Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Day 13 - Istanbul by day and night

Today is the day to visit the Aya Sofia, also known as the Hagia Sophia. One tip we got from friends back home was to get there super early as the place fills up fast with tourists. So again, we had a fast breakfast and walked the few blocks up the hill to get first in line. We got excited about this until we saw that there were actually two lines. One for the tourist and one for the "locals" (which is a loose terms that covers all Turks).

As soon as the 9am bell rang, we ran to the ticket booth, got our tickets and made a mad dash to get into the church/mosque/museum. It was worth the dash once we got inside. It was truly breathtaking once you stand under the dome in the middle of the grand hall alone, save for a couple of guards. We were only there for a few minutes when movement close to the Minbar caught our attention. When we got closer, we noticed it was a gray catwith a bird in its mouth. The guards were at a loss at what to do. In mere moments, the museums would be full of tourist, but on the other hand, this cat was enjoying its breakfast. There were several discussions, in Turkish, about the cat, and the final decision was to leave it alone until the bird was consumed. After the bird was eaten, a guard showed up with a dust pan to quickly clean up what was left of the feathers, while the cat found a sun spot to clear it’s paws.

From the Minbar, we moved on to the two huge marble lustration urns and them made our way around the great halls before heading upstairs to get better views of the gigantic circular-framed disks hung on columns with the names of Allah, Muhammad (pbuh), Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, Hassan and Hussain. It's not until you get upstairs that you really get the true size of these massive medallions. We walked around the famous Marble Door and enjoyed all the mosaics that covered various parts of the walls. It was fascinating to see all the crosses in the banisters that had been removed with the building when the church was converted to a mosque in 1453. Having come from a country where hieroglyphics were covered with crosses, it as ironic to come to a location where crosses were removed. My favorite part of the museum was all the patterns in the marble, ceilings, columns, banisters, windows and every where one looked. It's very hard to resist touching everything.

After a couple of hours, we finally felt we had seen everything and headed back downstairs to leave. We had taken a photo in one location as soon as we had walked in the door, so before we left, we made sure to take another photo in the exact same location. Except the second time, there were hundreds of people standing behind us. Before we left, we also made sure to look for the "weeping column" near the imperial door. Legend has it that you place your thumb in the central hole and make your hand go a full 360 without moving your thumb. If you go all the way around, your wish will come true, your aliments will go away and you will live forever. Or something along those lines. Once outside, we peeked through a door that someone had accidentally left open and observed the excavations going on for the churches under the Sofia that were still being excavated.

After the museum, we wandered over to Topkapı Palace, another location that had been highly recommended to visit. But the lines were outrageous and we wanted to keep the Aya Sofia memories fresh in our minds. So we meandered through the archeological museum and leisurely strolled back to our hotel where I got recommendations for a true Turkish Hammam location. The Cagaloglu Hamami got the local nod, so we moseyed down there so I could cross another thing off my bucket list. I must say that afterwards my body felt so fresh and clean, I believe I experienced a rebirth. I was a bit intimidated a bit going in, knowing that I was going to be naked in front of other women, but once I entered the domed hall, I didn't even notice anyone else. They made me wear these super uncomfortable wood shoes that looked better on the wall then my feet. The only thing I was wondering is if my attendant was the same one that had also scrubbed down Cameron Diez? or maybe Kat Moss? While I was in the hamam, DH managed to find the Valens Aqueduct and take some photos of it.

Feeling fresh and renewed, we headed to the Küçük Ayasofya neighborhood, but first stopped to get a Simit from a street vendor while walking trough the Hippodrome of Constantinople. We admired the Serpent Column, the Walled Obelisk and the Obelisk of Theodosius. Once we reached our true destination, the Doy-Doy Restaurant, we stayed put for a couple of hours enjoying the laughter and Turkish conversations of our neighboring tables while watching the women across the alley hang her wet laundry on a clothesline. We didn't know what to order, so had the waiter surprise us with endless plates of appetizers, meat, veggies and desserts. With full happy stomachs we staggered back to our hotel and immediately feel asleep.

