A Travellerspoint blog

Let's go Rome!

All the grandeur that was and is . . .

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Rome, Italy
February 27 – March 14, 2011


As I write this (in August, 2011) we are cooling our jets in Indonesia, waiting out the summer heat and “high season.” So, I’m going to fill in some of the places we didn’t blog about earlier.

“Let’s go Rome!” We took the train down from Florence into Rome’s big Stazione Termini. Lovers kissed, sobbed, cuddled, and stroked until the last possible moment—passionate, going-off-to-war-worthy goodbyes. No war, just those romantic Italians. After dropping our bags at the B&B we walked around getting our bearings. We ambled along Via del Corso past colorful shop window displays and trattorias busy with diners at small tables on the sidewalk mingling with space heaters and street musicians under striped awnings. We passed the Victor Emmanuel Monument to Italy’s first president and climbed the Grand Staircase (designed by Michelangelo) past the mayor’s palace up to a spectacular view of the ancient Forum at night.


On our way home, it started raining hard, soaking through our rain jackets. We relented and bought umbrellas—a good purchase as it turns out—we have used them many times since for rain and sun. Rain notwithstanding, our street was a bustle of activity: a political demonstration, people arguing post fender-bender (in Italian, with lots of gesturing, of course), and an ambulance fetching a boy whose foot had been clipped by a motorcycle. That’s Rome—all chaos—with great art, food, and a la dolce vita attitude. We asked local people about the demonstration and the overall evening ruckus—they sighed with acceptance, “It’s nothing unusual, this happens all the time in Rome.”


We walked the Forum in daylight—through the same streets as Caesar, Roman armies returning with slaves and animals from conquered lands, orators pitching their ideas from the Rostrum (“Friends, Romans, countrymen . . . lend me your ears.”), and the six Vestal Virgins keeping the symbolic flame of Rome burning.


One night in Rome we were the target of a pick-pocket team. As we walked along a nicely dressed middle-aged man “accidentally” caught his umbrella handle on the strap of my bag and umbrella. The strap was across my chest, so my bag didn’t fall to the ground, but I was jerked to a halt and instantly surrounded by two young women as he and I disentangled. Then they were gone. An unsuccessful attempt: we wear valuables in pouches under our clothes and close bag zippers with hardware store o-rings. Brad said the precision of their maneuver was impressive; the encounter took about five or six seconds. We appreciate all the tips from experienced travelers—they worked!

It’s always a good time to eat in Italy. We weaved in and out of side streets, dropping into the many small cafes on the ground floor of yellow and ochre buildings for an espresso, gelato, salad, pasta, and/or biscotti . . . One day we chatted with the owner and staff who were taking a mid-afternoon break in front of their café in the Trastevere area of Rome. We were hungry but it was late for lunch and early for dinner. The owner said, “nessun problema.” After making us comfortable as a small table in the back of the empty café the staff set to work creating a pasta, tomato, seafood, and sautéed spinach meal for us. They made several trips carrying boiling water from the espresso machine in the bar in the front of the cafe to the kitchen in the back to get the pasta cooking. Yum-yum, another delicious, freshly cooked meal in Italy.


We strolled to the top of our street, past an enormous church, and down a cascade of steps, and through a park to the Colosseum, the 2,000-year old amphitheater of gladiator fights and other blood-sports designed to entertain, pacify, and otherwise occupy the Roman populace (“Give them bread and circuses.”). Our thoughts toggled from the horror of the “sport” to the genius of the construction. Its engineering is still spectacularly amazing—from the seating which held 50,000 fans (who could enter and exit in minutes) to the subterranean mazes where gladiators, animals, and props were raised to the arena level by hydraulic elevators. The pitted walls remain where the marble facade was plundered for construction of other buildings.


Speaking of plundering, or perhaps preserving, you know all those headless statues? Guess where we found the heads? Museums in Rome! In addition to the heads, we saw some mind-blowingly beautiful sculptures and mosaics.


