mercy of a tyrant much worse than the Queen of Hearts.

A few days later, I stepped out of the train station in my hometown and my brother

took my heavy backpack away from me. As I stood there, surrounded by the familiar and

precious sound of free and uninhibited conversations, the hidden fear I felt during my days in

Brest allowed me to see something that was as natural for me as the air I was breathing. I

finally took a deep breath and the knot of anxiety disappeared from my stomach.

I suddenly felt that until that moment I had never understood the true meaning and price of

strenght and freedom.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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We drove an hour from Cracow to Auschwitz where we had toured yesterday, but this time we were joined by 15,000 Jews from 46 countries.

We lined up for the March just inside the Auschwitz gate. First in line was the delegation from Israel, which included many students and a group of Israeli soldiers. They were followed by a large group of students and adults from Hungary.

“Why Hungary?” I asked. Then I heard the sobering reason. Seventy years ago in April of 1944 the Nazis rounded up 420,000 Hungarian Jews and brought them directly to Auschwitz. In ten weeks they were all gassed to death. Almost half were children.

I decided right then that I was marching for them.

Indeed I was. Each marcher was given the name of a Hungarian child to march for. I had Anne Zucker from Budapest. She was two years old when she was sent to the gas chamber. TWO YEARS OLD! What could she have done to deserve this fate? How could God have let this happen to her?

I marched for little Annie and my heart ached for her.

In total the Nazis murdered 600,000 of Hungary’s 800,000 Jews.

We marched en masse from Auschwitz to Burkenau “the largest Jewish graveyard in the world.” In every direction I looked I saw masses of people, old and young, a sea of royal blue and white. Many had wrapped themselves in Israeli flags.

As we marched we heard the names of the Hungarian Jews who died in Auschwitz.  I placed a marker in the ground to honor little Annie Zucker. Another one I placed to remember all of my family members who were shot to death and burned at Baba Yar in Ukraine.

One young boy whose great grandmothers both had died in Burkenau asked a rabbi if he could have a Bar Mitzvah on the train tracks that brought his great grandmas here. The rabbi performed the service on the tracks with the boy in front of a tearful but cheering crowd.

A very moving ceremony followed the March on the grounds of Burkenau.

The President of Hungary was critical of his own country for not trying to help its Jewish citizens. He asked for a minute of silence for those who died in Auschwitz. He told us that if we took a minute for each individual who was killed here we would be sitting silent for three years!

The Head Rabbi of Israel told us not to let the Nazis win by abandoning our Jewish roots. “Come home” he implored. “Come home to Judaism!”

Israel president Benjamin Netenyahu addressed us by satellite. He reminded us that mourning the dead is important but not enough. We must also pledge to stay strong and support Israel to defend the Jewish people against those want to destroy us now.

The ceremony concluded with a stirring rendition of Hatikva.

More than ever before I am proud to call myself a Jew.

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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After months of planning, the trip was finally happening. I was thirteen years old and excited to be traveling outside the U.S. for the first time. Things did not exactly go as expected.

Our first destination in eastern Europe was Estonia. We had friends who invited us to their little countryside village, and would pick us up in Tallinn. For reasons still unknown to me, we couldn’t get a direct flight. But, we discovered, we could fly into Stockholm and take an overnight ferry to Tallinn. That seemed like it would be fun, I thought. A fitting start to an adventure. And so it was.

Having boarded the ship, the three of us—my mom, my aunt, and I—along with our two suitcases apiece, dutifully took the tiny elevator to the right level and clunked down the dark hallway to our assigned cabin. Erm…

Not that we’d expected a luxury stateroom, but this was a rather dark and miniscule cube, mostly occupied already with the bunks at one end. The wet bath took up most of the rest, leaving a table and a couple square feet of floor. Now it was clear why the woman at the check-in desk had laughed when we’d asked for an extra mattress. Having loaded the bunks with all our luggage, one of us still had to stand in the bathroom in order to shut the hall door. The room was lit by a couple of dismal-looking lamps which did not help brighten the windowless, airless space.

