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    Slovakia: Tatra Mountains. Go Now!

    Slovakia
    The Tatra Mountains (pictured) form the backdrop of this rural country, whose culture is rooted in this beautiful landscape. Go Now!

  • Italy!

    Italy: Rome' historic buildings. Go Now!

    Italy
    Crumbling buildings in Rome (pictured) only add to the atmosphere in a country where old is redefined and western civilization begins. Explore Italy!

  • Portugal!

    Portugal: Palace of Pena. Go Now!

    Portugal
    Although next to the seas and made famous by trade, Portugal boasts dynamic landscapes and architecture, including the Palace of Pena (pictured) near the town of Sintra. Go to Portugal!

  • Serbia!

    Serbia: Houses in the mountains. Go Now!

    Serbia
    Serbia is a historic power now looking internally to re-discovery their identity and future. Explore Serbia!

  • Armenia!

    Armenia: Noravank Monastery. Go Now!

    Armenia
    With a unique language, foods, architecture, and identity, Armenia is a fascinating country and culture unlike no other in the world. Begin Your Journey!

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    Finland: Finnish Sauna. Go Now!

    Finland
    Unlike its neighbors, the Finns are unique ethnically & linguistically, but are wholly European in many other ways. Begin Your Journey!

Turkey

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul

Istanbul

August 4, 2005
Mosques & Markets

Yesterday, Elizabeth and I took a bus to the airport in Krakow, ate, then flew via Berlin to Istanbul. There was a Burger King in the Berlin airport, which I found extremely satisfying after nearly a year long hiatus of good fast food. Also in Berlin we ran into a couple of Elizabeth's friends at the airport, also going to Istanbul.

We arrived in Istanbul early on the 4th (2:00am) and our pre-arranged ride failed to show up so we had no way to the hostel. Fortunately, we shared a cab with Elizabeth's friends so it only cost 9 Euros a person.

Sultanahmet was beautiful on the way in and the view of Aya Sofia from my roof top bed was incredible.

I was awoken today by the call to prayer from the Aya Sofia at about 5:00am. It was incredible, but I was only half awake and didn't fully appreciate it. After breakfast I began to realize how hot it was going to be so I started drinking water, a theme I'm sure will last for the rest of the trip. Breakfast was a "Turkish Breakfast" consisting of a hardboiled egg, tomato slices, cucumber slices, bread and some jam, butter, and cheese spread.

I got to the Blue Mosque at 8:45, fifteen minutes before it opened, but there were already numerous cruise tour groups there and so they opened early and I got in line. I took off my shoes before entering; the interior was remarkable. The floors were covered with carpets and the far walls contained windows of stained glass. The huge dome is supported by four enormous pillars and the interior is painted with blues, dark reds, and golds on an off-white background. There was a nice courtyard out front; soon after I was headed across the park to Aya Sofia.

After taking money out I realized the line at Aya Sofia was long and I preferred to get to Topkapi Palace when it opened so I ran over there. After standing in line and listening to some French man incessantly complain I finally got my ticket, entered and rushed to the bathroom on the far end of the palace. I then rushed back to the Harem entrance to get a ticket for that. My tour time was for 11:00 so I strolled around the palace until then. It was a beautiful setting and the entire place had a very eastern feel to it.

I made it to the harem for the tour, which was very impressive. The place was well worth the time and money, although no room seemed to stand out more than any other, although the final balcony was enclosed by various gorgeous buildings. Once the tour finished I rushed back over to Aya Sofia and was quite impressed. In contradiction to the Blue Mosque, the floors were marble and the building resembled a church disguised as a mosque. Here the dome was unsupported and the paintings were a combination of Christian covered in Islamic calligraphy. This building was so historic and truly brought the history of the city to life showing not only its long history, but the changing people.

As I exited, I met one of these people, Yasir, a guy about my age who was trying to sell me postcards. I said no, and then he asked if I wanted to see his parents' carpet shop. I passed, but he was nice and he confirmed my theory that Turkish people are extremely nice, but most of the time they are trying to sell you something. Or perhaps they are just really nice because they realize they have nothing to lose, even if you don't buy something from them, they have still met a new person.

After picking Elizabeth up at the hostel we headed to the Grand Bazaar, grabbing a kebab on the way. Around the corner from the bazaar stands Beyazit Square, which is bordered by a great mosque, Beyazit Cami (cami meaning mosque) adorned by a giant Turkish flag on one side, the entrance to Istanbul University on another and the Grand Bazaar on a third side.

The Grand Bazaar was great, however I was hesitant to really talk to the salesmen or bargain, plus I'm not sure what, if anything I want yet anyway. We spent a lot of time here getting lost and browsing. We didn't buy anything though, knowing we'll return in a couple weeks, so we headed over to the spice market, via the Roman aqueducts.

The Roman aqueduct is still very mighty and powerful, dominating the huge semis that pass under it along with the surrounding landscape and buildings. We soon found the spice market, which felt more real than the Grand Bazaar. Everyone let me try their food and more people than I would have liked forced Turkish Delights upon me, a treat that was only enjoyed the first time. We found our Iranian saffron, but again we decided to wait until we return.