We went, several times, to the grandest of all churches--St. Peter’s Basilica, the enormous, Baroque, centerpiece of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. St. Peter’s Basilica is designed to overwhelm and impress--and it does. Entering the church, pilgrims and potential converts were supposed to come to a single conclusion—that this must be the true God’s church, and I am sure many did. St. Peter’s Basilica is so large that it is hard to mentally process the retinal image. I had to keep reminding myself that although Bernini’s bronze baldachin looked small dwarfed by the nave’s dome, the baldachin was higher than a seven-story building, making the dome . . . well, REALLY BIG. But not to worry, the designers left nothing to chance: notations in the marble floor mark the smaller sizes of great churches around the world! And, in true Baroque style, no surface is unadorned with sculptures, marble, mosaics, and gold.


We also enjoyed a most pleasant sunny day walking, arguably, the straightest road in the world—the ancient Appian Way—built by the Romans to transport their armies and supplies in and out of Rome. The large cobblestones showed the ruts of thousands of years of wagon wheels. The side of the road is littered with ancient sculpture and building fragments. The crumbling remains of ruins reveal creative recycling of building materials. We followed the route of the returning Roman soldiers back across the Tiber River and into the heart of the city.


Did I mention the fountains?—another engineering marvel—the Roman aqueducts bringing all this water into the city enabled free-flowing fountains everywhere; some wonderfully ornate and others charmingly simple. What a pleasure to find fountains around every corner. Contemporary Romans cup their hands under the spouts and grab a drink as they walk by.


I’ve saved one of my favorites for last: the Pantheon: OMGs. At the time of its construction it was the largest dome of unreinforced concrete in the world. Impressive, but more awesome, such an elegant dome with its square-patterned indents and central oculus through which we watched white doves flying in the night sky. Recently scientists determined that in addition to letting in light and air, the oculus served as an astronomical calendar that perfectly illuminated the emperor’s entrance at 12:00 noon on the spring solstice. The 60-ton granite columns at the entrance were quarried in Egypt—what a transportation feat! Acceding to his wishes, the artist Raphael, who visited often, is buried in the Pantheon so that, in his words, he could be among its beauty for eternity. The inscription, in Latin, over his tomb states: "Here lies Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”


Posted by bradanddeb 01:37 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Hydra = V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N

This island in the sun was the perfect travel antidote

Hydra Island, Greece
March 16-19, 2011

As much as we loved Portugal, Spain, and Italy in Feb-March, it was cold--long underwear, scarves, hats, and gloves cold. Cold weather exacerbated by the oddities of B&Bs, such as the occasional no hot water (“We have ordered the part and expect it to arrive any day now.”) or no heat (“The owner of the building doesn’t start the furnace until 8:00pm, and only if he thinks it is cold.”) Luckily, we also found something common in B&Bs: really heavy wool blankets. So thick and warm we named them “buffalo blankets,” because we imagined it was like sleeping under a buffalo hide.

Nonetheless, by mid-March, we were ready for a sunny, do-nothing break from the “rigors” of travelling.

Respite arrived on the Greek island, Hydra: sunshine, blue skies, hiking trails, no cars or scooters, and no art museums or historical sites to visit.

The perfect V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N.


View from the monastery at the top of the island.
We climbed a zigzag stone path from the town up, up, and up to a small monastery. We couldn’t imagine the human labor to build it up there. Yet, what can be built often cannot be maintained. The monastery looked abandoned decades ago and was now being slowly restored. It was vacant today except for chickens that had the run of the place. Someone kindly left a tin of cookies and a jar of water at the door for hungry hikers. I advised a reckless hen that the pot wasn’t a good place to hang out, but you know chickens, they never listen. (I think she retorted, “Don’t call ME chicken.”)


A million, zillion cats.
The ferry arrives twice a day at Hydra harbor. To disembark we hopped from boat to dock as four cats occupied the gangplank. It was a hint of things to come: cats everywhere, lots of them. Friendly, cuddly cats. A few are owned, but most seem to belong to the town. There is a small SPCA-type group accepting donations to feed and spay the cats, to which we contributed. Godspeed, they have serious work ahead of them. (Cat photos for you, Soquel!)


Can we get a place here?
A favorite fantasy conversation as we walked around the island was: Where would you want to live on Hydra? Brad picked in town to interact with the people, take part of town life, and eventually run for mayor. I picked along the coast: a villa with terraces of citrus trees leading down to the sea (with a dock for fishing and a boat to take to town when we wanted to). There are plenty of options for both.