Then the ship must have gotten under weigh, because the noises started. Prolonged clanking noises, almost like—chains.

“Oh my God,” the realization hits. “We must be underneath the car deck.”

“That’s why there aren’t any portholes,” is the second revelation. “We’re under water.”

This reminds us unwillingly of the ferry accident that had been on the news earlier that year, 1999. We all concur on needing some air.

On deck, I zip up my too-thin fleece against the cold, wet wind, and watch the Swedish isles float past, green ghosts in a foggy, rain spattered sea. So this was to be the start of our three months living in eastern Europe, making our way from the Baltic nations of Estonia and Latvia, to Belarus, Ukraine, finally back through Belarus to Lithuania.

And it was an adventure indeed. I never knew it was possible to fit two people on one narrow bunk. Or to sleep listening to the creaking, banging weight of cars shifting above you. Our Estonian apartment was in the newest building, the envy of the village, which included such luxuries as a balcony threatening to fall of the building, and chunks of concrete that already had. We discovered that you have to pay extra for bedding on sleeper trains; in case you neglect to do so, you sleep on wadded-up clothes, and find yourself glued to the vinyl at the end of a night being jostled across two countries. I learned such essential phrases as “where’s the toilet” and “I don’t understand Russian.” McDonald’s became a delicacy—after plain boiled potatoes French fries are a taste of heaven. We became proficient at roach-hunting since our flat in Minsk was infested with them, down to inside the tiny, partially operational refrigerator. Not that there was ever much in it anyway. Our Russian phrasebooks were not very helpful on grocery shopping. Nor, for that matter, on any other topic.


Being only thirteen, this was all extremely educational for me. I hauled luggage that weighed as much as I did, learned to navigate public transportation and took in a confusing new language on the fly. I saw castles and monasteries and catacombs. I learned how, underneath our cultural differences, all people want the same things. We all love, we all dream, we all hope for a better life. I have traveled internationally several times since then, but that was a summer vacation I will never forget. And I will always be grateful for the experiences I encountered there, for the people I met, for the countries I saw, for an expanded perspective that taught me to appreciate the truly important things of life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Gratitude opens the world—it is the lingua franca of our species. Even if we grasp no other words in a foreign tongue, we will always strive to master please, thank you and where is the bathroom? the last of which implies the very definition of gratitude in its hoped-for relief of urgency. Once removed from the safety of familiar landmarks and customs, we come to value kindnesses of all size, but particularly small ones: the tip of a hat or the words buon giorno offered on the quiet streets of Verona in the early morning hours.

When we plan for travel, we study how to communicate our gratitude for exchanges both large and small, most especially for these moments when a stranger’s altruism brightens our sense of a nation. In Venice, a passing businessman notes our struggle and lifts my friend’s gargantuan red suitcases without a word, one in each hand, at the foot of a steep arch. The cases weigh over fifty pounds each. He carries them up and over to the bus station for us, departing with a quick wave goodbye.

 Pulling out of Rome, my mobile phone is dead. I cannot reach our host to inform him of our arrival in Orvieto, where he is to meet us that evening. I appeal to a woman on the train, who hands over her cell phone without the slightest hesitation that I might steal it. When I thank her profusely, she shrugs as if it happens all the time.

In Paris, we discover that our bank cards will not allow us to withdraw cash. At the end of dinner at a tiny brasserie in the Rue Cler, the owner informs us that he does not accept credit cards. For the first time in our lives, we cannot pay the bill. We panic. Will the owner call the police? The couple next to us, overhearing our plight, offers to pay for our meal, insisting that we can mail them a check when we return home.