For lunch I grabbed a lahmacun, a pizza-type thing covered with lamb meat and spices while Elizabeth got "cheese pasta." Both were great and the view out the window was overlooking the Golden Horn over to Beyoglu.

We took our time eating and once we finished headed out to the small square in front of the Yeni Cami. The atmosphere here was unlike that of Sultanahmet, it felt more real, more local. Around this area and across the street along the Galata Bridge there were a number of women completely covered, only their eyes showing. It was not a large percentage of the women, but enough to notice and stop.

Before crossing the bridge there was a small market in the underground cross walk selling everyday goods, not the souvenirs that are sold in the Grand Bazaar. Here I heard Turkish, not English, the women were covered, and I was the blond minority, not of the foreign majority that is witnessed throughout much of Sultanahmet.

We crossed the bridge to Beyoglu and hiked up the large hill to Galata Tower. The view was great and a man outside insisted on sharing his peanuts with me. They were good and his generosity struck me as odd, an act that simply doesn't occur in most places.

We had almost driven ourselves into the ground at this point so returned to Sultanahmet to check out the Basilica Cistern before returning. The Cistern was closed however, so I (Elizabeth headed back) walked the Hippodrome and returned to the hostel a few minutes later.

Elizabeth said that she spoke with to her friends and we were to meet them at a restaurant/hotel called "Seven Hills" to join them for the best view of the city at night. The rest of Maraih's friends had arrived and so about eight of us went to the rooftop and looked out over the Bosporus, Golden Horn, Sea of Marmara, Aya Sofia, and Blue Mosque. A truly incredible view that, sadly to say, put the view from the Galata Tower to shame.

The view was paid for through the 7 lira beers. Maraih and friends walked us to our hostel, from where we caught a shuttle to the Atatürk Airport for our 4:10am flight to Yerevan. The last shuttle was at 10:00pm so we had time to relax at the airport before our flight check-in opened.

The check-in was chaos, which consisted of dozens of Russians pushing numerous boxes of un-Godly size to the check-in counter. Surely it was a smuggling hub, but how could they get away with it if they brought so much, surely they would be checked. As I stood, was pushed from every angle, and my legs were battered by the over-loaded cart of goods I asked myself why I was returning to the former Soviet Union. The half hour in line consisted of the loud noise of packing tape covering every inch of the packages and Elizabeth talking to a "lost" Argentine.

Once past passport control we checked out the enormous duty free shops and tried to stay awake. For the second time, we passed through security control before entering the plane, a necessary step given the Turkish-Armenian relations.

Continue the above trip to: Armenia

Goreme

August 14, 2005
Cappadocia

We got a nice hostel in Göreme and it was worth the extra cost, seeing as how the views were great, being one of the tallest places in the town and our room was carved out of rock as many of the buildings of the city are.

Entering Göreme is incredible, much like the pictures, first there is one, then another and soon nearly every building in sight is of a strange rock formation with windows carved out, a front door and little porches.

The buses are also something to be written about, more like an airplane than a bus. There was a host or steward that came around and gave us water and tea or coffee along with a little snack, unfortunately this snack was a fruit cake.

I also couldn't help but notice the huge number of barber shops, open at every road side stop and nearly all open 24 hours a day. Next time I'm in Turkey I'll have to sit in one of those places for a few hours, get a cut and chill with the people. I liked it here already, but after only a short while I decided it was time for bed with an early day tomorrow and a long day today.

August 15, 2005

After waking, I grabbed breakfast on the balcony overlooking the region and viewed about a dozen hot air balloons coming up over the horizon. The morning was beautiful and with no one out, the city felt like it belonged to me and the hot air balloons.

We went to Kaymakli, the closest and supposedly one of the best cave cities. We got a good guide and he knew everything, but we ran through the whole thing and never actually appreciated many parts of the caves. The knowledge was great, but I wish we could have just sat in there for another hour to enjoy it. We finished though and soon realized that our guide had an ulterior motive, he owned a carpet shop. I wanted to go see his carpets, believing I would receive free tea, which I did. The first was an apple tea and the second home made tea, both were excellent and I enjoyed the time we spent there.

Elizabeth got tea and a carpet; it was impressive, but not my style. She had it shipped to the states then so we headed back to Göreme to see the town.

Back in town, I got lost in the desert heat, but soon found the church I was seeking, Yusuf Koç Kilisesi (Full of Frescoes Church). It is kind of tucked around the back of one of the rock pillars near the edge of town. It only took trudging through the desert heat and being chased by a dog before I found it! The interior was fantastic and was full of frescoes as the name implies.

As I exited the church, a woman roped me into her house to show me the place, talk, and to feed me. She picked grapes from her garden and showed me all of her projects. I soon realized that she was also selling goods, nothing that interested me, but they took talent to make none-the-less. There was also a tea porch outside covered in Turkish couches and carpets on a little balcony over-looking the town.

Back inside, what truly impressed me was the carpet half made near the wall. I asked if she was making it and how one goes about making a carpet. Not only did she explain, but she showed me. It's really a strange process, first the actual set up must take a couple days to finish, and then each piece is put in. The double knot never made sense until I watched her make it. First she decides what color to use then winds the yarn around one string, then creating a knot of sorts and cutting it with a knife. She then evens it all out with a strange pair of scissors.

