Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I've been throwing a lot of updates up all of a sudden! I had some stored up from when I was in Istanbul. I'm writing this one to post the same day as I finish it, but I'm still talking about stuff I did a few days ago. Anyway, if anything's confusing, just go back a couple of entries, but you're smart folks.

Anyway, Cappadocia! I stayed in Goreme, which is kind of backpacker central in this region. But for all that, it did have some charm. I've seen a lot of people online and in the guidebooks say that Goreme is spoiled and you should stay in Urgup or Uchisar instead. And a guy I ran into on a path said that I should have stayed in Cavusin (his village). My feeling is, none of these places are perfect. Yes, there are a lot of tourists in Goreme, but I didn't feel like there were any fewer in Urgup (didn't visit Uchisar). And while Cavusin may be a charming example of a Cappadocian village (and it is), it's a lot less convenient, there are only a couple of pensions to stay in, and there aren't any restaurants or ATMs or long-distance buses. So I think Goreme was a perfectly OK place to stay.

My hotel, the Local Cave House:

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In most ways, this place was great! Friendly, non-pushy staff, big rooms IN ACTUAL CAVES carved from the rock (people in this part of Turkey traditionally lived in caves - they're naturally cool in summer, sturdy, etc., and the rock is soft enough to carve out a cave without lots of fancy tools, a pool (although I never went in it)... and then there was the bathroom. Ew. Not a good bathroom. I recognize that ventilation is going to be a difficulty in a cave kind of situation, but this thing was seriously DANK. Something ought to be done, preferably involving industrial-size fans and several gallons of KILZ. Anyway, we shall forget about the bathroom (I very nearly forgot about it by the end of my three-night stay, though when I first arrived I was seriously grossed out).

Another nice thing about the hotel was that it was just up the street from the Goreme Open-Air Museum. The Goreme Open-Air Museum consists of a bunch of churches and other buildings from a Byzantine monastery. These are all carved into the rock! Monks living in caves in Central Anatolia... that's the true hermit lifestyle. These guys knew what they were doing. Many of the churches have frescoes in them, and some of these are incredibly well-preserved:

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These are from a church called the Dark Church, because it was basically windowless. That's why the frescoes in this particular church are still in such great shape. The Dark Church also has frescoes very high up the walls, which was lucky because when Iconoclasm became the new thing to do, they defaced the features of all the figures (I believe these were Byzantine iconoclasts - the Istanbul churches were defaced when they were converted into mosques, for similar reasons). But the iconoclasts apparently forgot to bring a ladder, so all the faces above six feet high or so are largely intact.

My favorite church I visited was not in the Open-Air Museum, it was the Aynali (Mirror) Church, off the road from the Open-Air Museum to Ortahisar. This museum didn't have such fancy frescoes, but it did have Suleyman the caretaker, who was fabulous! He said I was the only person to have come so far that day (it wasn't quite lunchtime, so there was still hope). He gave me tea and told my about how he had recently had a brain tumor removed, and he showed me how he played music on his extra chair:

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I have video of this, but it's not uploading to flickr and YouTube is banned in Turkey.

The church also had seriously creepy tunnels. Not for the claustrophobic.

I basically just wandered around while I was in Cappadocia. I didn't see all the sites you're supposed to see; I missed the Underground Cities and Ihlara Canyon. I did see people working at their traditional job of storing citrus fruit in caves in Ortahisar:

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Not really that exciting, but I had read about it in the guidebook and I was like, "What does that even mean?" I'll tell you what it means: it means they store citrus fruit in caves.

I did go to some of the valleys that are famous for their rock formations. Rose Valley:

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And Love Valley, where I forgot to bring my camera. I do have a few photos on my phone but no good way to get them off the phone right now.

My last day, I took a balloon ride, my first! 45 balloons take off on any given morning in Cappadocia. Each balloon holds 10-20 (or even, in one case, 30) people. I flew with Goreme Balloons (cheaper through my hotel than if I'd booked direct - another reason to tolerate the bathroom cave).

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I ended up changing around my schedule at this point because I didn't want to take an overnight bus. Overnight travel has been making me extremely cranky on this trip, so I decided to avoid it and fly to Izmir instead of taking on overnight bus to Fethiye. I think it was mostly a good choice, although I ended up spending too much time in Selcuk. It was a restful kind of too much time, though. More on that soon.

Photoless interlude

(I wrote this a couple of days ago in Selcuk.)