Azure doesn’t begin to describe the sea and sky.
It’s true what they say about the Greek islands: the sea and sky are really blue. My nonscientific explanation is (1) the water is very clear--no sand or seaweed clouding up the pure blue. You can see down to the blue rocky bottom. And, (2) the white-painted buildings stacked from sea to sky make the blues seem bluer. Whatever the real reasons, it sure is beautiful.


Trails all around the island.
We hiked the trails in every direction, walking as far as we had time to each day. It was hot and sunny. Often our only companions were grazing donkeys and horses, and the ubiquitous cats, of course, which would mosey down the road to greet us. Sometimes we came across locals who spoke English and wanted to chat. Brad (laying the seeds for his bid for mayor) is talking with a man who is upset that the dump was located nearby (about two valleys over). The burning garbage caused smoke at his property. Even paradise has its problems.


Is it too late to extend our stay?
After four days we were just beginning to learn about the island and people. We could navigate the town’s alleyways, had shopped at the market and bakery, hiked the island, and spent a surreal afternoon in a bar with locals watching the Hollywood Greek-god movie, Clash of the Titans, in English with Greek subtitles. There was so much more to discover here; but, unfortunately, we couldn’t change our next reservations. So we had to be content with our Hydra mini-vacation.


Omelets by the harbor every morning.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and we had ours watching the goings-on at the harbor. Fishing boats with nets over the sides cut wakes of white water motoring off to the days’ work; red water-taxis lined up for customers needing lifts along the coast; farmers offered donkeys to shuttle cargo up the town’s alleyways; a fugitive donkey, untethered, trotted past with on-the-lam, they-can’t-catch-me-now determination.


No cars, no scooters . . . nirvana!
The best thing about Hydra is what is absent—those noisy road-bullies: cars, trucks, and scooters. Here, human and animal pedestrians are the Road Gods, serenaded by birds and donkeys, waves and wind, and fishing boat radios playing Greek pop music. Hydra is heaven on earth for a nice vacation.


Posted by bradanddeb 05:57 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

Taste of Turkey #3

The Gestalt of Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey
April 2 - 10, 2011


We arrived by ferry to Istanbul on April 2nd, still cold temperatures for us, but Turkey’s beloved tulips bloomed in a fiesta of colors. Turkish TV news featured a segment (from what we could tell) on a group of women volunteers, wearing the patterned, loose-fitting “Turkish trousers” and bright-printed head scarves, up to their elbows in dirt planting tulips along roads, sidewalks, and other public areas.

The city of Istanbul strides two continents: Europe and Asia. The historical section of Istanbul is surrounded on three sides by water: on the south by the Sea of Marmara, the east and North-East by the Bosphorus Strait (leading up to the Black Sea), and the north by the Golden Horn estuary. This topography destined Istanbul to become a great ancient city, which was the capital of two world empires over a period of nearly sixteen centuries.

From our B&B we watched ships passing along and dolphins swarming in the Sea of Marmara. Morning, noon, and night the call to prayer from loudspeakers atop minarets was accompanied by howling dogs, creating an unusual, albeit humorous, songfest. Trains speeding along the coast below our window followed tracks built for the Orient Express.


With over 2000 years of continuous human habitation and its mix of East and West, Istanbul is a complex fusion of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and civilizations. We appreciated Istanbul best in the context of its three distinct periods and cultures:

1. The ancient Greek city-state (founded in c. 675 BC) was called Byzantium for almost a thousand years before Roman Emperor Constantine the Great conquered the city in 330 AD and made it the capital of the Roman Empire (in place of Rome); the city was then renamed Constantinople, the City of Constantine. Under Constantine and other Byzantine rulers Christianity became the dominant religion.

2. The Byzantium Empire continued until 1453 when Constantinople was captured by the Turks under Sultan Mehmet II (thereafter known as Fatih Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer) becoming the capital of the Ottoman Empire, named Istanbul. Islam became the dominant religion (although the sultan, probably to encourage repopulation of the city, Western diplomacy, and trade, issued edicts to protect the rights of people to worship other religions).

3. The Ottoman Empire emerged defeated after WWI, and ended in 1923 with the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey. At the end of WWI the Allies planned to divide up the lands of the Ottoman Empire. However, the so-called Young Turks, a growing nationalist movement of people attracted to the democratic ideas of Western Europe, led by army officer Mustafa Kemal (later to be known as Ataturk), fought off the invading Greek army with help from the Allies. Long story short, by October 1923 the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the Allied occupation forces had departed Istanbul. A parliament and constitution were established, Ataturk was elected the first president, and a broad set of reforms (including women’s suffrage) and secularizing legislation were enacted.