A passing shower in Glasgow sends me dashing into a dark pub, my legs exhausted from walking all day on hard stone streets. As I settle into the high-backed bar stool, the damp afternoon sojourn has me missing loved ones back home. I say something to this effect when the bartender slides a pint of ale across the mahogany counter. When I request the tab, he smiles and says it’s on him.

With every trip, there is kindness. It need not be monumental to matter. Passersby in Seville lend directions to my hotel when I appear lost; in London, a man in a dapper blue suit holds the doors to the Tube when he sees me running to catch the train; en route to Amsterdam, a flight attendant moves me to the front row so that I’m first off the plane. Our flight is an hour late leaving Seattle, and there are hundreds of passengers to care for, but she watches out for me. My heart swells with gratitude when I make my connection, just barely, thanks to her. 

What good do I do in exchange for these gifts? At first, I cannot conjure grand evidence of my own compassion, at least, not enough to warrant the host of charmed adventures I’ve had. Then I reflect on the kindnesses I’ve learned to practice, inspired by those who have been generous to me on the road. At my regular coffee shop near King Street Station, I buy pay-it-forward drinks for strangers I will never meet. When visitors forget mittens and bumbershoots on the bus, I chase them down to return them. When walking downtown, I meet the searching eyes of tourists who inevitably want to inquire about the direction of Pike Place Market.

The more we travel, the more we see humanity in each other’s eyes. Our journeys not only reveal new customs and languages, they make us more obvious to each other. In exploring the world, we are granted the opportunity to be kind, and the opportunity to receive kindness from others. We are bound to each other by nothing but the human race, and somehow, despite all the ill in the world, this connection triumphs.

Years after an adventure, our struggles recede and gratitude remains. Our memories narrow to the moments when we overcame a challenge, often with the aid of a native—we were safely ferried, arm in arm, through the twisting labyrinth of an ancient city; a conductor lifted us by the hand aboard the train as it pulled away; we were invited to dine upstairs with a family just as their restaurant closed for the evening. Aid arrives when it is needed most, as if someone is watching out for us, and so our greatest adventures are fed with human kindness, and they end, if we’re fortunate, with eternal gratitude.

About the Author:  Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her work appears in The Wolf Skin, ARCADE and Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness, an anthology by New Lit Salon Press. Her next trip, which can’t arrive soon enough, is to Australia and New Zealand.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Photo Credit: SonOfJordan via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: SonOfJordan via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: SonOfJordan via Compfight cc

Meteora literally means “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above.” Along with Mount Athos, it is one of the most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox Monasteries in Greece. Due to the outstanding geography of the area, the feeling you get when you arrive is surreal; as if the place was specially created to make you feel close to God.

There are six monasteries which can be visited. Some of them require a tiny entry fee (1 euro or 2 euros) and you can always make a donation. Remember to cover your shoulders and knees. Yes, all Orthodox Monasteries require visitors to abide to a dress code.

The monasteries date from the 14th -16th centuries and have been renovated over the years. Unfortunately, tourism has also impacted them and sometimes you may not exactly feel very contemplative here (and this happens in pretty much any church / monastery which has been opened for mass tourism).

Kalampaka (alt spelling: Kalambaka) is located at the foot of Meteora. If you are looking for an overnight to explore the area better, then this is the place to look for a place to stay. Plus, the city in itself is filled with history and there are interesting places to see: from the ruins of an ancient Greek temple to old churches.

Tip: should you want to come here to any Orthodox major holiday (Easter being the most important), make plans way in advance!

Meteora is located closer to Thessaloniki then Athens. So if you are looking for the easiest way to get here, then you’d want to fly into Thessaloniki. Sure, there are buses and travel agencies which organize trips to Meteora but to fully grasp the magnificent area, it’s better to be driving on your own.

Attention: if you are not used to driving in hectic European towns, you’d want to let someone more experienced to do the driving for you. Plan breaks and stop when you feel tired.

The winding roads and the backdrop of the mountains make it an interesting and beautiful drive. And since there are areas along the way where you can park, take advantage of them to both stretch your legs and take photos.