We had yet to visit the Beyoğlu neighborhood so we put on our walking shoes and took a short hike to the tram station. Nearly an hour, one dog bite and metro ride later, we finally arrived at our destination where we were in for the shock of our lives. It truly was like walking around Manhattan. There were thousands and thousands of people strolling through the open shops, restaurants and cafes, where live gypsy music blended with djed hip hop while street musicians with open guitar cases trying to compete stood on the corners. Overhead the street was illuminated with lights that were alternating between snowman holding Christmas trees or crystal chandeliers. And the cherry on top was the sweet smells of Doner, wafering the air like a GPS straight to our stomachs that were impossible to resist, so we didn't.

We walked the length of İstiklâl Caddesi, past the various embassies and the Galata Kulesi before we found ourselves in dark alleys with very unusual graffiti painted on the doors. It was blocks and blocks of yellow arms held up in resistance painted alongside eyes. We weren't sure if it had anything to do with the graffiti we had seen earlier that stated "Free Palestina" but it was beautiful and sinister simultaneously. Knowing that a short while ago, the Israelis had attacked a Turkish ship with medical supplies headed to Gaza, we thought it might have been the local resistance to the apartheid that was happening to the Palestinians.

We finally meandered back to our hotel, through the eerie silence that surrounded the Blue Mosque. The only inhabitants at 2am were the garbage men, picking up all evidence that the day before had actually existed.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Day 12 - Prince Island

We decided to head to the Buyuka ada (Big Island - the biggest of the Prince Islands) and had to eat our breakfast fast in order to make the ferry. Of course this means we only spent an hour on the terrace roof instead of longer. We haven't been in Turkey very long, but already my pants are starting to feel a little snug. Time to go walk off all this halwa!

We took the tram to the Eminönü stop to take the iDo ferry to the islands. We made stops at Kabataş (the Asian side) to pick up more passengers before we stopped at Kınalıada, Burgazada, Heybeliad and finally getting off at Büyükada over an hour later. As soon as we got off the ferry, we were greeting by men standing in front of restaurants asking us to check out their prices. We ignored them and walked up the hill to notice a line around the block waiting for the horse and carriage rides. There was also a line for the bicycle rental place. We didn’t want to wait in long lines and decided to start walking up the hill ourselves to the top, where the Ayia Yorgi Church and Monastery are located. I'm so glad we did, since we got to see some of the beautiful architecture of the island and enjoy the quietness of the walk because motorized vehicles are forbidden on all the six islands.

The further up we go, the more breathtaking the views became. Through the trees one can see Istanbul, the blueness of the water and the amount of freight tankers that were going through the ports. We heard the music of a local resort drift up the trees and listened to the sounds of the horse's hoofs on the road. We walked through a local park where families were having lunch and reached the final rest stop before the last major climb to the top. We bought some overpriced ice cream, took a deep breath and started climbing the cobblestone path. The closer we got to the top, the more trees we saw covered in swatches of fabric. These prayers were left by others who wanted to leave a blessing or request.

At the top, my DH had to wear a long piece of fabric to cover his legs that were in shorts. I hesitate to call it a skirt, since this same piece of fabric is the same one that some women used to cover their heads. We walked inside the teeny weeny church (where no cameras were allowed), make a small donation and went outside to walk around and enjoy the spectacular view under clear blue skies. The architecture of the church was telling of its years and I fell in love with the geometric patterns created by the roof top shingles as we walked by. We decided against buying anything at the café and headed back down to enjoy lunch by the water’s edge. We asked about the cost of the carriage ride to the bottom, realized it was more then the cost of lunch and headed back down on foot. We stopped along the way to enjoy the purrs of sleeping cats, the sounds of kids laughing in back yards and the colours of the vibrant flowers that were in full bloom. We made a quick detour at the house of Leon Trotsky, where he lived for four years after his deportation from the Soviet Union in 1929. The house was very hard to find and several locals had no idea what we were talking about. We finally wandered down this no name street where a group of women were leaving a courtyard. One of them understood English and read the guide book we showed her. She pointed across the street at this run down, gated home that was in ruins with over grown trees and no roof.