So, today, Istanbul feels like a gestalt of these three periods, mixing ancient and modern, religious and secular, spiritual and commercial, East and West—just as it links two continents.

Most of the grandeur of the Byzantine Empire is still buried under the Ottoman-era and modern buildings of Istanbul. Yet, many of the labyrinthine streets and market places follow their original, ancient footprint. How winding are the streets of Istanbul? Well, for example, the night we arrived our taxi driver could not find our B&B, not even with the help of GPS, a dispatcher, and directions from another driver we passed in our searching. (And our driver was motivated because we had negotiated a flat fee for the trip.) We finally stumbled upon the B&B (literally) when the driver stopped the taxi to check the front bumper after it scraped across a high edge of the cobblestone. While he checked for damage we saw a sign on a side road that might be our B&B, which it wasn’t, but as luck (or just narrowing the odds after a half hour of driving around) would have it, our B&B was across the street. Many of the alley-like Istanbul side streets lack signage and are winding, which challenges even the best map reading and sense of direction. Fortunately, we learned to navigate via the ups and downs of the seven Istanbul hills and familiar landmarks. With this strategy, we would head in the general direction and hone in on our target. Plus, we’ve adopted a laissez-faire/let’s-see-what’s-interesting attitude about being lost as a result of travelling in 20 cities in three-plus months.

Some Istanbul buildings have managed to retain parts of their Byzantine architecture. Our B&B is an old Istanbul “wooden house,” which, due to frequent fires in the city and the maintenance expense, are now rare. More rare still, our room on the first floor (called the “cave room”) is all that remains of a Byzantine structure attached to the house. See the pictures below, all showing the thin Roman-style bricks. The first is our “cave room” at the Istanbul B&B; the second is the ceiling in a Byzantine-era part of the Grand Bazaar; the third is from the ruins of a Roman bathhouse along the Appian Way leading out of Rome; and the fourth is from Palentine Hill ruins, also in Rome.


A bit more about the architecture of our B&B in Istanbul, which I think is common in older residences. The building is narrow and tall. The ground floor is comprised of our “cave” room and a small reception area; there are two small rooms on the first and second floors each, accessed by a wooden, single-file, circular staircase rising up the center of the building. The third floor (counting European-style with the first floor being the floor above the ground floor) is a kitchen and breakfast-eating area with views of the Sea of Marmara. The fourth floor is home to the woman who prepares the breakfasts and cleans the rooms of the B&B; although many other homes keep an open terrace on the top floor.

Constantinople’s infrastructure was impressive for its time. Houses enjoyed running water piped in from reservoirs and cisterns, lavatories, private and public baths, and the streets were lit at night. Even then a view of the sea was valued. Emperor Justinian, who reined from 527 – 656 (considered the most illustrious reign in the history of the Byzantine Empire), enacted a law to protect the sea views from being blocked. Here is the Emperor’s decree; isn’t this great?

In this our royal city one of the most pleasant amenities in the view of the sea; and to preserve it we enacted that no building should be erected within thirty metres of the sea front. This law has been circumvented by certain individuals. They first put up buildings conforming with this law; then put up in front of them awnings which cut off the sea view without breaking the law; next put up a building inside the awning; and finally remove the awning. Anyone who offends in this way must be made to demolish the building he has put up and further pay a fine of four and a half kilograms of gold.


Our favorite monuments of Byzantium are the Basilica Cistern, the Haghia Sophia church/mosque, and the Theodosian Walls. The underground Basilica Cistern (so named because it lies beneath the Stoa Basilica) was forgotten by the city for centuries. Legend has it that people in that neighborhood just thought their wells had hit upon a spring. It is the largest underground cistern in the city, originally 139 x 64 meters with 336 columns (246 visible columns are visible today). In the far-back two columns are inexplicably mounted on top of sideways and upside-down Medusa heads (probably recycled from another building). Large fish swim in the clear water and one could easily row a boat amongst the columns in the lake-like cistern. Today, there are raised walkways that enable exploration. The cistern stored and distributed water brought to the city from the Roman-built aqueducts. In Byzantine times the public Baths of Zeuxippus and the Hippodrome chariot-racing sports arena were conveniently nearby. Today, modern multi-story buildings, tram lines, and traffic are held aloft by the columns of this enormous cistern. It’s an amazing, see-it-to-believe-it testament to ancient Byzantine engineering.