The internet situation at my current hotel/pension is not conducive to uploading photos, so I'm going to hold off on posting more of those until I get to my next place (where I should have wi-fi). Please enjoy this text-only entry :)

Last week in Istanbul I was noticing that there were toddlers and preschoolers running all over the place at break-neck speeds on the cobblestone streets and other tricky places. Good lord, I thought, how are they not falling on the ground and bashing their adorable little brains out? Not that all American children sit around decorously except when confined to soft carpeted areas, but I was highly impressed by the recklessness of the Turkish under-six crowd.

A couple of days later another thought came to me, at first seemingly unrelated, when I saw another little girl with a bandage on her forehead. I never saw so many small children with bandaids and gauze and whatnot on their faces before I came to Turkey. And then I had my aha moment! So now I suspect that the recklessness is not entirely without consequences. Hopefully a bandage on the nose is the worst of it for most of them.

Just finished reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (is that right?), by Junot Diaz. Good book! I read it on Kindle for iPhone, which is a first for me. I don't like the Kindle for iPhone interface as much as I like the Stanza interface (another iPhone/iPod touch e-reader). But it's not bad. And it's nice to be able to bring books with me without having to actually bring a pile of books. Using the e-readers does tend to eat up the battery life on the iPod, though, so I have to remember to charge it every night, which is a pain since I should also charge my camera battery and I only have one plug adapter. I should get more plug adapters, or maybe next time bring a US extension cord with multiple outlets.

I'm writing this from the garden of the hotel; there is a little swimming pool and birds keep swooping low and skimming over the top of it. I don't know if they're eating bugs (in which case, thanks, birds!) or drinking the water (in which case, I hope it doesn't make you sick!). It's very nice though.
The Rest of Istanbul! (I wrote this almost a week ago now but haven't had the chance to update since then due to internet connection issues.)

On my third and last day in Istanbul I went to Topkapi Palace, which was 100% delightful. It was also kind of interesting because it was my first non-weekend day in Istanbul and there were tons of school groups there. At home, I work at the museum but usually only on Saturdays, and when I fill in for someone on a weekday, I'm always surprised by the number of school kids there (we get groups of kids on weekends, too - out-of-towners, scouts, etc., but during the weekdays it's ALL school kids). So it reminded me of that.

The palace is where the Ottoman sultans and their huge households/entourages lived for a long time, until they built a European-style palace on the other side of the Bosphorous. I think they were fools to leave! Topkapi is gorgeous, and I didn't visit Dolmahbahce (the "new" palace) but I don't think it can be half as nice.

You go through a series of gates to get into the palace:

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And there are these lovely courtyard/park thingies around which all the buildings are arranged.

There are also lots of lines - lines to get tickets to the palace (and a separate ticket for the Harem), lines to put your bag through the x-ray machine (that no one was looking at, I swear), lines to get your ticket punched to get into the palace, and then lines to get into individual attractions. I waited in all of these lines, on the principle that so many people couldn't possibly all be wrong, and I was mostly well served. The longest line of all was to get into the treasury:

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I don't have any pictures from inside the treasury, because you're not supposed to take pictures in there. I don't think it's anything to do with the objects themselves, they just don't want people spending a lot of time taking photos -- they hurried you along if you spent too long looking at any one thing. There was some pretty cool stuff - the fourth or fifth largest diamond in the world, a dagger all covered in huge emeralds (the handle, not the sharp part - I don't think that would make a very good dagger), lots of beautiful little things made out of jade and rock crystal and things.

Another nice thing about the treasury is that in the third of the four rooms, there's a beautiful little pavilion that's open on two sides, with the ocean all around it. It was lovely and breezy and surprising:

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There is also a collection of holy relics relating to the Prophet Muhammad and his compatriots (there was a name for these people, but I forget what it is). That was also a hurry-along, no photos area, presumably because otherwise people would have their noses all pressed up against the glass indefinitely, looking at Muhammad's beard hair (I am not joking - one of the relics is a beard hair). There was a very high concentration of chador-clad ladies in this area. I don't really get the relic concept. Even in my secular way, owning Abraham Lincoln's hair or an actual piece of the set from Battlestar Galactica or something, I don't really get the whole concept of treasuring an object for its association with a concept. I'm not even all that into souvenirs.

I also toured the Harem, which was the quarters of the Sultan and his family, and by family we of course mean "hundreds of concubines, wives, children, assorted other relatives, and all of their ladies-in-waiting and the black eunuchs who took guarded them." The Sultan's mother was the one in charge of the harem. This is what her quarters looked like:

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"Restrained" is probably not the best word... it's still actually very beautiful, though, and I suppose it was the style at the time, if a little much. Look, here's the Sultan's mom herself, entertaining some other female member of her vast household:

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Fortunately there were only a handful of these mannequins. One of my few strong opinions about museum exhibit design is that you should avoid using mannequins wherever possible. Especially these kind, which have an off-the-rack, last-seen-at-Empire*-circa-1985 quality to them.

