No France For You!

The next port of call on our trans-Atlantic was Le Havre, France; or so we thought.  We had been excited to go see the beaches of Normandy.  We even watched a documentary a week before the cruise in anticipation!  Unfortunately, the port workers in France had other designs.  They were on strike, as were the pilot boat operators, and so we could not dock there.  Instead, we went to Dover, England – home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover.

119 The White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover

120 I can see why they're famous

I can see why they’re famous

Dover turned out to be a charming little town.  After spending a few hours in the library using their WiFi, I dragged Stephanie off for that most important of British traditions: fish and chips.  The way to find the best food anywhere you go is to ask the locals, so we did, and we were pointed to a little take-away joint that apparently wins awards for its fish and chips.  This was one of those food experiences where I was tempted to go back for more despite being full – simply because it tasted amazing.

We tooled around the town exploring shops and parks and admiring the quaint architecture and how the streets all seem to curve in that oh-so-British way.  We walked up a huge hill to Dover Castle, but at more than £20 person just to get in, we decided that our photos and memories of Blarney Castle would serve us just fine.

There was only one logical thing to do. It was time to hike up the White Cliffs and check out the views.  We had seen the cliffs before on our crossing of the English Channel from London to Paris, but this time we could get up close and personal. It was only about a half hour by foot from the center of town to the visitor’s center up on the cliffs.  As the land dropped away behind us, the views just got better and better.  The cliffs themselves are white because they are made largely of calcium carbonate (aka chalk).  Considering how soft and soluble chalk is, it’s amazing that the cliffs have stood for so long.  They reminded me of The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride.

Next stop was Bruges in Belgium.  We spent about five days here before and completely loved it.  We were still in touch with our couch surfing hosts, so we had arranged to meet them. Unfortunately a communications snafu led to delayed transportation.  Once we realized we had to make the short run into Bruges on our own, the shuttle was sold out.  We took a different shuttle to the town of Blankenberge, only to find that we had *just* missed the train to Bruges, and the next one was in an hour.  That was fine with us!  We explored Blankenberge a bit, and checked out the seaside promenade.

By the time we got from the port in Zeebrugge to Bruges itself, we only had about two hours to spend there, so we had to be efficient.  This is Belgium, and in terms of edibles, it’s known for four things: chocolate, waffles, beer and French fries.  Guess which one was most important to Stephanie.  We wasted no time at all in heading to local chocolate shops.  Stephanie’s favorite of all the Belgian chocolates is Leonidas, where she hand selected a whole pile of assorted truffles to sample.  My favorite is Neuhaus – more expensive, but seriously yummy.

Elliott's favorite Belgian chocolate

Elliott’s favorite Belgian chocolate

As a result of our quick turnaround, our friend Pascal wasn’t able to make it, but Yannick met up with us, and took us through more of Belgium’s culinary delights.  We went to Chez Vincent’s, for what Yannick said were the best fries in Belgium.  Remember what we said about trusting the locals when it comes to food?  Well, the line out the door backed up Yannick’s claim, and we were not disappointed.  French fries were actually invented in Belgium, and I believe they truly are the best in the world.  They have a double frying technique that renders them crispy on the outside, yet soft on the inside.  By the way, the trivia buff in me wants you to know that the word “French” refers to the way the potatoes are sliced, and not the country of origin.

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Lastly, we stopped for a Belgian waffle. Again, it was amazing.

174 Finally - a Belgian waffle

Finally – a Belgian waffle

Suddenly, it was time to go.  Yannick, sweetheart that she is, walked with us (and her bike) back to the train station, and waited with us on the platform until we pulled away.

Back in Blankenberge, we stocked up on Belgium chocolate to bring home with us.  The Belgians take their chcocolate VERY seriously.  As a result, the stuff in the supermarkets is held to the same high standards as the artisan chocolate houses.  We took it easy, and only bought about €30 worth to take home.  With our case of chocolate in hand, we felt our quick return trip to Belgium was a complete success!

177 Our Belgian candy haul_cr

Our Belgian candy haul

Blarney…Tastes Like Chicken

After sailing across the Atlantic, and spending nine glorious days at sea, we finally reached the Emerald Isle.  Okay, I’m jumping ahead a bit.  Let me back up…

We had this amazing Royal Caribbean cruise booked that sailed out of Copenhagen and covered seven Baltic countries.  (Look for details in future posts.) While Stephanie was diligently researching the best airfare, I happened to discover that the sailing right before ours was a transatlantic crossing.  What better way to arrive in Copenhagen than having spent 16 days already at sea?  Finally, Stephanie cracked under my relentless hinting and we booked our first ever back-to-back sailing.