The great Haghia Sophia church was built by Emperor Justinian (yes, him again). For almost a thousand years, Byzantine emperors were crowned in the great church. Haghia Sophia served as a church until 1453, when the Mehmet II conquered Istanbul and converted it to a mosque. Four minarets were added outside and most of the figurative decorations were plastered over. In some places you can see what looks like the crosses bleeding through. One of the few remaining figurative mosaics shows the Virgin and Child with Constantine (founder of Constantinople) on the right and Justinian (builder of Haghia Sophia) on the left. The walls and columns are a variety of beautiful marbles—the quantity and beauty of the different types of marble is stunning. Nine doors lead from the narthex to the nave; the central and largest door is the Imperial Gate, and was only used by the Emperor. Nine hundred twenty-six years after its consecration, with the Ottoman canons battering the city walls, the populace of Constantinople gathered in Haghia Sophia to pray for the city’s protection. Constantine XI Dragases, who was to be the last emperor of Byzantium, came to the church and prostrated himself before the high alter, lying there for some time in silence. What promises did he offer in silent prayer if God would save the city and the Byzantine Empire? It was not to be. He left the church for the Theodosian Walls to command the final, unsuccessful resistance against the Ottoman assault of Constantinople.


For a thousand years the Theodosian Walls protected the western border of the city of Constantinople, the only part not bordered by water. The main fortification was a five-meter thick, 12-meter high inner wall, buttressed by an outer wall, and moat that could be flooded when the city was threatened. The wall was defended by ninety-six towers twenty meters high. Gated openings were designated for public, military, and the emperor entrance to the city. When not in use the emperor’s gate was sealed. Today modern traffic passes through the gates and on the city-side buildings, homes, yards, and streets abut the Walls. As we walked along these back streets we tried not to stare into private yards and animal pens, towered over by the ancient Walls, nor scrutinize how the side of a house or car-repair shop was built into the Walls. In my excitement I felt compelled to exclaim, as if they didn’t know already, “Hey, you’re living right next to the Theodosian Walls!” But, of course, it was amazing only to us; they were busy with the here-and-now moments of their lives and the Walls, as one would expect, blended into the vague background.

On the outer side, a swath of fields, ruin rubble, a creek, cemeteries, and trees in spring blossom separated the Walls from freeways and Istanbul suburbs. For the last leg we passed through a gate and followed the outside of the Walls down to the Golden Horn estuary. Historically, burial grounds are outside the city walls. Note in the picture below the Ottoman tombstones topped with the head-dress that the deceased wore in life.


Our favorite monuments of the Ottoman Empire are the Topkapi Sarayi (palace, now a museum), the Kapali Carsi (Grand Bazaar), and the Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque).

The Topkapi Sarayi (palace) remains today much as it did for almost 500 years as the center of government, and home (harem) of thirty-six Ottoman emperors. The tiled and low-couched rooms with water fountains appear so relaxing. Yet, it was the site of royal intrigue, power struggles, and mahem. In the last centuries of the dynasty, to minimize the rampant fratricide, it became the custom to imprison the siblings the sultan in the Kafes (rooms of the harem also known as the golden prison) for their own safety, until, and if, they became Sultan. It was not unusual for sultans to have been captive in the Kafes for decades before ascending to the throne. Such isolation did not prepare them well for leadership and the Kafes system is considered to be one of the factors contributing to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Mahem aside, I could have spent days exploring this beautiful palace.


The huge Kapali Carsi (or covered bazaar, now called the Grand Bazaar) had been the principal market area during Byzantine times, and was also where Ottoman merchants brought their goods to be sold. It houses more than 3,000 shops, cafes, and workshops, and employs more than 20,000 people. The layout and buildings of the Bazaar are the same as in Ottoman times. We enjoyed weaving our way up to the Bazaar via the maze of streets from the Emenonu ferry piers on the Golden Horn. We never went the same way twice yet we could always, eventually, find our way to the Bazaar (at the top of the third hill). We rarely entered or exited through the same entrance (there are about twenty entrances). Our favorite area was just outside of the Bazaar-proper where we explored the dark, careworn shops selling old copper, bronze, and silver items stacked one upon each other in endless dusty piles of unbreakable relics of the nomadic lifestyle.