I spent a few hours at the palace then wandered the streets of Sultanahmet for a while, which was also very nice. Then I dragged myself and my bags down to the tram, took the tram to the ferry, and took the ferry to the train station. Then I took an overnight train to Ankara, where I got lost repeatedly, and it was hot, and no one spoke any English at all (and I really need people who speak English most of the time). Also there was a museum, but all in all it was not one of my better days of vacation. Let us never speak of it again. From Ankara I took a bus to Goreme (and in so doing, learned to pronounce Goreme properly!), which was also slightly confusing and stressful. But I got to my hotel/pension in the end, and though the bathroom here is... disappointing, I'm in a great location amid beautiful surroundings with helpful staff. More about Goreme and Cappadocia soon.

*long-since-closed store where we bought clothes when I was a kid

Friday, May 22, 2009

Istanbul Day 2

On my second day in Istanbul, I went to churches. First church: Aya Sofya, aka Haghia Sofia, aka Sancta Sophia, aka La Sainte Sophie, aka Church of the Sacred Wisdom - I guess when you've been around for 1500 years, and served as the center of Christianity for most of the first 900 of those years, you pick up some nicknames.

The first thing you notice about Aya Sofya is that it's ginormous. I don't think any of my photos really capture the sheer size of the church. Here's a photo of the central dome, which is half-filled with scaffolding as part of a long-term renovation process:

Here's a photo in the upstairs gallery:

Oh, and this one gives you a bit of a sense of the scale:

The second thing you notice is that it's full of beautiful things:

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And then you start to realize how old it is:

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In this photo you can see a bit of the mosaic under the plaster (when it was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of 1453, they covered up the Christian iconography with painted plaster). So it was covered up with plaster 500+ years ago, and the mosaic itself was put up who-knows-how-many years before that. Amazing.

Oh, and on the way out I noticed that a cat had found its way into Aya Sofya:

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I overheard someone else's tour guide telling her that this was "Obama's cat" because when Obama came to visit Aya Sofya he took a shine to her or something. The woman being tour guided seemed a bit dubious, as was I. A lot of the Turks I've met want to talk about Obama, but mostly the people I've talked to don't understand enough English for me to really explain anything. Today I was talking to a guy, and he was like, "America, Obama, yes, you like?" And I wanted to say something along the lines of, "Well, I think more than anything it was important to get away from Bush, and I feel like almost any sort of change would have been positive; Obama is great from a symbolic perspective but I'm not sure he really shares my values 100%. Still I'm very hopeful that he will be the president we need right now, and effect some positive change," but what I ended up saying was, "Change - hope" - ay! I thought, I've become a Shepard Fairey poster!

Obama Cats aside, Aya Sofya was not quite enough Byzantine church for me! I was hungry for more so I got on a bus across town and went to see the Chora church. It is a small church, but it has beautiful mosaics and frescoes.

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Here's a closeup of the mosaic in the photo above (it's the hem of Mary's robe):

Tiny rocks, stuck to the wall! Amazing.

Afterwards I had a very nice lunch in the restaurant next to the church - lamb and figs and apricots and shallots, I forget what it was called. And for a starter, delicious bread, goat cheese, and a sort of tapenade.

Then I decided to walk along the city wall to where I could get the ferry. I lost track of the city wall at some point, and basically had no idea where I was, but I figured if I kept heading down, I would surely end up at the water at some point, and then I would just follow along the water to the ferry stop. But I ended up coming out right at the ferry stop I had originally intended to stop at. There is a sort of park there, and about half of Istanbul appeared to be hanging out there. I had to wait about 40 minutes for the ferry, but it was nice out and I was well-fed and I knew where I was for the first time in the last half-hour or so, so I was happy.

The ferry ride was nice. There is tea service on the ferry - they will bring it right to you at your seat. I did not partake, though. There were nice views but I was sitting towards the middle of the boat so I didn't get any really great photos.

Then I wandered around the Sultanahmet neighborhood some more. There are loads of hotels in this neighborhood and loads of tourist-oriented businesses, but also lots of ordinary people going about their lives. Here are some neighborhood kids helping an old man push his cart full of shoes up a hill:

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A couple of times I would come around a corner and it would feel like the North End for a minute, right down to the old people eyeing you suspiciously.

For dinner I went to Simit Sarayi (Simit = bagel/pretzel-like thing; Sarayi = Palace; Simit Sarayi = very popular Turkish fast food place). I had a stuffed spinach pastry (borek) and the girl at the counter talked me into a simit as well; this, and a water set me back 3.50TL ($2-$2.50). It was delicious. We need to get Simit Sarayi over to the US ASAP.