The transatlantic leg began with six days in a row at sea.  Now, for those of you who have never cruised before, you should know that sea days can be even better than port days.  There are so many activities, shows, and of course, opportunities to eat.  We always tell people “If you’re bored on a cruise ship, it’s because you’re trying to be bored on a cruise ship.”  We spent our time relaxing by the pool, reading magazines, cross stitching, ballroom dancing, winning trivia contests, going to the gym, making friends, watching movies in the ship’s cinema, playing miniature golf, climbing the rock wall, and of course, eating.  As you devoted followers of this blog know, we usually travel pretty hard, so having a week of forced relaxation was heaven.

We did actually call in another port before Cork, Ireland, but if I had started with Ponta Delgada in the Azores, the opening for this post wouldn’t have had the same “gotcha” factor.  In truth, we had been to Ponta Delgada before when we were traveling around the world in 2012.  The Azores are beautiful islands belonging to Portugal, and located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The only reason Ponta Delgada was less notable this time is simply that it rained all day, and so we didn’t do much on shore.  Stephanie and I did manage to wander around the town for a bit, and of course, we found the obligatory free Wi-Fi so we could catch up on the important goings-on at home.  In the end, however, we were glad we didn’t have big elaborate plans for the day.  We tried some local hot chocolate to stay warm, and looked in the local stores to see what types of treats and candies they had.

Ponta Delgada was just as we remembered it with interesting patterns in the sidewalks made out of black basalt and white limestone.  No two are alike.

Another two days at sea saw us to the port of Cobh, Ireland.  Cobh (pronounced “cove”) is just a quick 25-minute train ride away from downtown Cork, which in turn is only a 25-minute bus ride from famed Blarney Castle – home of the famed Blarney Stone.

The castle itself is exactly how one pictures an old castle: equal parts ominous and charming.  We climbed the narrow, spiral stairs to the top where we hung upside down over a 40 foot drop and planted our lips where thousands of other people planted theirs before.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s one of those bucket list things, so we did it anyway.  See….

The grounds of Blarney Castle are huge and varied.  Our first stop was the poison garden where they grow toxic plants including hemlock, belladonna, and nightshade.  Stephanie was delighted to find that Harry Potter favorites mandrake and wolfsbane are actually real, live plants and not just made up for the series.  The garden even had cannabis.  I never thought of marijuana as poisonous, per se, but just in case, it was safe in a cage where no one could accidentally lay their hands on such a toxic danger.

The Poison Garden

The Poison Garden

We strolled through glades and glens, saw waterfalls and caves, and even found a swing for Stephanie to play on.  There is a rock staircase called the wishing steps where if you walk up and down it backwards with your eyes closed, the Blarney Witch is said to grant your wish.  (Stay tuned for confirmation.)  We also strolled through the Pinetum which I’m sure is pronounced “pine-ee-tum,” but we had fun calling it the “pine-tum.”

Rock Close Waterfall

Rock Close Waterfall

Back in Cork, we discovered Dealz.  Dealz is to Ireland what Poundland is to England or a dollar store in the U.S.   Now, having British parents, I know a thing or two about candy from the U.K., and Dealz had great prices on two of my all-time favorites: Fry’s Turkish Delight, and jelly babies.  I know I went into detail about jelly babies once before on this blog, but they’re worth mentioning again.  So much better than jelly beans!  I may have gone a wee bit crazy stocking up on British candy. (A note to the jelly baby purists:  I looked for Bassetts, but couldn’t find them anywhere.  Crilly’s taste exactly the same.)

The UK candy stash

The UK candy stash!

What we saw of Cork was nice, but between the trek to Blarney Castle and the candy, we didn’t really get to see the town itself.  So, as with many places we’ve been on our travels, we resolved to come back again someday.

Turkish Delights in Cappadocia

I liked Istanbul’s character immediately when we arrived. Everywhere you look you see pretty minarets dotting the skyline. Salesmen offer you hot tea on the street in actual glassware complete with a single cute little sugarcube. And although there’s still not much of a “personal space” concept, people apologize when they bang into you. Not everything is great. High-rises have advertisements in the windows five stories up. Smoking is all around, and people don’t even think about the fact that they have a cigarette hanging out of their mouth when they enter a small space with you. But whatever you like/dislike about Istanbul, it would be hard to argue it lacks character.

My true sites before arriving in Turkey, however, were set on the historical region of Cappadocia. A few nights ago Elliott and I boarded an overnight bus for a 10 hour ride to the town of Göreme in Cappadocia. Our bus ride was mostly uneventful except for two things. One – we finally gave in and paid to go to the bathroom at the rest stops. Sometimes there’s just no other way, despite our objections! (E’s note: I’m still fuming about this!) Two – the bus company provided us free drinks and snacks! They even had a little collapsible cart that they pushed up and down the aisle. Wow, that beats most domestic US Airlines these days. 🙂 (They also had personal entertainment sets for each seat providing movies, music and games on demand, but, unfortunately for Elliott, everything was in Turkish.)