We continued on our way, having lunch at a restaurant close to the ferry dock. Okay, let me pause here a moment. I have to tell you about this lunch. The food good, as always, tasted fresh and delicious. We wanted to treat ourselves for walking all the way up and down the mountainside, so we decided on dessert. I have to admit I’m not really that big of a dessert person. Yes, I do occasionally enjoy a nibble of something sweet at the end of a meal, but I’ve not one to always devour a full helping of a chocolate cake slice at the end of a dinner. So we got this Kanafeh that sounded good. We sat there for 20 minutes, still waiting when we saw the cook run by with eggs in his hand. I guess they ran out of eggs and had to borrow some from another restaurant. We were a little put off by having to wait so long, but seeing that was very comical. Then the Kanafeh came and we took a bite. At this point, angles started singing halleluiah and the waters parted. I have never in my life tasted anything so delicious. Ever ever. I’m so sorry mom, but this Kanafeh was divine. I didn’t take a photo because I was worried that if I took the time to take the picture, my DH would get an extra bite. He of course tried to get me to take the picture. Reluctantly, we left the restaurant, got on the ferry and headed back to Eminönü.

We landed back and headed for the Spice Market and walked around smelling all the smells. I had no idea it was such a gathering place for animal selling either. We saw dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, pigeons, cockatiels, turkeys and other birds that we couldn’t read the name plates to figure out where they were. The one that surprised me were the number of huge clear plastic tubs with leeches inside. I’d seen leeches before, but not hundreds in tubs and about 10 different vendors selling them.

We walked through the market, taking our time and enjoying more of this fabulous city. You would think that after walking up a mountain top and back we’d be heading straight for the tram or hail a cab? Nope, after the Spice Market, we walked back through the Grand Bazaar, bought some little treats for our girls and came upon a Dervish at a different bazaar attached to the side of the Blue Mosque. It was mesmerizing to watch him twirl.

After we finally headed back to our hotel, I tried to get a food photo for the day. It was the hotel next to us and their meat delivery. But the man at the door started yelling at me in Turkish so it’s a very blurred shot. But at least you can see how the meat is delivered late in the evening to restaurants around town. I can’t wait till tomorrow where I get to taste more of the lamb kebab!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Day 11 - Leaving Europe for Asia and back again

Having spent the last day being very lazy, we were very motivated this morning to do a little sightseeing. We had yet another fantastic breakfast full of melon, bread, tomatoes and much much more halwa and left the hotel with our Akbil in hand. First we caught the tram to the Tophane stop on the black line, walking by the Dolmabahçe Palace. From there we again used our Akbil to catch the Kabatas ferry to the other side. Why did we cross the water you might ask? To get to Asia of course! There are not very many areas in the world were you can be in one continant and take a ferry ride to get to another continent that is connected with the same city. Pretty cool indeed.

Once on the other side, we decided to walk, but got a little ahead of ourselves and didn't realize how far we were from our destination. We had gotten a name of a great restaurant from our Turkish friend in Seattle and wanted to have lunch there. We had no idea we'd be walking 5 miles to the Karaköy ferry before we finally found our right the bus. On the bus, we found a lovely gal that knew English and managed to get our bus driver to let us know where the Kalamis Marina was so we can get off. At the Marina we managed to find the restaurant, Diwali, one of the BEST kebap places in town. The place was huge, but there was only three tables occupied. We basically told them we had no idea what to order, so they just kept brining us food and more food.

After our huge feast, we took a taxi to the Bagdat Caddesi from Suadiye, getting off along the water where the Suadiye Princess Hotel was located. Again, we were super lucky to find another English speaking woman on our taxi who helped us tell the taxi driver were we wanted to land. At the stop, I managed to find my spot to do my photograph of my foot in the water. From the beach we walked about three blocks up to the Bagdat Caddesi and started walking west. What a fascinating caddesi - apparently it goes from Istanbul all the way to Baghdad! It was like were weren't even in the same Istanbul we started in. There were hardly any mosques to be seen, the amount of women in hijab could be counted on one hand and everyone was dressed to the nines! It was like walking through parts of Paris. The stores were all high end shoes, clothing and everything was over priced. We walked for a few miles, hoping to work off our massive lunch before finally giving in and catching a bus back to the Karaköy ferry. From the ferry, we got lazy (or was it exhausted?) and just went straight back to the ferry dock under the Galata Bridge.