And that was the end of day two.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Istanbul - day one!

I arrived in Istanbul late last night - didn't get to the hotel until about 12:30. I had arranged beforehand to have the hotel pick me up, which was great. Since my flight was delayed I think the driver was about as happy to see me as I was to see him. We passed a major road accident on the way to the hotel, and my driver slowed down and leaned out the window to stare; I thought this was kind of unprofessional until I noticed that other people were actually stopping their cars, backing up, and getting out to watch. So then I appreciated his restraint.

This morning I woke sometime after 4AM to the call to prayer. According to Wikipedia, for Sunni Muslims the morning call to prayer includes the words "Prayer is better than sleep." I am pretty sure I disagree with this statement. But I just put in my earplugs and went back to sleep until 10:30 (just in time to get breakfast on the rooftop terrace overlooking the Bosphorous):

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(This photo is actually from the evening but you get the idea.)

I had meant to go the Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sofia, or Sancta Sophia, or whatever you like to call it) but by the time I got there, after noon, it was a madhouse; I decided to take the guidebook's advice and come as early as possible so as to avoid the crowds. This is what it looks like from the hotel terrace at sunset:
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I went to the Blue Mosque, which was basically the Ottoman Turkish response to the much Byzantine Aya Sofya. It's very nice; you have to take off your shoes, and there's all lovely carpet inside, and stained glass and loads of mosaics and inlay. I did not get any really good photos of the mosque as a whole, but I liked this mosaic:
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Then I wandered around for a while, occasionally stumbling across things like what appeared to be a tiny cemetery behind a fence just off the main street:
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and eventually I came to the Grand Bazaar, which is pretty extraordinary. I am not much of a shopper, really, and I didn't actually buy anything, and a lot of the stuff for sale is pure tourist bait, but I actually loved it.

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I liked looking at the gold jewelry best, because it was patently obvious that I had no intention of buying any of it. I did come fairly near to buying a very pretty silver bracelet with turquoise and marcasite but I hadn't intended to buy any jewelry, I couldn't remember what the exchange rate was, and I had no idea how much something like it would cost at home, so I felt that I was in an unfortunate position as far as bargaining. I think I'm going to try to get some pillow covers before I leave.

Just outside the bazaar were a bunch of people with blankets spread out and completely random assemblages of stuff for sale on the blanket. Like, a couple of watches, some coffee mugs, and what appeared to be a pile of little plastic animals, all on a mat about two feet square. Each seller had different random wares for sale, but each collection kind of made me think of stuff a crazy homeless person might collect and carry around in his or her cart. Anyway, something happened, and all the sellers started grabbing their mats and frantically scooping their stuff into bags. I have no idea what any of that was about.

Then I got hopeless lost in a commercial district where EVERYTHING was for sale; there were shops full of fishing reels, mysterious motors, sewing machines, zippers, striped canvas (like, that was all the shop sold, striped canvas), and god knows what else. That was kind of awesome. I thought about getting a zipper for the sweater I'm making with my Icelandic wool, but number one I wasn't sure if they sold them individually or just by the case or something, and number two I was daunted by the prospect of buying notions in an unfamiliar language.

I stopped and got a chicken doner kabob sandwich, and took it away to eat somewhere else, and a little while later when I found a nice place to sit down and eat it, I realized that I had not paid for it. And that I had no idea how to find my way back to the place where I had "bought" it. The sandwich was good, but I was consumed with embarrassment the whole time I was eating it! When I went to throw the rest away, I realized that the paper it was wrapped in had the shop's name and address written on it, but that wouldn't really have helped much because the street name isn't on my maps. I may try to send them the money if I still feel guilty about it tomorrow (it was only about a dollar anyhow!).

After a bit more wandering, I went to the Spice Bazaar (also sometimes called the Egyptian Market), where I bought dried apricots. Which are, oh my god, the best dried apricots I've ever eaten. I was planning to just have some to eat while I'm here (I got a half-kilo, which I should be able to take care of in three weeks) but I may got back and get some vacuum-packed so I can take them home. I might also get some saffron, because it was really inexpensive, and maybe I'd use saffron more if I weren't always thinking about how expensive it is. Seriously, though, these apricots are so good I'm going to make myself ill if I don't stop eating them right now.

There is loads of delicious-looking street food all over the place here, and I was seduced into trying a roasted ear of corn. It was not very good. The corn is not sweet! I don't know if it's a completely different kind of corn than I'm used to, or if it's just bad corn. So disappointing. Wouldn't you want to eat this?