I slept a fair amount on the bus and woke up in the wee hours of the morning to see snow on the ground. Luckily, an hour later we had traveled to a warmer area where there was no snow. Although I didn’t totally object, I was hoping to see the town of Göreme snow-free, at least at first. As we drew closer, the fairy chimneys, about which I was so excited, started to come into view. The fairy chimneys are rock formations made of sandstone which look to me like sand castles, often complete with windows and doors. The Göreme Valley was originally formed by volcanic ash, which later hardened into sandstone, and eventually was sculpted solely by erosion. It served as a home to an entire culture of Byzantine people starting in the 4th century. People carved refuges, residences, storage areas and churches in the fairy chimneys. In short, it’s amazing, and I’d argue it’s as pleasing as some of our best National Parks back home.

We thought we’d arrive in Göreme and take a nap after a long night on the bus. Instead, we headed right out after meeting our host so we could explore this beautiful place. Our first stop was the Open Air Museum, a Unesco World Heritage Site. It consists of a large group of monasteries cut out of the rock, mostly from the 10th-12th centuries, each with its own dining room and church. Several of the churches still contain their original frescoes on the walls and ceilings. We didn’t notice the “no camera” icon outside the first church, so lucky for you we have some photos of the frescoes in that one church, even though we shouldn’t. I wish we had more – the frescoes were that beautiful.

Here’s some more info on the Open Air Museum in Goreme: http://www.goreme.com/goreme-open-air-museum.php

Later that same day, and again the next day, we hiked in the valleys of Göreme. We hiked to and then in the Rose Valley, which is filled with rock containing rose-colored stripes. We searched for the Red Valley but I don’t think we ever found it; to our credit, the “trail markers” consisted of random red arrows painted on the rock in a totally haphazard, and often conflicting, manner. Oh well. It will be a goal for next time. The scenery was gorgeous, and we never knew what we might come upon. We explored endless fairy chimneys. We loved climbing up inside of them, finding room after room, guessing the use for each room. Many of the fairy chimneys have windows and doors that are multiple stories high; Elliott speculated the ground must have been much higher once upon a time, or the original residents must have used some kind of ladder system. On our second day, though, we climbed inside a fairy chimney and found a staircase and tunnels in addition to the rooms. Maybe there were “ways up” on the inside many of these buildings that we couldn’t even imagine!

Another day, we took a local bus to the town of Nevşehir and then Kaymakli. The big attraction in Kaymakli is the Underground City, built around the 7th or 8th century BCE. People built underground cities all throughout Cappadocia (36, to be exact) back then so they could live in them, hiding from marauders and conquerors. (Kaymakli is actually connected to another underground city,Derinkuyu, by an 8km tunnel.) It is estimated that the underground city in Kaymakli goes eight or nine stories down, although only four stories have been cleared out and are open to the public at this time.

At the Turkish Bath the night before, those Italian guys told Elliott we should hire a guide for the Underground City, as there isn’t much information there. As usual, we decided to check it out ourselves before making a decision. We arrived early when the site opened, and the only other people there were in a tour group in front of us. At first we were bummed that we’d have to “follow them”, but we soon realized our pace would not keep up with theirs.

How cool! We were all alone, underground, in dimly-lit rooms, caves and tunnels, all open to our exploration. There were red arrows to follow as you went in, and blue arrows to follow back to the exit when you were finished. (Luckily there were no conflicting arrows here.) Some of the rooms had labels such as “living room”, “kitchen”, and even “winery”. Wow! The people living down here were clearly doing okay if they were as well off as to have wineries. Some of the rooms were for food storage – I noted there was ample room for chocolate supplies. And Elliott pointed out that one of the unlabeled rooms was obviously the “grill and fry room”, used for cooking hamburgers and French fries.

We also came upon huge stone “wheels” occasionally that were used as doors to block off entire passageways when the people living there needed to run from intruders. There were plenty of unlit areas as well that certainly required exploring, so we were extra happy to have out flashlight. Each time we found a dark tunnel, we followed it until we started to get too freaked out to continue further. One thing we noticed was the low ceilings in many of passageways. I’m still not sure if it was just too much effort to dig higher ceilings, or if people were much shorter back then. But by the end of the day, we each had several lumps on our heads, my backpack had a few tears in it, and both our backpacks were covered in dust!

Here’s some more info on the Underground City in Kaymakli: http://www.goreme.com/kaymakli-underground-city.php. I thought it was pretty cool to learn that the local residents of Kaymakli today still use some of the tunnels as cellars and stables, which they can access from their courtyards!

The next day we had decided to take it easy as it was an anniversary of sorts (our engagement, yay!), and we were ready for some relaxing. To our surprise, we woke up to some falling snow! I was super excited – now I’d get to see my fairy chimneys in their natural state, *and* in their snow-covered state. We got dressed and hiked up any roads we could find in order to get to a good vantage point for photos. On the way we found a house (or maybe a hotel) under construction – perfect for exploring!Eventually we came to a platform way up on a hilltop. It was windy and the snow was cold blowing in our faces, but the views did not disappoint. All my sand castles were suddenly white.