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It’s an understatement to say that we’ve seen a LOT of places of worship on this trip. My favorite (so far) is the Sultan Ahmet I Camii, or Blue Mosque (so-named for the blue floral tiling on the inside). It was closed when we first arrived to see it on Friday afternoon, a time of prayer for Muslim men. We waited outside with the women until the mosque was opened for visitors. The exterior hallways led into a large, elegant space beneath painted domes, bright from windows and hanging lights. The lower walls and columns are covered with all varieties of bright blue and green Isnik tiles with lily, carnation, tulip, and rose designs. I think one could ponder the mysteries of the universe in those tiles. The blue tiles are offset by the furniture-less expanse of red and blue carpet.



We were fortunate to visit the ancient Turkish bathhouse, Cagaloglu Hamami, with its architecture virtually unchanged from the Ottoman period. There are separate men and women’s entrances and areas. On the all-women’s side, I was escorted to a private changing room and provided with a red-and-white-plaid sarong-type wrap and wooden sandals. The hararet (hot room) was white marble, with a high central dome pierced with small star-shaped skylights that let in filtered light and let out steam. Below the main dome was the gobektasi, the large, circle, heated-marble platform at the center of the hararet. Four women lying on the gobektasi were being soaped, massaged, and oiled by the female attendants. White marble columns and archways supported the main dome. Marble, floral-motif basins with gold spigots and small stools were nestled in alcoves on the sides of the main dome. The attendant filled my basin with warm water, showed me the vessels of soaps and oils, and the metal water-scooper for dousing with water from the marble basin. In some alcoves groups women lounging around the basins washed and rinsed while chatting. The hararet was a warm, steamy, fragrant, marble-smooth, luxurious experience. Water and cares drained away along troughs and holes in the floor. Later, the attendant brought me to the gobektasi where I was scrubbed with a soapy mitt, rinsed, oiled, and massaged. Lying there, looking up through the steamy clouds into the white marble dome of starry skylights I sent up my appreciation to the genius who designed this building and experience—so perfectly that it has operated virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. Back to the alcove the attendant washed my hair, more massage, and then she patted the marble indicating I could stay and relax as long as I wanted. Eventually, with supreme mind-over-body determination, I left the hamam to meet Brad outside on the dark, evening Istanbul street. His experience in the men’s side was much the same, but with what sounded like a stronger, muscle-tweaking massage.


Some cities we can slip through, soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells without causing a ripple of reaction. Not Istanbul. The Istanbullus engaged us every step of our way, usually (but not always) trying to sell us something. It was as if they had all graduated summa cum laude from a Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People seminar. The hawkers were personable, energetic, polite, clever, and . . . relentless. We quickly learned that the pleasantries would invariably lead to a request to take us to his brother’s carpet shop or similar venue. “Hello, where are you from?” “California? I have a cousin who lives in Canada!” “I like your shoes.” “Where did you get your hat?” “Would you like a guide? I speak English!” “Where are you going?” “Hey lady, it’s almost free.” “Hello, are you French?” (I must admit, this one almost stopped me: Do you really think I look French?) When we paused to chat, the Istanbullus were charming. We were offered tea that emerged as if by magic. To make that happen, fellows employed by tea shops hustle around balancing trays of glasses of tea. Another time, on the train from Selcuk to Izmir, we sat in front of three older women wrapped in long coats and head scarves. Awhile after the train got on its way I felt a tap on my arm and an outstretched hand squeezed between the seats offering us Western pretzels and cookies. We accepted the treats and, in turn, sent back our bags of Turkish almonds and raisins, that they accepted. Then I turned around, kneeling on the seat to face them, tapped my flat hand on my chest and said “tesekkur ederim” (thank you). A young Turkish woman, watching the exchange from across the aisle, smiled.