I told her that I was extremely impressed and asked if she sold any. Her response was (of course) that her son has a carpet shop and that her husband was going into town so he'd drop me off there. I did truly want a carpet though, so I agreed and got a lift into town. I also figured I would get more free drinks and I was quite thirsty. The carpet shop was nice and had a great selection. I said that I was looking for a present for my parents and that I wanted either a kilim or carpet. I found one of each that I loved, but the carpet won by price. I think I also like the design better and the more I look at it the more I like it.

I also got some good conversation out of the Australian woman who was co-owner of the carpet shop. She told me about how she settled here, how the Turks like Americans because the only Americans that go to Turkey are educated on the region and have more of an interest in culture than to sit on a Mexican beach. She was very kind and we talked about the difficulties of living abroad and how it is impossible to ever be truly accepted.

I returned to the hotel with the carpet and after relaxing for a bit headed to town to catch our night bus. I had another kebab here, also good, but how can a kebab be bad?

Gumusluk

August 16, 2005
Gumusluk & Rabbit Island

We awoke on our night bus near Bodrum, where we transferred buses to a minibus and arrived in Bodrum, just to transfer again to Gümüşlük. I headed up to Rabbit Island which one can walk to from the main land, but the path way is through water about 2 or 3 feet deep creating a perfect little path to the island without the need to swim or get a boat.

From the top of the desert-like island one could see the perfect path to the island and the old Roman ruins of Mindos just beneath the water's surface. One could actually walk on the walls of the old city and hire scuba or snorkeling gear to swim around the ruins from one area of the walled city to the next. The area was truly enormous by the size of the walls one could see from the top of Rabbit Island. The rest of the city lies under the water and is not visible due to the "silver water" of the bay.

I loved these views, the bay on the north with boats, the roman ruins to the south, the town to the east and looking west only the water, the great Aegean Sea. Unfortunately all good things come to an end and I was hungry for baklava, which I got along with another dessert, almost like corn bread but soaked in a light honey.

Bodrum

August 16, 2005
Bodrum

Our hostel in Bodrum is very nice; after checking in Elizabeth decided to go to the baths so I had the day to myself. I went to the old ruins of the Mausoleum of Mausolus. This was one of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" and the size of the base is a clear indicator of why. The drawings of the old mausoleum are incredible and presumably fairly accurate since the building stood until the 1500s. It was also nice in that there were very few tourists there so when I actually went into the old chamber I was the only person on the ruins themselves. After spending about a half hour here I headed to town to see the castle of St. Peter.

The castle of St. Peter is now a museum so is expensive and busy, but the whole castle is extremely impressive; although the exhibits aren't overly interesting, the castle is. It was when I left the castle and headed back into town when I realized how touristy this city is. There is nothing but shops selling souvenirs and I heard more English here than I have since I was in the U.S. and more French than I've ever heard.

I relaxed in the air conditioned room, then had a kebab craving, sending me out to find one. Unfortunately I found kebabs for no less than 3 lira, which is pretty outrageous relative to other parts of Turkey. It skimped on the meat, but along with the Doritos it clinched my appetite. In this same area I walked around the market, which was pretty local, selling more clothing than souvenirs, unlike the shops down by the water.

Kusadasi & Ephesus

August 17, 2005
Kusadasi & Ephesus

We got up early today and had breakfast, grabbing a bus to Söke, then a dolmuş (mini bus) to Kuşadasi. We quickly found our hotel and a friend of a friend, Hasan. He is a really nice guy and encouraged us to get out to Ephesus (Efes) as quickly as we could, so we didn't talk to him much, rather he gave us a pretty nice room and seems quite happy as his name, "Mr. Happy," would suggest.

We got to the dolmuş station, stopping to eat a kebab on the way and went on our way to Ephesus. The taxis were waiting for us trying to tell us that the walk is too far and that we needed a taxi. Hasan, our hotel host and a friend of Lucho, my former Peruvian landlord back home warned us about them and we didn't buy into it so began walking.

Every time I asked Elizabeth about Ephesus she seemed uninterested. She's been here before and didn't like it much the first time. She simply isn't a big fan of ruins. We fought through the almost unbearable heat and saw this great city. As Elizabeth predicted she didn't like it, but I fell in love. This is the city that the Virgin Mary and St. Paul lived in after the Crucifixion; it was the citizens of this city that the "Acts of the Apostles" is about, and it is here that I grew up hearing about and I didn't even realize it... "Letters from St. Paul to the Ephesians." The place is in incredible shape and the streets, pillars, and various buildings are still standing. The "Great Theater" is incredible and can hold 25,000 people. The streets are incredible marble still in good shape and the Library of Celsus is truly remarkable. The detail is phenomenal and the fact that it is still standing is perhaps even more remarkable.

The entire place can only be well described through pictures and walking the streets themselves, imagining the place 2,000 years ago as a huge metropolis thriving as a regional power and center for the arts and education among others.

We returned to Kusadasi to eat another two kebabs; all three today were ½ the price of the Bodrum kebabs. We decided to walk around the city of Kuşadasi, but I was left unimpressed. The waterfront is beautiful and the hills surrounding the city are also great, but really the city has no feel. We ended up spending a lot of time up on the balcony of the hotel looking out over the water and the city.