Elliott could not get enough local Turkish food, so we tried a few new dishes while in Göreme. My favorite was the Lahmacun, a Turkish pizza of sorts with a very thin crust and a good kick to it. The price was right too, at only three Turkish Lira (about $1.65). We always ordered apple teas along with it, which were not only tasty, but helpful in curbing the heat in our mouths. Elliott also loved the Pottery Kebap, which he ordered especially for our anniversary. This is meat and vegetables cooked in a pottery urn which is sealed with a hunk of bread. It needs to be cracked open with a hammer in order to enjoy the yummy Turkish goodness within. Fortunately, there’s a seam along which it cracks, and no pottery shards end up in the food. Unfortunately, the bread it is sealed with is apparently not edible, but it sure looked good.

On our last day in Göreme, we walked 8km to the town of Avanos, known for its pottery and ceramics. When we arrived we also found a river, a suspended bridge, and a pretty mosque. We ate a picnic lunch by the river and then walked across the bridge, jumping up and down to make it more fun. The mosque had a sign that said it was open for visitors, so we took our boots off, went inside, and found we had the entire place to ourselves! What a treat. Eventually we came across the pottery shops and workshops, and had fun as we were escorted by shop owners through room after room after room of handmade pottery and ceramics. Most of the businesses there were family owned, and our “guides” were very proud of that, telling us what each of their family members made.

Between all the amazing sites and tasty food, we were definitely loving the Turkish Delights!

A Reason to Get REALLY Dirty

Ooh look – a Turkish bath. Sounds like a good idea, right? You know what? It *IS* a good idea. We weren’t planning on trying it out, but there was a Turkish bath right around the corner, so we figured “when in Rome”… er… Turkey.

Ok, So a Turkish bath, or Hamam, is kind of like a cross between modern spa and an ancient Roman bath. After parting company with Stephanie who went to the ladies’ side, the staff showed me to the men’s locker room. I changed into some flimsy, disposable shorts and a pair of flip-flops, and then met my personal attendant – Lazar. Lazar, clad only in a bathing suit, first took me to a couch where I sat while he painted a mud mask on my face and neck with a bona fide paintbrush. He then escorted me to the sauna.

In the sauna I met two guys from Italy who were sweating it out. It was from one of them that I accidentally learned that the flimsy, disposable shorts are completely optional. We made small talk until their sauna time was up and I was left alone. I was determined to last for a full ten minutes, but in 80°C (176°F), I wasn’t sure I’d make it. Nine minutes in, Lazar came to collect me.

The next room was a marble room with radiant floor heat and a huge octagonal marble platform in the middle. Lazar had me sit next to a marble basin with bronze taps from which he repeatedly filled a metal pan with lukewarm water which he then doused over me, rinsing me off, and washing off the mud mask. After the heat of the sauna, it felt wonderful. Along each side of the marble octagon there were thick mats with a pillow on one end on which to lie. Lazar had me lie down on one, and he took an exfoliating mitt, and scrubbed the skin off my body – well, the dead skin anyway. It felt great – like when someone gives you a really good back scratch, only all over. During this, I noticed that the platform was also heated from inside. Yum. After taking a gentler mitt to my face, and rinsing me off again, it was time to lie down again on the platform.

Lazar had this big pillowcase with soapy water inside. As he fluffed it full of air, it made tons of suds which he then squeezed right through the pillowcase and all over me. He spread them around with the pillowcase full of air, and I could only imagine that this is what it must feel like to be buffed in a car wash. Once I was sudsded, sudded, soaped up, then came the washing down. Lazar washed every part of me that wasn’t covered by the flimsy, disposable shorts (and one or two that were), and while doing so, he massaged *almost* every muscle I had. He made sure he wasn’t massaging too hard, and it felt so amazing, that I had to work not to make yummy sounds the whole time. I also got a mini chiropractor visit as Lazar popped and cracked every joint I had. Although none of it hurt (except my collarbone), I couldn’t help thinking that wherever Stephanie was, she was going to hate this part. She doesn’t even like it when I crack my knuckles.

After being rinsed off one last time, I was sent to a quick shower where I could wash my hair before moving on to the steam room. I sat with my Italian friends in the steam for a while before moving on to the final stage of the hamam – a cool-water Jacuzzi. This may have been my least favorite part, but only because I don’t like being cold. I took one final rinsing shower to warm up again, and then Lazar appeared out of nowhere to guide me on.

In the final area, he shielded me with a towel, and had me lose the flimsy, disposable shorts. He then wrapped me up (including my head) in three giant fluffy towels until I looked like some sort of terrycloth sheikh/sultan. He led me over to some lounge chairs where I could relax and dry off while I drank Turkish apple tea. There was a big screen TV and some magazines, but since everything was in Turkish, I just drank my tea and pretended to understand the sports commentators on the screen. After I presumed I had kept Stephanie (who must be done by now) waiting long enough, I finally dried off using the hairdryer and comb provided, and went to meet her.