We got off the ferry and walked around the fish market before crossing the Bridge, watching all the fishermen staring into the Golden Horn. After we got across the Bridge, we spent a little time at the New Queen Mother's Mosque doing some people watching from the main stairs. Despite the Spice Market being connected to the Mosque, we decided to stop by on a different day. There were rows of shoe shiners all lined up waiting for the workers to get off the tram station and heading home. We made a stop at the grocery store to stock up on more cheese and bread for dinner and called it a day.

I just realized I went through the whole day with no food photo, so here is course 2 from our fantastic lunch:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Day 10 - Good morning Istanbul

Today is the start of our first day in Istanbul. With all the early wake up calls in Egypt and all the running around we had to do, it was nice to wake up lazy and spend the whole day being lazy. First we started with a breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel, overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Blue Mosque. What an amazing view. Honestly, if the rest of the trip was going to be anything like it had started today, we were in for some great times and lots of great food. Breakfast took forever because I couldn't stop eating. I was amazed by the freshness of all the fruits and vegetables and ate almost the whole plate of melons myself. I also tried to resist the halwa as long as I could, but finally had to give in. Finally my DH dragged me away from the food so we can start exploring Istanbul.

Our first stop was up the street at the Hippodrome of Constantinople since we wanted to explore our own 'hood before we wandered off too far. I have to point out here at the beauty of the Blue Mosque but we decided to wait to visit it. It looked like it would be a perfect end to our trip to Istanbul and we felt we wanted to save it at the end. Almost like a dessert. But we loved walking by it every morning and enjoying the quietness of the benches that faced it. By the time we got home in the evening, they were packed with tourists, but in the morning, you could actually hear the birds chirping in the surrounding gardens.

It was fitting that we'd take a moment to reflect at the Milion, which was used as a starting-place for measurement of distances. From the Milion, we wandered up the paved, carless road to try to find a location to buy our Akbil. According to our hotel manager, this Akbil is the only way to go in Istanbul. The Akbil is a small stainless steel "button" on a plastic holder. Inside is a computer chip. You basically put down a deposit for this little thing, put cash into the account and then are able to use it on trams, trains, busses and ferries. We knew we had to get one. Not only does this save us from having to figure out the change for each trip, it allowed the both of us to use it together. Of course finding where these little bits of heaven were sold was a challenge, since neither one of us knew how to read Turkish, so most of the morning was wasted walking around with only this purpose.

We finally got an Akbil, placed some cash on it, and found ourselves next to the Grand Bazaar, the oldest and largest mall in the world. Of course we got totally lost walking aimlessly through it's 50+ streets. Since we knew we didn't want to buy anything on our first day, it was interesting to just walk around and check out the various prices from the different shops. The main central area was much higher priced for the same items you find on the less walked streets. We saw a lot of Nazar sellers that were dirt cheap as compared to the ones that had rows and rows of much more expensive protections in the central area. the outside area of the Bazaar also housed much more of the utilitarian shops that the locals would have been buying from, including appliances, jeans, tennis shoes and guns. Yup, we walked right by a gun shop with a full display of every kind of gun imaginable in it's window. Very interesting indeed. Personally, I loved all the bright colors of the tourist dresses, headscarves, toys and shoes.

We also walked by lots of little local mosques and marveled at the details of everything. It was interesting to see the tombstones in the tiny little graveyards in front of these mosques. We keep meandering around the Bazaar and all it's local neighborhoods the rest of the day and ate at a local tourist place. On our way home, we also walked by the Basilica Cistern, but had been warned there really wasn't much to see in it, so we didn't go in. So we just keep moving along to finish up our perfect lazy day.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Day 9 - Leaving Africa for Europe

Considering we got in late last night, we got a few hours of sleep before we had to head down for the breakfast buffet. I'm so going to miss having basbousa, lebnah and sushi for breakfast. I'll pine for the omelet and French toast bar made right before your eyes by the chefs and the endless assortment of fresh fruit. I will long for the days when I had various selections of cold cuts and varieties of cheese. But the thing I shall miss most of all? The dessert bar. Because when you are on vacation, calories eaten from the dessert bar never count, right?