The man working the bar on the balcony is Hasan's brother, a nice guy who overworks; he starts working at 6:00am and isn't off until midnight. I tried to talk to Hasan a couple times, but found it quite difficult because he was always running off to see something on TV or because he forgot something. Also whenever a customer came along he would help them. He is a very outgoing person, but has even less patience than I. When I asked him what there is to see in the city he said that he wouldn't tell me because I won't have time to see it anyway and he wouldn't want me to be disappointed.

August 18, 2005

After waking and eating, Hasan asked me to bring a kilim back for Lucho, however with my two carpet purchases already I simply had no room for it and he could tell when he saw my disappointed face.

Canakkale & Truva

August 18, 2005
Canakkale & Homer's Famed City of Troy

Our first bus was to Izmir, where we had to wait for about an hour before catching our second bus to Çanakkale. During our wait we got kebabs, which were decent and brownies, which are like brownie cupcakes plus cookies with soft chocolate in the middle.

When we arrived at the bus station in Çanakkale, we were greeted by a guy who works for a hostel. It was a good rate and the place was nice and had a good location so we booked. It was clear that the place is a jumping off point for the Gallipoli battlefields and nearly everyone there was either Aussie or Kiwi. We also watched the movie "Gallipoli" after dinner, which is shown every night.

Dinner was great; I had a grilled meat dish on bread and Elizabeth's meal was simply grilled meats. For dessert we had something called kunefe. It was too sweet for me, essentially some sort of weird pastry thing with cheese soaking in honey.

August 19, 2005

I was very impressed with Troy today seeing as how I've both read the Iliad and seen the movie, which is a less than accurate portrayal, but you try to make a movie with mythical gods and goddesses.

The ruins themselves are alright, really the wall of Troy VI is the most impressive part of the grounds and they alone make the trip worth it (for someone like me who has read the book), as I sat and pictured the body of Hector being dragged in front of them over 3,000 years ago in the year 1250 B.C. it was all brought back to life.

As ruins, this sight is pretty mediocre, but I loved it and although I hear from everyone that it's overrated I feel that no one has actually read the book and no one has any idea of the enormity of the novel, written by the greatest author of ancient times, and one of the most famous authors ever. With this perspective in mind, the sight is incredible and so significant from a historical viewpoint.

After returning from Troy, we again got (you guessed it) kebabs. Immediately after getting off the bus we stopped as quick as we could since I was hungry and demanded to eat then. It was almost as if God was looking down upon me though since our bus stopped just outside a kebab place. This was the greatest kebab that has ever been made. The first clue to its wonder was the fact that the kebab guy didn't speak a word of English and no one in the place was foreign. This kebab goodness was made of half bread with lamb, crushed red pepper, oregano, and tomatoes. It was spectacular and at this moment I became aware that I need a döner maker when I return to the States.

We returned to the hotel and Elizabeth decided to go to Istanbul immediately since she realized that there is a free room at our hostel there and a but leaving in a couple hours. I stayed behind due to my cheapness, so was on my own and I made the most of it. As I relaxed alone I dwelled on strange Turkish things like the fact that nearly every car has an annoying car horn with some sort of song instead of simply a beep-beep. This is irritating to an unimaginable degree. The other thing that I dwelled on was the vast number of mosquitoes. But what was so peculiar about this was the speed of the mosquitoes. They were almost impossible to catch due to their speed, even if you had one in your sights and your hand was prepared over it, they often escaped. This was frustrating to see mosquitoes as quick as flies; imagine the number of diseases which could be spread by these speedy mosquitoes.

I soon got tired of sitting in my hostel so went to buy some food, I got bread and juice; I was nearly out of money, well over budget I should say. Later I went for another walk, checked out the castle in town and saw real Turkish life. The side streets in the area were great, with a real atmosphere entirely in a different world. As I turned down one street I saw a man in a green cart being pulled by a horse. The street was lined with older men sitting outside, some talking, others just watching life. The streets were covered with hidden secrets: one corner, a bakery, another a barber shop and a third a mosque nearing the call to prayers. The men were coming from every direction to wash in the public fountain, the place became alive, at one moment it felt like a show for my eyes only, and then it became real. An act everywhere in the world, some places more noticeable than others, and here the mosque was for worship not a symbol of identity or of past dynasties and power or influence the world over. Like a pagan watching Christians walk into Sunday mass, I stood amazed, although I'm not sure at what. This religion is common and belief in religion is everywhere, but here I realized that belief is based not only on faith, but also based on culture. Here however, this culture was based enough on faith that the people still worshipped, a statement better than many countries and individuals can claim.

As I continued down the streets, more hidden treasures I easily could have missed seemed to appear from the most un-touristy coast: a machinery shop, tool shop, kebab shops. The people were on bike or simply walking, there was no hurry and the people were real, not corrupted by foreign influence or money.