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We enjoyed walking across the Golden Horn along the Golata Bridge from Emenonu to the “new district” of Istanbul. Fishermen bobbing poles tried their luck day and night. Street vendors selling everything imaginable were set up on both sides of the bridge. We tried to end the day on the “new district” side of the bridge as often as possible to have a fresh-fish dinner at our favorite ramshackle restaurant behind the fish markets along the waterway, run by our new Turkish friend who “has a cousin who lives in San Francisco!” Up the hill into the “new district” is the memorial statue to the modern reformer Ataturk, beloved by all Turks with whom we talked. In fact, in every mom-and-pop shop or restaurant proudly displays a picture of Ataturk. From the statue of Ataturk we walked down the busy Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street), zig-zagging off onto side streets, all the way back down to the Golden Horn.


What I like best about Istanbul is its gestalt: the rich combination of old and new, East and West, religious and secular that is, simply, everyday life in this city.


Posted by bradanddeb 08:40 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

A Taste of Turkey #2

The ruins of Ephesus and St. John's Bascillica

Ephesus, Turkey
March 27 - April 2, 2011


I love the haphazard, elegant beauty of ancient ruins and the mysteries they hold about once-vibrant civilizations now gone. We have observed in Italy, Greece, and now Turkey more stone artifacts than contemporary countries can deal with, it seems. Remnants of ancient buildings, roads, sculptures, columns, pottery, tiles, and mosaics are laying about, everywhere.


In the midst of ancient ruins I am overcome with a desire to start digging--I can barely control myself. I just know there are "treasures" of everyday ancient life (pots, tiles, coins, cups . . . ) under my feet waiting to be found. I creep along dislodging half-buried fragments with the toe of my shoe. "Look, Brad, a bit of pottery; see the ridges and how it curves? It must be a vase. Look here honey, a piece of painted tile; it's probably from the floor of a bathhouse. See this bit, it looks like part of a finger from a marble statue." Who knew? I'm a wannabe archeologist. Brad's entrepreneurial idea is to cordon off some unexcavated areas and rent trowels and small pails to hopeful hunters, like me, and let us dig. The deal would be that we could keep the bits and pieces we find that fit in the small pail. Anything bigger than the pail has to be handed over to the country. Hey, I'm in!

Pop quiz: Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian? (Note, too big for the pail.)

We walked the three-kilometer path through Eucalyptus trees and fields from Selcuk to the ancient Greek/Roman city of Ephesus. It was once a major port city with access to the Aegean Sea. Two thousand years ago (give or take a few centuries), Ephesus boasted a population of 250,000 and was one of the largest cities in the world. Cleopatra, Mark Anthony, Constantine, Agustus, Alexander the Great, St. Paul, and the Virgin Mary all reportedly walked these streets. However, the harbor silted up and in the 15th century it was abandoned. Only a small part of the ruins of the city have been excavated so far. (Ahem.)

Our first sight was the enormous amphitheater. It's not the most well-preserved, but it is one of the largest. For size reference, see the people in the bottom of the picture. Ephesus was a site of some early Christianity events. In this amphitheater St. Paul is said to have given a speech that put him at odds with the pagan-worshiping citizens and with the artisans who made and sold idols. The audience booed and shouted the names of idols for two hours after his speech, and Paul had to leave town for awhile. More recently, a Sting concert here under a full moon is still the talk of Selcuk town. The Virgin Mary lived in Ephesus after the crucifixion of her son Jesus, and a church dedicated to her was the site of early Christian councils debating various issues of dogma and faith. The picture of Brad and the large vessel is at the ruins of the Virgin Mary's church.


After the Virgin Mary church ruins we got lost (shocking, I know) and ended up in a field dotted with ruins poking through overgrowth. Brad lead the way toward what used to be the edge of the ancient harbor, before it silted up a thousand years or so ago. We viewed the toppling ruins from afar. In the last picture in the set below, Brad is walking on the ancient harbor road back into town. The amphitheater can be seen in the distance. Imagine this column-lined road bustling with burrow- and horse-pulled carts bringing loads to-and-from the busy harbor. Vendors sold wares and food from shops on each side of the road.


One stone of the road was dislodged offering us a view of its construction. The road was built over a swamp and vertically placed stone slabs supported the horizontal slabs of the road, keeping it above the water line. After Ephesus declined its stones were raided for new buildings elsewhere and marble was ground up for plaster. As we have seen in many, many ruins, scavenging construction materials is a time-honored practice. See picture of Ephesus wall below built from materials including a round grain-grinding stone. Reduce, reuse, recycle throughout millennia.