We met Mohamad, our tour rep, and Aswad, our driver, in the lobby and since it was so early, we had fairly little traffic to the airport. It was very amusing to see several Prayer Areas had been set up for wary travelers, yet we had to ask at several stores for a stamp to mail our Egyptian postcard to our daughters and were unsuccessful. I’ve done my fair share of traveling in my life and visited countless airports, but I’ve never been in one that did not sell postcards or stamps. So be warned, if you are in the Cairo airport, be as impressed as you’d like about how new and stunning it looks, but be sure to pack your own stamps and postcards.

We landed in Istanbul at the Atatürk International Airport in a short amount of time, got in a very long line for passports and then were told we had no visas and must go purchase them from the next window. You’d think everything can be easily done at one stop, but nope, had to get into the visa line and then back into the passport line.

We left the airport and figured out a way to find the light rail transit system that would take us from there to the old section of town, Sultanahmet. Our hotel, the Megara Hotel is located here and is about 15 miles and two transfers away. An elderly man was generous enough to help us with the transfer and actually paid for our tickets as we were trying to figure out how to buy more tokens. We weren’t in town for a few hours and already the Turkish hospitality is showing through.

We found our hotel, the Megara Butique, on northern end of Akbiyik Caddesi ("Avenue of the White Moustache") and checked in to our room. The hotel was so gorgeous. We have a third floor room with a view of the Blue Mosque out of our side window. The front window faced the cobber stone road and the other boutique hotels on the street, along with a broken down home of some sort that we never quite figured out how it was destroyed. We decided to take a little walk to get acquainted with our surrounds. We walked towards the water, passed centuries old homes, more tiny hotels and a Best Western. We walked through the old city walls to see the Marmara Sea and the Asian side of Istanbul. I was looking for a spot to dip my toes for my water but was unsuccessful since it was all sea walls. We headed back towards the square and walked around for a bit longer, found the grocery store to stock up on food and drinks for our mini fridge and took some photos of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia (more details about these on a later date). Since we wanted to get an early start on seeing the city tomorrow and had only a few horus of sleep the night before, we called it a night.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Day 8 - From one kind of Cairo to another

Today is our last full day in Cairo and what a full day it ended up being. The tour company was generous enough to give us a driver for the day, but no tour guide. This worked out great, as we would have had no idea how we were going to get around. We had a list of places we wanted to see from friends that had visited the area, so we gave it to our guide and off we went.

Since we were so close, we made a pit stop again at the Khan al Kahlili market. This time we brought some Egyptian outfits for the girls and some other little gifts for friends and family. The market is so different first thing in the morning. Most of the shops were still closed and the shop keepers are mostly cleaning from the day before. They would take water in buckets and throw it on the ground trying to keep the dust down, so we spent quite a bit of time dodging arches of water. This only created mud, but somehow that was better then the dust. Go figure.

Then we headed for the Al-Rifa'i Mosque, which was breathtaking inside. Our driver did come inside with us and help with the tour, which was very nice of him. He also told the front admissions person that I was Libya, so we were able to get the local rate, as opposed to the foreigner rate. I spent most of my time inside the mosque taking photos. Honestly, I wasn't as interested in the history of the structure as so much as all the details everywhere. The carvings were on the walls, doors, window screens, ceilings, domes, columns, chairs and tombs. It's surprising that the guards inside weren't carved too. This mosque is the final resting place of several important people in Egyptian history, including Khushyar Hanim, who had the mosque commission for her son, the Turk Isma'il Pasha and King Farouk, the last King of Egypt before he was overthrown in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Until WWII, the Shah of Iran, Rezā Shāh, was also buried there and now that tomb is occurred by his son's body, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was Shah of Iran until 1980. Rezā Shāh’s body was returned to Iran, in case you were wondering what they did with it.