I finally sat down by the water, looking out past the docks to the shores of Gallipoli. Cars rushed in from the south to the car ferry; a ferry left nearly every ten minutes. The girls here were dressed more like Britney than a conservative Muslim and really didn't seem to fear showing more skin than is socially acceptable in the U.S. The sky was hazy with the pollution, perhaps due to the port and ships, perhaps since the city seems to be a transit route from Asia to Europe and vice versa.

As I sat and enjoyed the scene, a man sat next to me, Hussein. A nice man, whose innocent conversation turned into a "situations to avoid" context quite quickly. He told me of the parallels of Troy and Gallipoli, protecting the straight to the Sea of Marmara. He told me of his travels and the neighboring Greeks. As if reading a history book, he told me of the switch in territory, when Greek towns and Turkish towns were swapped, the people that is, so that the land could change possession. His original home town near Çanakkale was one such town, his town now, but for much of its history a town of the Hellenes. The mayor of this town is friends with the mayor of the sister city in Greece, from where these people's ancestors were from. Every year the people, led by these two mayor friends, travel to the other city and see the homes of their ancestors. In this day and age I looked at Hussein amazed by such an act of kindness and hospitality. He told me that Atatürk was also born in one such town (near modern day Thessalonica), now on Greek soil.

He told me of his travels, which amazed me, especially of his time in Uzbekistan, a place I very much want to see. He told me of the Uzbek's ties to Islam and his time as a teacher there. He showed me the castle on the shores of Gallipoli for Allah and Muhammad. He showed me where a chain was connected from this castle to the eastern shore to prevent ships from passing.

The time was getting late by now and as I tried to leave he insisted on him showing me the city; a kind act, however it involved getting into his car. I would have been skeptical even if I had no plans, but my bus was to depart shortly and I used this as a perfect excuse to part ways. For all I know his intentions were good, he taught me much and his company was appreciated, so I left while my impression was still positive.

I caught the night bus, which took the ferry across The Dardanelles (formerly the Hellespont); I was sleeping before reaching Europe.

Istanbul

August 20, 2005
Bazaars & General Sightseeing

After arriving in Istanbul by overnight bus, I took a servis to Taksim Square, a stop I missed by only a couple kilometers, giving me an opportunity I wouldn't otherwise have. I started my walk back into town past Dolmabahçe Palace, the location of Atatürk's death and former home to the later sultans. I did eventually make it to Taksim Square, an unimpressive square, lined with unimpressive buildings.

A walk down Istiklal was quiet in the morning, although the shop owners were setting up tables outside as the bakeries and cafes were opening. At one point a guy came up to talk to me. I'm not sure of his motivation, but he said that he works as a receptionist at a hotel nearby and wanted to know who I was, why I was here, and where I was staying. He seemed alright and we talked for about five minutes before he found a new tourist to talk to.

I crossed the Galata Bridge, which was lined with fishermen at the time. As a large ship came to pass, it struck its horn and the fishermen lifted their lines until the ship passed. I made it back to the hostel without a problem or map and checked in. After waiting about an hour for Elizabeth to wake, shower and eat we were off, first to an old hamam and then to the Basilica Cistern.

The Basilica Cistern was one of the highlights of the city. This underground cistern is lined with pillars and the enormity of the place is truly remarkable, particularly given the fact that the structure was built in the 500s. The water was shallow and had rather large fish swimming around it, as the pillars were mildly lit giving the place a dark and eerie atmosphere. In the back of the cistern were two large medusa heads used as supports for the pillars, one up-side-down and the other sideways. The place was incredible and every detail, from the pillars to the water, walls, and intricately stone-carved ceilings were great.

Next on the list was the Grand Bazaar to go shopping. As much as I despise shopping, it's great fun in the Grand Bazaar so long as you follow the rules of bargaining and you use your common sense. Before entering the dragon's den, however we energized ourselves with a kebab from the shop in the Bazaar, according to Elizabeth the best in the world; a statement I very, very strongly disagree with after our kebabs in Canakkale, but excellent none-the-less.

Elizabeth bought calligraphy for 80 lira, actually a very good job bargaining from the beginning; she also bought silver earrings. I negotiated some bowls, but didn't get good prices and left, then worked on negotiating a carpet just for fun. I got the salesman down from 700 to 220 in less than two minutes. The secret is to be uninterested and knowledgeable about the carpet's value. I told the salesman I didn't want the carpet, but that it wasn't worth more than 200 lira, at which point the price dropped from 700 to 220. I felt good about my new bargaining skills, but decided to only negotiate on goods I was actually willing to buy since this man seemed less than thrilled to see I wasn't going to buy it, despite my initial warning.

We soon left the Bazaar and entered the best part of the city, Tahtakale and the surrounding area between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. The area was full of locals and I didn't see a tourist for dozens of minutes. The streets were filled from edge to edge; occasionally a truck or cart would come through as the people very slowly moved out of the way. Both sides of the street were covered with vendors selling clothes and food beside money exchanges. Shopping were Turks, many of whom were veiled women and a good number of fully covered women. This was a place for the women and children, occasionally seeing a man sell something or simply relaxing on the street's side watching the time pass as the rest of the world rushed by.

