The Acropolis Museum

Yesterday morning we visited the Acropolis Museum. Located at the foot of the Acropolis, and affording a view of the sacred rock and its buildings as shown in the photo above, the Acropolis Museum houses an extensive collection of sculptures and artwork from the Acropolis and the homes at its base—like the portrait of a priest shown above.

The amount of sculpture associated with the Acropolis that is part of the museum’s collection is staggering. You can rent an audio guide, take a guided tour as part of a group, or go it alone. We chose the latter option. Fortunately, there are excellent and informative placards at every item in the collection, with information in Greek and English—so the visitor know that the sculpture above on the right is of Dionysos, holding a theatrical mask, perched on the shoulder of Popposilenos, his tutor. The collection is roughly grouped by era, with larger placards providing information about Athens’ history during that particular era. There also is an excellent short film that tells the story of the unique architecture of the famous Parthenon, the primary surviving building atop the Acropolis, and the depredations it suffered over the years at the hands of Romans, Christians, the Venetians, the Ottoman Turks, and the British. It is a sad story of how a magnificent structure was not treated with the respect and care it deserved. Thanks to the mistreatment, we must make do with appreciation of only fragments, and be left to imagine what the scene must have looked like when the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the related statuary and sculpture were at their height.

Of all of the statuary and sculpture at the Acropolis Museum, my favorite was the exhibit of the Caryatids, seen in the photo below—the female figures who once held up part of the Erechtheion, a temple to Poseidon and Athena on the Acropolis. An accompanying video shows how they were painstakingly cleaned using a laser and other modern technology. They give a glimpse of what a wonderful place the Acropolis must have been in its heyday. I would recommend the Acropolis Museum as a good way to prepare for the visit to the Acropolis itself.

Cycle Town

Athens, like many European towns, is awash in motorcycles and scooters. They are seeming everywhere, at any time. If you are getting ready to cross the street, or even to take a casual stroll down a purely pedestrian walkway, keep your ears tuned for the trademark revving of an engine, and then a motorized cycle weaving through the walkers. They pay no attention to stop signs, or red lights, or pedestrian only zones.

I’m convinced the real reason Athenian motorcycle riders wear helmets is that they don’t want to be recognized when they are flouting traffic laws.

Athenian Ale

It’s been hot in Athens, much hotter than in Istanbul. Accordingly, after walking around yesterday trying to find a reasonably priced hat that could shield against the sun’s glaring rays, we decided it was time to stop for refreshment. Fortunately, Athens is loaded with streetside pubs and restaurants, and we stopped at a random place to cool down.

I realized quickly that a beer was in order. My throat felt dry and dusty, and it needed a good washing. The circumstances therefore called for a cold adult beverage brewed from grains and hops. Our friendly water strongly recommended a beer called Mythos. Who could resist ordering a bear that conjured memories of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, and of course Athena, for whom Athens is named? So, I ordered the Mythos, and found it to be an entirely potable lager, happily served very cold. And even though it was warm in Athens, I quaffed the entire glass before the beer reached room temperature.

As an veteran reader of this blog knows, I like trying different, local beers. Mythos was pretty good. It didn’t make me think Olympian thoughts, but it definitely wet my whistle on a warm, desiccated day in Athens.

History Below, History Above

We arrived yesterday in Athens. We were sad to leave Istanbul behind—it was a great place, and a real revelation. I would recommend Istanbul to anyone, and hope to come back again one day.

Athens is a pretty place, with a more diverse, urban feel. You also need to watch your step, because there is history below and above. The history below is found in the many excavations, most of which are below ground. The history above is the Acropolis, which towers over the city. You can turn a random corner in the central city and see a view like the one below. it’s amazing.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

Istanbul has a famous Grand Bazaar shopping area. We paid a visit and found a buzzing, humming retail world on steroids.

A few background points about the Grand Bazaar. First, if you’re expecting anything like the sad world of virtually deserted U.S. malls, think again: in Turkey, the retail world is doing very well, from all appearances. The Grand Bazaar was bustling and jammed with shoppers, merchandise, and salesmen. Second, I use the word “salesmen” advisedly, because 99.9 percent of the people working at the Grand Bazaar are men. Even in shops that sell items specifically geared toward a female audience, like head scarves, the workers are men. And third, expect the salesmen to be outgoing in their approach to sales. You can’t really stop anywhere without someone walking up to you, trying to engage you in conversation, and get you to come into your shop. If you hear “Sir! Are you American? Where are you from” expect to spend at least a few minutes talking to the salesman and explaining why you don’t need a rug. And if you are in the market for what they are selling, be prepared to haggle on the price and listen to the full sales pitch.

The Grand Bazaar isn’t just about selling retail goods, either. You see men carrying platters of food, or swinging trays of steaming hot tea, weaving their way through the dense throngs of people. I couldn’t figure out how you got the food or the tea, because there were no food or tea storefronts that I saw. It may just be that if you sit down, someone comes up and offers you the opportunity to order.