I think this was a pretty traditional hamam experience since I had my own dedicated attendant the entire time. The whole thing was wonderfully relaxing, and not at all as weird as it might seem to us westerners. Even better, our Couch Surfing host had negotiated 25% off for us, so at about $25 each for a 90 minute experience, this can’t be beat. In fact, I kept threatening to Stephanie that I was going back to do it all over again.

P.S. by Stephanie
I had a great experience too, though the women’s version was slightly different from the men’s. Mine went like this:
Face Mask
Dry Sauna (all to myself!)
Shower (no personal rinsing off of my mask by an attendant)
Scrubbing
Air-filled pillowcase soaping with intermittent massaging – this was by FAR the best part!!!
NO JOINT CRACKING OF ANY KIND!!! Thank god. Guess we women just luck out on this one.
Shower
Swimming and Playing in a Pool (all to myself!)
Steam Room
Towel Wrapping
Apple Tea and Relaxing in a Lounge Chair… Ahhhhhhhhhhhh

I didn’t get any flimsy disposable shorts so I was au natural the entire time. I had one attendant do my scrubbing and soaping and rinsing but at other points there were various women helping me. I was just fine with that 🙂

(Sorry, no pictures of the inside.)

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Our original itinerary had us taking a bus from Israel to Cairo, spending two weeks in Egypt, and busing it back to Israel to pick up our next flight on our One World Around the World ticket. Even when we stated choosing the itinerary over a year ago, we knew Egypt was the biggest risk. Despite all of our hoping that the political climate would improve, in the end our research on the US, Australian, and UK Travel Advisory websites showed the bus route we would take went straight through what are now considered the most dangerous parts of Egypt. No pyramids this time.  Cross Egypt off the list.

We also missed Egypt the first time we were in Israel five years ago, so this was an extra bummer. We can’t change the destinations on our Around the World ticket, so I went to my miles bank. Three weeks ago while spending over 24 hours in the Munich Airport, I took out another “withdrawal”, this time from United, and booked us a side trip from Israel. First stop, Istanbul.

Turkey has always sounded like a very exciting place to us, but never made the first cut on lists of places to go. I can’t think of any reason really other than the fact that other places jumped out at us even more. As we arrived in Istanbul, hopped on the Metro and then the Tram and finally a ferry, I marveled at how this could be. Riding through the middle of the streets in the daytime was exciting in and of itself – the first thing we noticed was all the mosques. Everywhere we looked there were mosques. They are distinctive with their two plus minarets, or towers, and very appealing to look at. Definitely not a site we’ve seen ever before.

In addition, Turkey straddles two *continents*. Our couch surfing host just happens to live on the Asian side of the river, and the main tourist sites just happen to be on the European side. That meant that for several days in a row, we’d be visiting both Europe and Asia. One day we went from Asia to Europe back to Asia. How cool!

Then, there’s the song:

Istanbul, was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish Delight, on a moonlit night.

Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, Not Constantinople
So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can’t say
People just liked it better that way

So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks

If this tune doesn’t get stuck in your head for three days…
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

We had three main attractions in mind – the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. The Hagia Sophia, meaning “Holy Wisdom,” has nothing to do with anyone named Sophia – saint or otherwise – as is commonly thought. It is the largest Byzantine Church in Istanbul and has been built three times on the same site, including its initial construction in 360 and its current version, built in 537. It was a church until 1453 when it was converted to a mosque, then served as a mosque until the 1930’s, when it was converted to a museum. It still contains some of its original ceiling mosaics. One of the nice things about this church is the fact that you can go “upstairs”, accessed through an authentic, seemingly never-ending, spiral cave-like ramp. This lets you get up close and personal with the ceiling mosaics as well as some other partially preserved mosaics on the second floor. The entire building is filled with gorgeous architectural elements so we have lots of photos!

I was surprised when I found myself even more enchanted entering the Blue Mosque. Officially named the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this mosque gets its common name from the blue tiles that adorn the interior walls. This mosque is used regularly, so you need to time your visit in between the five calls to prayer and abide by the rules to dress and be respectful. For Elliott, that meant taking off shoes and being quiet. For me, that also entailed wearing a head scarf. Elliott’s attempts at tying a head scarf onto me (after claiming he had learned how to do so on a website) unfortunately failed; fortunately there was a woman there whose primary job was tying headscarves onto clueless women.

Entering the mosque felt somewhat magical; it was the first time we had been allowed inside a working mosque. (To be fair, we’ve only tried to enter famous mosques, such as Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque.) The décor was breathtaking, the carpet was super padded and soft, people were praying, and the tourists were watching, almost in an air of silence. And to my surprise we were allowed to take all the photographs we desired! There was even a Welcome Center with brochures on the basic tenets of Islam; it was tempting to talk to someone to learn more but the center was dark for the time being. Elliott took a brochure and we went on our way.