Overcome with hunger once again we stopped at a (yes, I know I sound like a broken record) kebab stand. The man insisted that we eat at the plastic table placed in the middle of the mess that was the street and so we did. At first I wanted to escape the hectic place, but I soon realized that it was the rush and chaotic state that were not only memorizing and hypnotic, but oddly soothing and relaxing. Time seemed to stand still and mattered not, but the street was consumed with a wholly different feeling.

After dinner, we found ourselves in the spice market then, after a quick walk through, headed back to the hostel. Before relaxing though, we went out to get a calligraphy necklace that Elizabeth wanted.

Soon some down time on the water's front, we headed to the Hippodrome to sit and watch the people as they passed. After the people rushed to wash themselves before the call to prayers we heard the sounds coming from both sides of us, the Blue Mosque nearly in front of us and Aya Sofia to our left. The city seemed to go silent, the prayers' volume overcoming that of the bustle of the city. The sounds fell over the Hippodrome and dominated the conversation.

Elizabeth decided, after the call to prayers, to head back up to Seven Hills, the balcony overlooking everything. On the way we stopped to watch a dervish spin, for what seemed like forever. It was extremely impressive and mesmerizing that someone can do that without getting so dizzy that he falls over.

August 21, 2005
Baths & Baklava

Everyone was awoken early by Marcin and Marisia, a Polish couple who proved more irritating than anyone else. They spoke at full volume as the rest of the people attempted to sleep. They woke everyone up while they packed, a process which took about three hours.

After waking and getting ready, we headed down to eat. After this we got money and returned to the hostel to find our Polish friends still packing. The plan was to go to the baths, but now that we were awake, this was simply too good of entertainment to leave, so we watched them take six bags each out of the hostel and onto their two bikes. There was so much junk on those bikes they couldn't actually get on them to ride away, so they walked the bikes, like walking a donkey, whose back is full of supplies.

After getting reservations for the night bus to the airport we headed out. Cağaloğlu Hamam is apparently mentioned in the book "1,000 Things to See and Do Before You Die," so we went. A bath house is not my type of thing, but I'm here. After deciding what option I wanted and paying, I was assigned to a room in the entrance area. Here I took everything off and put on a towel. After getting a pair of wooden slippers I was led to the hot room. In this large vaulted ceiling room I sat and sweat as another guy was getting bathed by a large man, both in towels. The room was very hot and I wished I drank more water, but it didn't really compare to the heat in the Russian banya so I just dealt with it and enjoyed the architecture of the room.

The ceiling has small windows letting in enough light to bring a warm glow to the white marble room. There are fountains everywhere with sinks beneath them. In the middle of the room is a large elevated marble slab rising from the ground like an altar.

After the man finished bathing, he left only me and the other man in the room. After about 15 minutes another man entered the room and asked to see my key. Once he noticed I was the next victim he ordered me on the elevated marble slab. Here he cracked, or attempted to crack, every bone in my body. He also gave me one of the worst messages imaginable; he was careful to avoid any privacy issues but proceeded to push my shoulder into the marble, unfortunately the marble proved stronger than my shoulder and I was left with more of a painful, rather than relieved, feeling once finished. Then, apparently I paid for a scrub down and shampoo, which was quite unwelcomed as well.

It's extremely odd being bathed by another man, especially one who is rather large, about 50, with a hairy chest, mustache and approaches you in a towel. The bath was rather simple; I got washed and scrubbed, followed by being dowsed with more water than I appreciated. I had a hard time taking breathes between buckets of water, but it was soon over and I was quite glad. Instead of feeling refreshed and anew, I simply felt glad he was leaving.

Before I could leave however I headed back to the hot room for about ten minutes. Here I met an Iranian American who told me about how he tests the guys at the bazaar by saying he's either American or Iranian, then watches as the starting prices vastly differ. He was nice enough, but I was dying of heat and sweat, a sweat that now ran smoothly down my skin, allowing me to see the sweet streams instead of simply sweat beads.

I met the only other person in the place, a Spaniard, then after turning down any tea or other refreshment, I headed out to the other room. Here my Turkish rub-down guy demanded I take off my towel, at which point he gave me a new one, along with a larger softer towel over my shoulders and another on my head; I would have looked like a fool if everyone else didn't look exactly the same. After sitting for a bit, I retired to my private room, where I relaxed until I stopped sweating. After changing I headed out.

On the way to the hostel I stopped and got a kebab for a negotiated price, which I wasn't sure was allowed, but I tried anyway; I was really getting into this haggling thing. I then stopped to look at a tea set and haggled a bit. I gave him a price and upon his refusal I walked away. He didn't stop me so I assume that was truly the lowest price he would go.

Upon Elizabeth's return, we went to find the kebab place we had found the day before, kebab by weight. It was excellent; we both got the largest kebabs, 150 grams of meat. This is how a kebab should be, meat, meat, tomatoes, lettuce, and more meat. They cost 5 lira each so they threw in some free juice, which was badly needed after the hamam.

After relaxing for much of the rest of the day we headed out to eat. I had two types of baklava, the simple plain type and a chocolate one, which was too much and again made me feel sick to my stomach. The owner of the place was very kind and made Elizabeth a salad, although they don't sell them. In front of this place an older woman was making thin bread, like lavash, quite a sight.