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Let me tell you, you would be setting yourself up for disappointment. Tomorrow I'm going to try simit, which looks like something between a bagel and a pretzel. With sesame seeds instead of salt. I'm looking forward to it. There are a lot of things here that I want to eat.

I went back to the hotel for a shower and some moleskin for a little blister that was coming up, and then I went to the Basilica Cistern.

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This is, well, a huge cistern, over a thousand years old, that is right underneath Istanbul. I wish I had brought my gorillapod, because it was so cool in there but so dark it was hard to get any decent pictures. The cistern dates to the 6th century A.D. Apparently the 6th-century watchword was "Waste not, want not":

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Look, Medusa's all "ow, you guys, I can't hold this up!" The cistern was nice - perhaps a little overpriced at 10TL ($6-7) for what you get, but a nice, cool, relatively quiet touristic experience.

I say quiet, because Istanbul is loud! There's the aforementioned call to prayer, which is very nice and exotic and Oriental and all that, but also very loud. And there are people constantly trying to sell you things (I find this quite easy to avoid, actually - I have been trained to politely turn down requests for my money by Masspirg, Save the Children, Greenpeace, Mass Equality, and a variety of other well-meaning organizations). Also, people yell a lot. I have heard more bloodcurdling screams out of children today than I can remember hearing in the last year. Oh, and everyone's playing CDs and radios and things. The lovely rooftop terrace is adjacent to the lovely rooftop terrace of the Big Apple Hostel, where they place music all day long. It was mostly techno for a while, then they played "Je ne regrette rien" by Edith Piaf twice in a row, then on to some light rock. Basically, I'm glad I brought earplugs. They must have crazy good windows and AC in the Four Seasons, which is just around the corner and surely subject to many of the same loud noises.

Anyway, now I am relaxing and watching the Eurovision Song Contest and eating apricots, but I need to go to sleep soon if I'm going to be up in time to avoid the worst of the Aya Sofya lines tomorrow. So good night to anyone reading this!

Trip kickoff - Madrid!

So, I flew into Istanbul via Madrid, and this is what I wrote about that yesterday (didn't post, though, because I was unwilling to pay for Spanish airport internet.

Spent today in Madrid. I accidentally booked myself a ten hour layover
in Madrid but it's actually been quite nice.

Getting out of Boston was less nice-there was something wrong with
Iberia's computer system at Logan so they had to do everything by
hand. Obviously, this took forever-when they checked me in they had to
phone my information in to someplace else and then hand write a
boarding pass! Fortunately I didn't have any luggage to check (I'm
packed frighteningly light for this trip) because I totally didn't
trust their handwritten tags either. The flight ended up leaving about
an hour late. Boo!

My sad, sad excuse for a boarding pass.

Once we landed in Madrid they hooked me up with a real boarding pass
for my continuing flight, I dropped my bag off in a locker, and took
the metro into the city. The metro is very nice. How awesome would of
be if the MBTA (in Boston) joined the rest of the world and started putting up
signs to tell when the next train was coming and such? Some day.

Once I was in Madrid I spent some time walking around (I was trying to
follow the historic Madrid walking tour from my Lonely Planet chapter,
but it's terrible, very hard to follow). Then I went to the Prado,
which is actually where I'm writing this right now.

The Prado! Probably no one needs me to confirm that the Prado is, indeed, a brilliant museum. Only problem is it's a bit crowded, less crowded today at least than the Met when I've been there, but more crowded than the Museum
of Fine Arts in Boston, except maybe if the MFA were having a free
day. I saw Goya's seriously unsettling Pinturas Negros*, Bosch's
Garden of Earthly Delights (so weird and wonderful; I wanted so much
to get closer and see more of the painting, but so did everyone else
in the room).

I think my favorite painting, though, was Las Meninas, the big
Velasquez picture with the little princess and the royal household
around her. It reminded me of Sargent's painting of the daughters of
Edward Darley Boit
. They similar in size and they both feature small
girls, but they also both have a lot of shadows, and things going on
in the shadows, and people looking at things not visible to the viewer
of the picture. I don't know if Sargent is known or assumed to have
been influenced by the Velasquez painting but it seemed that way to me.

Anyway, then I lost my jacket at the airport, which was decidedly frustrating. I will check at the Lost and Found when I go back through the airport on my way home. Oh and then the flight was delayed, though only a half-hour but still! It was supposed to arrive at 11PM and I was annoyed to arrive even later.

*in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susannah Clarke has Goya paint
Strange surrounded by the dead Neapolitan soldiers he has revived; now
I really understand what she as talking about.