The Grand Bazaar is just as you might imagine. It is indoors, enormous, vibrant, and consists of a ton of vendors who all want you to visit their stall. (As our friend Jim pointed out, however, many visitors would be pleased that the vendors here are much less pushy than those in the souk we visited in Tunis, Tunisia a few years ago!) The number one item selling in Istanbul has to be carpets. Normally we might be tempted to look at a million of these, but considering we have only our packs on our back for this trip, we had the will power to avoid even browsing. Other common items are beautiful colorful scarves, hanging lanterns, hand carved wooden board games, ceramics, and bronze and brass antiques. And of course, there are also knock-offs of every brand name you can think of from Prada to Converse.

We also visited the Topkapi Palace. This palace was the home of Ottoman Sultans and seat of the government from the late-15th century through the mid-19th century. It was built on the site of the acropolis of the ancient city of Byzantion, and is separated from the city by land walls called Sur-I Sultani. Although the total area of the palace, including its gardens and pavilions, has shrunk from 700,000 square meters in its heyday to just 45,000 square meters today, it still contains an impressive collection of over 80,000 articles!

One of my favorite rooms was the Audience Hall, or Chamber of Petitions, where the sultan would sit on his canopied throne to receive official visitors. The canopy for the throne is displayed and is embroidered with huge emeralds, rubies and pearls. Depending on what type of news an official brought, he might be showered with gifts or strangled to death, so a visitor never knew if he would leave the Chamber of Petitions alive!

We also both loved the treasury which contained some of the fabulous objects – art, jewelry and heirlooms – of the Ottoman sultans. There were some fist-sized emeralds casually mounted in brooches, many jewel-covered aigrettes (large pins stuck into a sultan’s turban), and enough gold-plated everything for a 007 movie. We also saw the famous Topkapi dagger. We especially took a liking to items such as flasks and boxes carved out of rock crystal. Many of the objects in the treasury, and weapons in the armory, containted absolutely beautiful Arabic calligraphy. Unfortuntely, the rule of the day was no photos. This means that we have no photos of the treasury items or the exquisitely engraved swords in the armory collection.

As we walked through the streets of Istanbul, one thing we notice is that they take their food-related window displays very seriously. There are always beautiful and meticulously stacked piles of pastries, mouthwatering cakes, and sweets and spices of all kinds. The food we’ve encountered in Istanbul in general is fun and very reasonably priced. The first night we were there, we took our host out for dinner where we tried the local dish called döner, consisting of meat shaved off a roasting spit. It’s very similar to the shwarma in Israel but with a fattier, smoother taste. The drink served with our meal was a plain liquid yogurt; instead of being sweetened and tasting of sugar, the yogurt here is lightly salted. Try as we might, we couldn’t quite get used to that taste. Our host treated us to a super sweet baklava dessert, covered with green powder – chopped pistachio nuts! Mmmmmm. Apparently, there are several different varieties of baklava. Elliott thinks trying them all is going to be the only way to tell them apart.

On the street while touring sites the next day, the first thing we tried was a sesame seed coated bread ring. Sold by street vendors everywhere and a total bargain at 1 Turkish Lira (about 55 cents), this little ring of bread is delicious and quite addicting. We were tickled to see roasted corn again, just like in Tanzania and Kenya, and Elliott was thrilled to relive sweet memories of Africa as he bit into crunchy kernels. The deal of the day came in at 3 Turkish Lira for a chicken döner-and-salad sandwich large enough to share; there were even a few French fries thrown onto the sandwich for a winning taste combination. Dessert, of course, was the famous Turkish Delight – Lokum in Turkish. Elliott indulged in his favorite flavor, rose, while I tried out vanilla and “mixed fruit”.

We really lucked out since our host cooked for us a few times as well, and turned out to be quite the chef. One night we indulged in a local dish of rice and vegetable stir-fry with some tomato flavored bulgur wheat on the side similar to couscous. Then we had a homemade Turkish dessert that we couldn’t quite identify, and even our host couldn’t name, but it was like a turnover stuffed with raisins and nuts. Another night we ate a slightly sweet flavored chicken and chestnut dish. Chestnuts are another snack item that is roasted and sold on the street everywhere, so we were psyched to try them in a food dish!

Despite our new found love for Istanbul, we were only there for a few days before it was time to move to our next destination in Turkey, and a long bus ride to get there!

When In Rome…

The sheer weight of human history, art and culture in Rome is almost overwhelming.  Fortunately, it’s balanced by an equal amount of traffic and food options *grin*.  And if the word that comes to mind when we think of Paris is “parks”, the word that jumps out when describing Rome would have to be “statues”.  They – are – everywhere!