We took the night bus from the hotel to the airport; checking in at the airport was no problem, although there were a lot of flights for 2:00am and the lines for both check in and passport control became outrageous given the time of day.

*    *    *

Istanbul

December 23, 2013
Welcome Back to Istanbul

Sometimes when you return to a place everything seems to have changed, while at other times it all seems the same. For Istanbul very little seems to have changed. After arriving to the airport we were trying to buy tickets for the metro only to find some random guy trying to "help us buy tickets." Having seen dozens of scams before, especially at airports I listened to him with caution and walked away to find someone else who could help. However, this is still Turkey and it turns out the guy was really just trying to help us out, which we eventually let him do.

The subway ride went smoothly into the heart of Sultanahmet, Istanbul's tourist district. We arrived fairly late and had to hike up a couple hills to find our hotel, half of which were the wrong hills. We did eventually find our way to the hotel, which was quite spacious and located just minutes from the Aya Sofia.

December 24, 2013

For me the highlight of Istanbul is the Aya Sofia and my travel companions seemed to agree, especially the two architecture majors with me who made the trip here almost exclusively for this historic church, turned mosque, turned museum. This building, originally built in the 500s, seems to bring with it the atmosphere of an amusement park and serenity depending on where you are. The entrance being the amusement park with huge crowds, lines, and excitement, but once inside the noise and excitement from others seems drown out in the massive building as your senses take on so much they seem unable to comprehend any more. The size of the building alone makes you think, but the mosaics, paintings, chandeliers, stone carvings, and every little detail, like the way light enters the building and illuminates it, are almost overwhelming. The noise falls immediately as talking turns to awe, but even once the people again begin to speak, for me, and others as well, listening to others seems like more than my senses can handle.

The Aya Sofia seemed to constantly shift your focus from the massive dome and building itself as you just stare up, to the tiny details found on every wall and column. It seems so impossible in nearly every way and that makes it difficult to leave, even after spending nearly two hours mesmerized. At least I wasn't the only one in this state of shock; everyone with me seemed impressed, again beginning with the architecture majors, who seemed to be on the verge of tears multiple times.

Having little motivation to move much, after the Aya Sofia we found the first restaurant we could find, which was convenient, but expensive as it sat in the middle of the tourist district. Sadly, the food matched the expectation as everything was good, but not worth the price. The Iskender kebab was the highlight, a combination of thinly sliced lamb and beef over bread, then topped with tomato sauce, butter, and served with a side of yogurt. I had the doner kebab, which is essentially just sliced meat with a side of bread, tomatoes, French fries, and a small cabbage salad.

After a little discussion, we decided our next stop had to be the Grand Bazaar, which many argue is the second of the city's must see sites, although there are dozens of highlights, and I personally prefer the Spice Bazaar. We walked to the bazaar and I was stopped once by a random man saying he knew me and that I had been there before. He was right, but I had no idea who he was; oddly he wasn't selling anything, but was friendly and we continued on our walk.

At the bazaar I had another two people tell me that they remembered me and that I was there before. Again, I had no idea who these people were and I just assumed them to be sales pitches, but no one else in my group of five were stopped and approached with the same comment, odd. None-the-less, I took one of these men up on their offer, a carpet salesperson, and we began our carpet shopping experience. I had no real interest in buying a carpet (I bought two last time I was here), but I feel carpet shopping is an essential experience when in Turkey so I dragged my wife, her sisters, and their friend Marc into the carpet shop.

As with most carpet shopping, carpet after carpet got rolled out, the salesman carefully watching our eyes and faces, just waiting for a reaction. He got little from us, but tried carpets, kilims, and soumacs of all sizes, colors, and materials. Soon it was clear we had little interest in carpets, but he was kind enough to talk for a bit, then sent us across the aisle to a scarf salesperson, a friend of his.

Unlike the carpets, the scarves lit the girls' faces up and as soon as we had arrived our negotiating power had collapsed. It was only five minutes before I knew how to tie a scarf and the girls each had their own picked out. Then it turned to me to negotiate and with a little work we got the scarves down from $150 each to $85 for three, which I think was an ok deal, but we could have done better... I think.

After the long wander through the bazaar we exited, but in what direction we didn't know. The bazaar is such a maze of sorts that it's easy to get turned around and lost in there. We quickly figured out we were headed north and wanted to be going east so changed directions, but Istanbul is such a historic city it's not built on a grid and the streets twist and intersect at odd angles and east soon turns into southeast, but turning may mean going east or even north as the roads regularly wind in every direction. We stopped a couple times, once to get freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and another to get directions, which led us home.

After some down time four of us headed to the Spice Bazaar, or Egyptian Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar was similar to earlier in the day when everyone seemed to know me. It's a common sales technique in Istanbul to throw out random names, make statements on where visitors are from, or to say that they remember you. If you'd been there before you're impressed they remember you and if they get the right name or know where you are from you seem amazed and have to stop to talk. The odd part of this is that most often they use common names that can be used in Italy, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, etc. so the chances are better they are right. Likewise they tend to use common locations like London, Moscow, Chicago, and New York. However, as I was walking through the Spice Bazaar a man immediately said "I know you my friend, you are from Wisconsin!" That seemed like a lucky guess, so I quickly looked at all my clothing and had nothing on that said Wisconsin. To be honest I was a little spooked so we kept moving after I sheepishly said "Yes I am."

