I’m back from my great European adventure! It was 2 weeks of amazing experiences, beautiful sights, lovely people and some very tasty cigars (and unexpected herfs).

Let’s start with the good stuff first, cigars!

Istanbul duty-free shopping for cigars is marvelous, a good mix of Cubans and non-Cubans (mostly Davidoffs). Selection is limited to the popular brands and vitolas, but for what there is available, there is a lot of it, and the quality is excellent. Perfectly stored in large walk-in humidors. Prices are great, about 30% cheaper than Malaysian duty-free prices (which i found strange). I picked up a few 3 packs of old favourites: Partagas P2s, Cohiba Siglo Vs. Also a couple of 10-pack boxes: Montecristo 4s (don’t leave home without these) and Cohiba Secretos (too delicious to pass up at those prices, EURO90).

Click through the images for the larger versions on Flickr.

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First stop was Istanbul for a couple of days. Right smack on the border between Europe and Asia, it is an eclectic mix of cultures and people. Largely Muslim, and distinctively European in their behaviour and demeanor. The city itself is magnificent: the way the Turks have guarded and preserved their historical jewels is praiseworthy. From the Blue Mosque, to the Hagia Sophia, to the Topkapi Palace. The buzz of the Grand Bazaar, the life and blood of the Spice Bazaar. The vibrance of the Bosphorus. The multi-million dollar homes and properties all along the Golden Horn. It feels as though this is a city and people who have managed to find a balance between history and progress.

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Man leaning over the Bosphorus. That’s Europe over there, and Asia over here.

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The Blue Mosque. An iconic landmark, a must-see (i visited it no less than 4 different times).

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A man waiting for the call to prayer. Despite the modernity, you get a feeling that the people are deeply religious. The calls to prayer are loud and far reaching; with more than 4,000 mosques in the city alone, each time the azan sounds, it’s like a chain reaction of sound across the city.

The plan was to spend 3 days in Istanbul, then 5 days in Budapest, then another 4 days in Istanbul on the return leg before returning home to Kuala Lumpur. Was supposed to make a stop over in Vienna for a few days in between, but the logistics defeated us in the end; travelling with 2 toddlers was more challenging than i thought it would be. Distances that would otherwise be covered in only 15 minutes by adults took 2 hours when you have kids in tow!

“Daddy, look at that? What’s that?”
“Daddy, i’m tired. Please carry me.”
“Daddy, i’m hungry. I want ice cream/biscuits/rice/sweets/drinks/etc ad infinitum.”
“Daddy, i did a poo-poo.”
“Daddy, is it ok if i chase the birds?” (this happened a lot)
“Daddy, look! CAT!” (this happened even more in a city with as many cats as people)

Budapest was a stark contrast to Istanbul. Where the weather was temperate and calm in Istanbul, Budapest was chilly. Where Istanbul was vibrant and alive, Budapest was quiet, reserved and humble. Where there almost seemed to be more tourists than Turks in Istanbul, the reverse was true in Budapest.

Having said that, this ancient city had so much to offer. The Danube, one of Europe’s great rivers, was an amazing highlight. The Royal Palace. The Parliament building. The Central Market. St Stephen’s Basilica.

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Tram station by the Danube. Notice how quiet and simple it is, even during the rush of day.

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The Central Market. Lovely place where you’ll find EVERYTHING gastronomical about Hungary. Though the people could be warmer… “How much is this?”, “It’s 7000 forint, take it or leave it”

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The majestic Parliament building. It cost 30 million gold crowns to build. That’s as much as what it cost to build the whole city.

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The view from the Citadel. Buda and Pest were two cities, separated by the Danube. Joined in the 19th Century to become Budapest.

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The oddly-named New York Cafe. “The Most Beautiful Cafe in the World”, it says. I find it hard to disagree.

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The quiet, very, very quiet streets of Budapest. I walked these streets at night, and though it probably was safe, it didn’t feel like it. Eerily deserted.

All throughout my travels, i was puffing away. Istanbul was no problem. People there smoke like crazy, indoors, outdoors, walking, sitting, over a cup of tea, coffee, at meals, after meals, in taxis. EVERYWHERE. Smoking and drinking tea seemed like the national pastime. After a few days, then comparing it with Budapest, and my knowledge of other cities in Europe i’ve visited, i felt comfortable in giving the city a new moniker, “The Chimney of Europe”!

Budapest was a bit more difficult. People smoked there quite freely too, but you can see the restraint in public places. I didn’t get any dirty looks from anyone. But the weather made things difficult. High winds, lots of moisture in the air (cigars kept going out) and very chilly.

On the return trip to Istanbul, i took a walk, just with a Partagas P2 and my camera. That was fantastic good fun. Puffing and taking pictures make good walking buddies!

Leica M9 and a Partagas P2

Finally, i had the pleasure of several unexpected herfs. The best of which was a friendly encounter with an American professor on conference in Istanbul. Steve, if you’re reading this, this is you. 🙂 A fellow Brother of the Leaf, he had been looking for a cigar since landing in Turkey, without any luck. I happened to light up in front of him, and he asked, “Where did you buy that? I’ve been looking for a cigar for a week!”

“I bought it at duty free in the airport.” I saw that he didn’t have a cigar, so i asked, “I’ve got more in the hotel room, give me a sec, and i’ll bring them down for you.”

I rushed upstairs, brought down some P2s and offered him a stick. He offered to pay for it, to which i refused, “Think nothing of it, just paying forward for all the cigars others have given me over the years.” We enjoyed the cigars together, chatted intensely for the next hour or so, and came away from the exchange happier for it. Great things can happen over a simple cigar, never turn down the chance to offer a stranger the pleasure, is my principle.

Too soon, it was time to leave for home. But in a way, it was time. There is no place like home, and i was dying for some of the creature comforts sunny (and hot) Malaysia had to offer. Holidays are fun because they represent a temporary escape from the realities of life. However, stay too long, and it loses its lustre.

I had a fantastic time. The trip came at a good time in my life, and helped me put a few things in perspective. Meeting some great people along the way, and smoking amazing cigars doing it is just icing on the cake.