Map Thessaloniki - Meteora

The drive from Thessaloniki takes about 3-4 hours, depend on how often you stop, of course.

The drive from Athens is about twice as long. However, there is a very interesting stop along the way which would totally be worth it. Do plan to break the trip though. Drive from Athens to Delphi , visit the sanctuary, then spend a night in the coastal village of Glaxidi before driving further to Meteora.
Make sure to leave Athens in the morning – especially if you drive during summer. By the time you reach Delphi it would be noon and hot.

Map Athens - Meteora

The archeological site of Delphi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In ancient times, it was the home to the most important oracle of the God Apollo. The archeological site and the museum are located within walking distance of modern Delphi, so you can easily find a parking spot and cover the rest of the distance on foot.

Depend on how long you spend visiting the site and the museum, you’d want to stop for an overnight rather than continue to Meteora.

English Cottage

English CottageEngland is famous for its lovely, pristine natural environs with pretty backdrops. Quaint villages surrounded by green hills and rustic coastal towns are characteristic of the English countryside. Doesn’t “English countryside lifestyle” conjure images of idyllic stone and thatch roofed cottages, rural farms, unspoiled landscape and scenic ocean views? In other words, the perfect escape from the hassle and bustle of city living!

DorsetThe next time you plan your vacation, you may want to check out English self-catering holiday cottages to live that dream of a blissful retreat in a home away from home.

A wide selection of cottages, country homes, farmhouses are offered for rent throughout England. These lodgings have retained their character and many, their period charm, despite being restored to provide modern conveniences. Many are of high standard with excellent facilities. The best choice for you will depend on your interests and preferences.

Beachy Head SussexIf you love the sea, get a cottage located in England’s coastal areas. There are cottages with picturesque sea views, near the beach or fishing harbors in the counties along the Southern coastline, from Cornwall to Kent, including the Jurassic coast in Dorset, which is a world heritage site. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up to the smell of fresh sea breeze, laze around or walk with your dog on the beach during the day, have your fill of authentic fish and chips and end your day watching beautiful sunsets?

Countryside PoolFor some freshwater relaxation during your stay, get a cottage with a private pool or one that is shared with other tenants of adjacent cottages.

Fishing enthusiasts on the other hand will delight in cottages located in Wiltshire, Herefordshire and Hampshire Avon. Those with children and looking for easy catch in a laid-back environment will enjoy private fishing in stocked carp ponds. For avid game fishers, South Devon along the River Dart is the best base.

Forest of DeanIf you’re a Robin Hood fan, a forest cottage would be the ideal choice. There are charming cottages in woodland areas in central Europe and you can even take an excursion to Nottingham for an up-close encounter with the legendary English folklore hero’s adventure land.

Thatched CottageThose who fancy luxury will find lavish accommodations, most located in historical areas, truly gratifying. There are exquisite places in the illustrious towns of Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon and Ludlow. Romantic cottages in Dorset are great for couples looking to renew allure in their relationships.

For those who want to experience laissez-faire closer to London, rentals in Surrey, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire would be the best fit.

Charming Farm HouseWhether for a short weekend break or for a month, for a couple, a family or a group of friends, self-catering accommodations suited to your taste (and budget) should be easy to find in England all year round. It may be good, though, to avoid peak periods like around summertime (April to September) and November to January, particularly during the Christmas and New Year holidays. Yet, if you plan your trip early enough, you should not have difficulty getting yourself billeted in a place best to your liking.


Photo credits:
English Cottage: Karen Roe via Flickr
Dorset: Hardo Müller via Flickr
Beachy Head Sussex: YorkshirePhotoWalks via flickr
Countryside Pool: Kyle Taylor via Flickr
Forest of Dean: European Environment Agency via Flickr
Thatched Cottage: Supermac1961 via Flickr
Charming Farm House: David Sim via Flickr