Much of the same continued as two others also said that they knew me and remembered me from last time. One even said that it was about eight years since I'd been here, which was exactly correct. As much as I felt like I was in the twilight zone, we had some spices, baklava, apple tea, and Turkish Delights to buy... none of which we knew until the girls got free samples of the Turkish Delights. Last time here I was not impressed with the Turkish Delights, but this time I tried the pomegranate ones and they were quite good; the original honey I's still not a fan of. We bought a box of Turkish Delights from some shop Martha Stewart went to, then some baklava from another stand nearby. Marc then began his quest to buy Persian (Iranian) saffron.

Saffron is expensive no matter where you buy it and there is little negotiating power. After stopping by a couple places we found a winner and Marc got his saffron. The shopping bug must have caught him as he then began seeking out apple tea. There's much more negotiating power on the apple tea and other spices, but not to the degree you can negotiate in the Grand Bazaar; there are too many locals here so prices are more reasonable to begin with. After a few pointers on how to negotiate, Marc did just fine and got himself about a pound of apple tea. With our hands full of Turkish Delights, apple tea, saffron, and a piece of baklava for my sister-in-law Gina who stayed at the hotel we decided to begin our walk back. The kebab stands had closed by this time and the street shops were closing up, so were was no need to stop on the way back.

We relaxed in the rooftop bar in our hostel. None of us had much motivation to drink, but the place overlooked the Aya Sofia and the view was worthwhile. The small backpacker crowd surrounding us was also worthwhile as all were entertaining... the guy trying to pick up the girl and the girl who had no interest, plus the solo backpacker reading her guidebook in the corner, yet doing so in public as she desperately seeks out conversation and human interaction.

December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas! Since Turkey's a Muslim country nothing is closed today so we had a full day. We began the day at Topkapi Palace and the Harem; we got there early so the lines weren't bad and the Harem was almost completely empty. Architecturally, the harem is the highlights, but the relics of the Prophet are perhaps the most fascinating part of the palace. There are a few rooms with historic relics, including hair from Prophet Muhammad's beard and what was labeled as the walking stick of Moses.

After taking our time in the palace, the crowds significantly grew and by noon we took off. After picking Gina up we headed out to see the Basilica Cistern and Galata Tower. Our architecture majors were somewhat obsessed with the hundreds of columns in the Basilica Cistern and argued over what style each was. I didn't have the intelligence to contribute to that conversation so just stared and took pictures at stuff.

After the cistern we tried to get a tram to Galata, but had no change for tram tickets so sought out a shop. Cindy and I found a pot holder, then negotiated the price from 5 lira to 2, gave the guy a 50 and got our change.

Time was not on our side as we arrived to Galata a bit later than expected so had to rush to make it to the tower before it closed. Marc sprinted up the hill, while the girls and I took a taxi only to find out the tower was open for a couple more hours. We arrived just after sunset so had to fight the crowds the southern side where the views of Sultanahmet are the best.

Once back to our hotel I decided that everything done today was a new Christmas tradition for Cindy and I as it was our first Christmas together as a married couple... or at least the things I liked would be traditions. First among those was the Iskender kebab that we had for dinner, and second were the pomegranate Turkish Delights we grabbed for dessert. The apple tea also made the "New Christmas Tradition List," but the nice mustached man who corralled us into his restaurant did not. He did give us complimentary apple tea since we were staying next door though!

December 26, 2013

Before heading out today we had to hit the Blue Mosque, which was a short walk from out hotel. For some reason I was more impressed with the Blue Mosque on this trip than I was on my first visit. Perhaps the first time I was here I did the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia back-to-back and left more impressed with the Aya Sofia, but both are incredible. The Blue Mosque is a later stage in the evolution of Turkish mosque architecture that essentially began with the Aya Sofia so there are significant similarities in structure, but not in decoration, feel, or any other aspect. The Blue Mosque is an active mosque that closes to tourists during prayer times and this function still dominates the building, its rules, and its appearance.

After taking our time in the mosque we headed to the nearby Hippodrome of Constantinople, which is infinitely more interesting when there are more people as the people watching is excellent. At the time we were there few people were out so it seemed to be an abandoned square lost to time.

With a little time left prior to our flight we decided to head back to the Spice Bazaar as Gina had missed it earlier in our trip and I just wanted to go back to see all of my friends I had forgot I had. Fortunately, this time the kebab shops were open so I immediately stopped for a chicken kebab on half bread. It was excellent so I got back in line and had a lamb kebab, which was again superb, but the chicken kebab won. Since we arrived to Istanbul, I think this simple kebab stand won the best food competition, other than perhaps the Iskender kebab, which was also significantly more expensive.

We sat outside for some time eating and watching the people come and go to the New Mosque for prayer. We also grabbed more baklava for dessert and discussed what Turkish ice cream men do as a show. Sadly, it was the wrong time of year for ice cream so we couldn't find any Turkish ice cream men, but I will make everyone watch a video of it when we get home... not the same as experiencing it, but a show worth watching!

Continue the above trip to: Italy

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