Our tour began on day one at the Piazza del Popolo where we discovered our first church (Santa Maria Dei Miracoli, since you asked).  Rome wins when it comes to statues, sure, but just as incredible are the churches.  If you stick your head into any nondescript church you happen to pass, you are rewarded with stunning works of art, carved marble, and architecture from all ages of history.  Adding to this sense of timelessness are the robed priests and monks everywhere – even next to you on the sidewalk.

Continuing on, we took in the Spanish steps and the famous boat-shaped fountain there.  We learned (thanks to the local polizia) that while the steps are lovely to sit on and people-watch, you are not allowed to eat on them.  Next was the Trevi fountain – Stephanie’s favorite fountain in the world.  This thing is huge, and the water thunders over the rocks and carvings.  It’s a place you could easily spend the afternoon, just watching the water flow.

After another surprisingly stunning church (San Ignazio de Loyola), we found ourselves at the Pantheon – so named because the niches around the enormous dome once held statues of all the Roman gods.  The only opening for light is a hole at the top of the dome, yet, perhaps due to the shape and size of the dome, the entire place feels filled with light.  This is where the sense of history really hit us for the first time.  The Pantheon was completed in its current form in 126 AD.  That means this thing has been here for almost two thousand years.  In ancient times, when ancient people ran around in ancient clothes and did ancient things, this building was here and in use, and somehow, without modern technology, these ancient people knew how to fill the building with light using just one hole in the ceiling.  It’s a bit mind-boggling.

Day #2 brought rain.  Well, I guess it was about time.  We have had about three rainy days this entire time in Europe, so I suppose we were due.  We headed to the Vatican museums to take in some indoor sights.  We had heard about the legendary queues to get into see the treasures of the Vatican, so we resolved to be there at 8:30 for 9:00AM opening.  We got there at 8:55, and the line already stretched down the street and around the corner.  Someone in line said, “Don’t worry, it moves quickly.  It should only take about 20 minutes.”  An hour later we finally got inside.  The wait was totally worth it.  We met some fun people in line who wanted to know all about Couch Surfing, and the Vatican museums are amazing.

First up was a gallery of statues.  The statues were just what you would expect when you picture ancient Rome, but I was a bit disappointed by the willful damage to so many classical statues.  Like the Greeks before them, the Romans often depicted men nude in their sculptures.  Along came the early Christian Church and decided that such classical nudity was offensive, and so there are many examples where the men’s genitalia had been chiseled off and replaced with a crudely attached, carved fig leaf.

The breadth of the collection in the Vatican Museums is stunning.  They contain everything from Egyptian mummies to Greek sarcophagi to tapestries to maps to illuminated manuscripts.  Sometimes the highly detailed ceilings alone seem like part of the museums.  All of this certainly made up for the fig leaves in my opinion.

The highlight, of course, is the Sistine Chapel.  We have all seen Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” but it is just one of dozens of biblical paintings adorning the chapel from both the Old and New Testaments.  The biggest and most elaborate is Michaleangelo’s “The Last Judgement” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Judgment_%28Michelangelo%29).  This fresco takes up an entire wall, and is the sort of work you can stare at for hours and constantly discover new things in it.  Once again, Stephanie declared a new worldwide favorite.

The Vatican also contains the Stanze de Rafaello – several rooms painted by Raphael.  Most well known is his “School of Athens,” which depicts philosophers debating (and accepting) Christianity as the ultimate truth.  More impressive to me was the opposite wall of the room – a fresco called “Disputation of the Sacrament” which is a multilayered depiction of heaven and earth all revolving around the eucharist.  Raphael really knew how to capture a moment in time – even a theoretical one.

Day #3 – First up was a stop at Piaza Navona to see the large and ornate Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).  This fountain came second in line only to Trevi Fountain.  It has four enormous statues – one at each corner – each a personification of one of the major world rivers of the time. Next we returned to Vatican City to see St. Peter’s Basilica.  The basilica is enormous, and filled with equally enormous sculptures.  There is pink granite everywhere but a lack of the paintings and gilding of many of the other churches we saw in Rome.

After a break from touring for a relaxing weekend with our host, we went to see the biggest draw in Rome – the Roman Forum, Palatine hill, and the Colosseum.  We made what turned out to be a good decision, and arrived at the forum before it opened.  Not only were we there before the crowds, but we got to enjoy the ruins of ancient Rome in the fabulous morning sunlight.

The Roman Forum was the hub of ancient Rome, and contains all kinds of temples of monuments including the Arch of Septimus Severus and the Temple of Saturn. We also saw the Temple of Vesta and the house of the Vestal Virgins – charged with keeping Vesta’s sacred flame alight.  These women were punished by being buried alive if they broke their vows of chastity!  Palatine Hill was *the* address to have in ancient Rome.  There, among gardens and ancient fountains are the Hut of Romulus – the oldest dwelling in Rome, dating to 1000 BC, and the house of Augustus with two-thousand-year-old frescoes.