Making our way back into Ephesus town proper, we found more temple ruins and columned-lined roadways. Some sort of high-security, award ceremony was taking place in the beautiful Library of Celsus, painstakingly reconstructed from all-original pieces. It is neat to see ancient ruins used for contemporary events. To the left of the ancient library (over my right shoulder in the picture) is the site where Cleopatra secretly buried her younger sister, who was assassinated on Cleopatra's orders. (I once saw a documentary on this event, archeological dig, forensic analysis of the bones, and so forth.) On our extended travel I have read several history books. I've concluded that throughout human history one of the most dangerous things to be is a relative of someone in power, or of someone who wants to be in power. Seriously. It significantly ups the probability of being strangled, stabbed, executed, or buried alive (patricide and fratricide were especially common), or if lucky, I suppose, imprisoned after being blinded, nose cut off, or tongue slit (to make one unfit to rule). Although, amazingly, some have returned to power after such disfigurements and ruled with, for example, a false nose made out of gold or tin. Really! Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Ephesus. On a more positive note, of course many have acted for good. The statue below, for example, is of an Ephesus physician who was honored for trying to find a cure for malaria. (Not a surprising ambition or honor, given the construction of the city over a swamp.)


Ephesus was known for its exceptional Roman-built public bathhouses, using sophisticated plumbing and heating systems. In some places mosaic flooring can still be seen--amazing after a thousand years. (And we have to refinish our deck every other year.) Also evident were the communal toilets--favorite spots for catching up on the news and gossip (waste was swished away by troughs of water running underneath, in case you are wondering). In the midst of the practical detritus were stunningly beautiful sculpture fragments. I'm simultaneously envious of a civilization dedicated to decorating its public spaces with so much art and a little wigged-out knowing that this was possible only with the use of enslaved people captured from other lands. Such is history--a little glorious and a little complicated.


On to the ruins of St. John's Bascillica, also in the neighborhood, overlooking the town of Selcuk. This hill houses the ruins of a large church built where it is believed St. John wrote his gospel. It also houses the ancient castle fortress of Selcuk, closed for restoration. An enterprising fellow along the way, offered to take us on a special tour of the closed castle, to which he said he had entry because he was a "museum official," showing us a badge. We passed on the offer. The site of St. John's Bascillica had great 360-views (must have been a nice place to write!). The ruins were all pillars and piles.


Maybe someday the antiquities directors will implement Brad's rent-a-trowel and dig for treasure idea. I'll be there. Bye for now!

Posted by bradanddeb 21:01 Archived in Turkey Comments (2)

Hotel Renaissance - Plovdiv

Excellent B&B, excellent host.

semi-overcast 58 °F

Plovdiv, Bulgaria
April 10-12, 2011

We have been traveling since the first of the year; this was a welcome stay. If all our lodgings and hosts were like the "Hotel Renaissance" and Dimitar, we might travel indefinitely. Dimitar was an excellent host, from the moment we arrived until the time we sadly said farewell.

Dimitar provided helpful instructions concerning taking a taxi from the Plovdiv bus station to his B&B, via email. No problem in arriving. The clean room was great, large enough for our three-night stay and to stretch out in the room. The bath and shower were clean and spacious, always plenty of hot water. The bed was comfortable, with extra blankets and pillows. We never had a problem with noise, the wifi was adequate, not super fast. Our room also had a small, enclosed, covered outside ledge area that was perfect for hanging two clotheslines and getting a lot of wash cleaned and air-dried.

The breakfast was satisfactory: hard-boiled egg, toast, sliced cucumber, carrots, and cheese, coffee and juice. On our last morning we were presented with a special breakfast of chocolate- and jam-filled crepes; more like dessert than breakfast for us, but it was a nice gesture.

We have found that a successful B&B stay includes an excellent host. Dimitar is certainly that. He was super helpful all the time. He provided excellent suggestions for places to eat, he called us a cab when it was time to leave, and he arranged for an English-speaking translator to take us to the parcel post office (which we would have never found on our own) and to help us navigate the complicated process of sending some souvenirs back to the US from Bulgaria.

Yes, we liked the man and his B&B.

One of the hallmarks of historical homes in Plovdiv are hand-painted designs on walls and ceilings. Dimitar hired a master of this dying art to paint the B&B. It took nine months. Here is a picture of the ceiling in our room.


Posted by bradanddeb 08:41 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged bulgaria plovdiv Comments (0)

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