In the same complex (and using the same ticket) was the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, which was another wonderful example of the Mamluk architecture of that same time period. Again, we got a wonderful tour from our driver, but mostly he backed off and left us alone to enjoy the decorations again. A madrassa is the Arabic word for school.

We left both mosques and headed for the Gayer-Anderson Museum. Unfortunately, due to the parking situation outside, our driver was not able to come in with us. He told us we would be fine, to just show the admission person my passport (which says born in Libya) and ask them to let us in for the same price as the locals. Well, this didn't work. The admission person said that it didn't matter where I was born, I was holding a US passport and would have to pay the foreigner fee. Honestly, if this was a real important location in Egyptian history, we would have gladly done so, but since it wasn't, we declined. If you were curious, the price for a foreigner is 30 Egyptian pounds and the price for locals is 2 Egyptian pounds. So we walked next door to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, which was far more impressive and free. I later found out that parts of the James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me, was filmed in the museum, so I can just see the film to see what I’d missed, I suppose.

We left and headed to meet a friend, Ahmed Amr, the writer for NileMedia, who used to live in Seattle. Ahmed had our driver drive us around the district and told us stories about what the streets used to look like when he was a kid. He also pointed out the palace of the current president of Egypt, Mubarak. We then headed to a great book store and I was left to go through the kid's books while he took my DH for tea next door. I managed to cause quite a bit of damage to our credit card stocking up on books that I will use for my storytelling sessions for the King County Library System this fall (at the Lake Hills Library, wink wink). After the bookstore, we were taken back to our hotel by our driver, who we'll see tomorrow for our flight to the airport.

We were to meet Ahmad later for dinner, so we decided to go for a walk and explore our area one last time. We ended up at the local aquarium, also called the Grotto Garden. This garden was surrounded by the embassies of foreign countries and couldn't have been out of palace if it had arrived by an alien ship. We didn't even mean to go in, but the guard at the door insisted we come in so he can give us a tour. We were the only ones in there as he said the hours were from 8pm to 6am since the locals needed entertainment in the evenings to beat the daytime heat. Being the only ones going on a tour with a strange guy who keep insisting on taking our photo every ten minutes was odd to say the least. The fish in the tanks didn't look too good and so many of the same types were just in different tanks. There was one large area that was like a huge cave with hundreds of bats and stuffed exotic fish. I was very ready to leave this area that felt very haunted and sad. As we were leaving, the guard of course expected to be paid. But we only had a little bit of change with us, since we had left our backpack in our hotel room. Despite giving him well over the local fare that was posted in the entrance, he still expected more "since we were on a private tour." Geesh.

At around 8pm, Ahmed came back to the hotel and picked us up to take us to the Nile Lily, a local restaurant that just happens to be situated on a stationed cruise ship. We were to join a party he had been invited to that evening for the local Rotary Club new officer’s election. This party was full of high class people decorated in tuxes, beautiful gowns and diamonds listening to a singer who sang songs in English with an exquisite voice that sounded like a young Frank Sinatra. People were dancing check to cheek on the top deck of the boat as our meals were delivered to us by immaculately dressed waiters walking around white love seats to deliver our meals under the white curtained gazebos. This was so different then the Cairo we'd seen days before. Each plate of food looked like it was picture perfect and tasted just as good. Meanwhile, the breeze was flowing off the Nile, along with the sounds of the smaller moving entertainment boats that were floating by filled with women and men dancing to old Egyptian songs. I felt like I was watching two worlds simultaneously having a good time, unaware that the other existed.

We left the party, way too late to comment on here. We made a stop as Ahmed needed to drop off some books at a friend’s house. It was none other then the famous Egyptian painter Mostafa Razzaz. Umm, yeah, that Mostafa Razzaz. What an honor to be invited in his home sharing tea and stories of art exhibits he'd done in the past. I asked him to join my database of my non-profit organization, Arab Artists Resources and Training. We finally left at an even later hour and headed to the hotel to try to get a few hours sleep before our early morning flight out of Cairo.

Tonight I'm going to leave you with images of our delicious dinner on the Nile Lily.