The Colosseum was just incredible.  The engineering details from 126 AD make you realize just how advanced the ancient Romans really were.  The floors had a complex system of winches and elevators to raise and lower the combatants and the condemned – people and animals – to the floor. There were awnings that could be adjusted to protect the spectators from the sun.  Most impressively, the entire Colosseum could be flooded to recreate naval battles.

While in Rome, our favorite saying was, you guessed it, “When in Rome!”  It was admittedly a bit exciting and fun to say it over and over and not have it be just a cliché.  We worked extra hard to follow it.  We ate pizza and gelato, we waited in some of the most ridiculous traffic I have ever run across (or as the people of Rome call it: just another random Tuesday night), and we developed an appreciation for the history that was all around us.  Considering we each have just a few versatile outfits that work for any occasion though, I think we may have failed when it came to fashion there!

Under the Tuscan Sun – Florence, Pisa & Siena

In order to catch our 5:40am train to Florence, we had to first take a 3:47am water taxi from Murano to Venice, and then change to another water taxi to the station.  The unfortunate result of this is that as soon as we boarded our sleek, high-speed train to Firenze (Florence), we were dead asleep, and stayed that way until we arrived in Florence two hours later.

In Florence (like in Inverness), we had nowhere to stay when we arrived, and no real idea of where to go to find accommodations.  We also learned the hard and time-consuming way that although there is free Wi-Fi to be had in Florence, you can only access it if you have an Italian SIM card in your mobile phone.  After a few minutes in an internet café where we realized no last minute couch-surfing hosts would come to our rescue, we befriended the café owner.  Unable to convince him to join CouchSurfing on the spot and become our host, he did point us in the direction of some places to stay.  We were on our way to our first hostel since Scotland.

With almost a week in Tuscany, we took the first day off and relaxed in our hostel all afternoon while using their Wi-Fi to catch up on a million things.  We also met some other backpackers – Alex from England, and Julia from Germany, and the four of us set off to find some amazing pizza that evening.  The good news is that we found a pizzeria with great food and good prices.  The bad news is that the “actors” from “Jersey Shore” found it before us, and the place was almost a shrine to them.  After we ate, we goggled in amazement at the Duomo all lit up for the night.  The Duomo is Florence’s cathedral and it is the fourth largest church in Europe.From the outside it is an amazing site – a huge Renaissance building with a giant dome, and an equally impressive campanile (bell tower).

The next day, Julia joined us on a walking tour of Florence during which we took in all the important sites.  We climbed the Duomo’s campanile, saw Michaelangelo’s David, admired several other famous sculptures, and walked across the Ponte Vecchio – a Renaissance-era bridge traditionally home to jewelers, and the only bridge in Florence not destroyed by the retreating Nazis in 1944.

The next day took us to Pisa where rumor had it there was an interesting tower with some sort of architectural flaw.  Taking the train by day allowed us to really see some of Toscano (Tuscany), and it is just as beautiful as you’ve been led to believe.  Rolling hillsides dotted with houses painted in muted shades of yellow, red and brown, and covered with vineyards, olive and cypress trees.

I verified the tower does in fact lean, and after first refusing to take the traditional cheesy-tourist photo, I eventually gave in and took several goofy poses.  I also enjoyed taking a photo or two of the rest of the tourists there in *their* goofy poses.  When one stops to look around at everyone, it is a pretty silly-looking scene indeed.  There isn’t much else for tourists in Pisa, so we had lunch in the shadow of the tower before returning to Florence where we were off to our new host in the small town of Montespertoli – about 20 minutes from Florence by train.

On day four we went to Siena for a day of touring.  Siena is more of a walled, medieval city with Gothic architecture, whereas Florence is a triumph of the Renaissance.  The main square, Il Campo, looks like a giant red stone sink with a fountain at one end, and (you guessed it) a church at the other.  There is a huge festival here where bareback horse riders race around the square, but we were one week too early to see it.

Siena also has its own duomo.  This gothic cathedral is (IMO) the single most jaw-droppingly awesome church I have ever seen.  (And that’s saying something!)  The floors are intricate mosaic murals, the columns and buttresses are alternating stripes of white and black marble, and the artwork has some amazing examples of historical religious painting.  The ceilings of the multiple domes are blue with bronze stars, and the chapel of St. Mary is something to behold.  The Duomo also houses the Piccolomini library containing intricately illustrated manuscripts on display, and an overwhelmingly gorgeous painted ceiling.

After I picked my jaw back up off the floor, there was one last stop to make – The Church of San Domenico where St. Catherine of Siena took her vows.  This church is not particularly interesting inside, but it does contain an actual relic of St. Catherine – her head.  That’s right, her actual head on display surrounded by silver and venerated regularly by believers.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to sacred body parts being displayed.

We spent our last two days in Tuscany enjoying the small town of Montespertoli, and generally relaxing.  We soaked in some natural, free hot springs, visited a local street market, and sat on a bench admiring the panoramic views of olive trees and rolling hills.  It is always really nice to see a bit of the countryside outside the main tourist cities.