The Grand Bazaar is huge, and a kind of maze. There are dozens of different sections, and there really is no way to figure out where you are going and where you have been other than leaving a trail of bread crumbs, or linking your phone and using a GPS feature to find other people in your party. The Grand Bazaar reminded me of a casino, in that there was no way to see outside or know what time it was. When you visit, you may as well just reconcile yourself to wandering aimlessly, dealing with the polite yet insistent salesmen, and doing some window shopping.

And speaking of window shopping, the Grand Bazaar offers just about everything you could imagine. Beautiful rugs and scarves seem to be the dominant products, but you can also find watches, antiques, leather goods, electronics, clothing, shoes, and candy and other sweets. You also see products that you just don’t see sold in the States anymore–like high-end ashtrays that cater to a culture where smoking is still commonplace. And when we finally found our way out of the Grand Bazaar, we saw a sign for another interesting product: “high quality cheap socks.” To the Turks, there is no inconsistency in that description.

Turkish Clues

One of the interesting things about Turkey is the language, which is wholly foreign to an English speaker. It doesn’t even have the vague familiarity or common cultural or linguistic touchstones of the Romance languages, like French, which have some words and speech patterns that are common to English. When you hear people speak it, or see it written, you often have no idea what is being communicated.

Of course, when you walk around a city like Istanbul, there usually will be visual clues that help in the interpretation effort. Words on maps are presumably the names of places, for example, and words on advertisements for products are probably descriptive adjectives about how great the shampoo or the cell phone service is. But sometimes there is an ambiguity to the visual clues that makes you wonder, as with the photo above. If you look solely at the pose, drawing upon an American upbringing, you think that this guy could be a lawyer, a car salesman, or a politician–but maybe in Turkey he is something else entirely.

The Blue Mosque

Yesterday we went to see the Blue Mosque. Located directly across from the Hagia Sofia, from which it is separated by a plaza and a fountain, the Blue Mosque is an extraordinarily beautiful structure. All mosques have a graceful appearance, thanks to their domes and minarets, but the Blue Mosque—with multiple domes and six minarets—is in a class by itself. It’s a must-see item for any visitor to Istanbul.

The interior of the Blue Mosque is even more spectacular than the exterior. It gets its name from the blue tiles on its walls and its blue stained glass windows, which together give the interior a decidedly blue cast. With the tranquil blue colors and its soaring ceilings, the Blue Mosque is a hushed oasis of serenity in a hustling international city.

Part of the Blue Mosque interior is cordoned off; visitors must stay behind a rope while the faithful can enter to enjoy some space and a peaceful place to perform their devotions.

The open, peaceful section of the mosque is in sharp contrast with the visitors’ section, which was jammed with people as shown in the photo below. Even in the midst of the crush of humanity, however, it was impossible not to be touched by the beauty of this special place.

The Blue Mosque is also a popular spot at night, when it is fully lighted and rises above surrounding trees. When we visited last night, the walkways and seating areas were packed, and everyone was looking for the best spot for a photo. The Blue Mosque is probably one of the most photographed places in the world, and it is not hard to see why.

Beauty on The Bosporus

Istanbul is a true water town, and the various waterfronts are a big part of city life. To the south lies the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean. The Bosporus then splits the city in two and, running south to north, links the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea; in so doing, it also separates Europe from Asia. Istanbul, which has expanded to both banks of the Bosporus, therefore has the distinction of being a city that spans two continents. Another body of water, the Golden Horn, runs west from the Bosporus and then curls north, dividing the old town section of Istanbul from the newer parts of the city.

We took a sunset cruise on the Bosporus, which is thought by many to be the most beautiful body of water in the world. I suppose that’s debatable, but it’s not hard to see why the Bosporus is in the running. The water is a deep blue, and there is a lot of boat traffic. The waterway is spanned by some beautiful bridges, with mosques, buildings, and other points of interest on both sides of the waterway. And what other cruise allows you to see one continent on one side and another continent on the other?

Our cruise guide noted that the two sides of the waterway are distinctly different. The Asian side, shown in the photos above and below, is the wealthier, preferred side, with more wooded areas, countless mosques, and many waterfront mansions. Most of the mansions are seasonal residences and weren’t open yet. The European side is more developed with commercial buildings and multi-family residences. There were lots of people on the waterfront on both sides.

There is plenty of water traffic between the two sides of the river. Ferries run back and forth on regular schedules until late at night, and the ones we saw were packed. Our guide also noted that cruises on the Bosporus are popular for weddings. We saw a number of boats hosting possible wedding parties pass by, with young people on the upper deck dancing both traditional Turkish dances and modern dances with abandon. The lighthouse in the middle of the Bosporus works to keep order.

We started our cruise by heading north on the Bosporus, then turned around just as we saw the Black Sea in the distance. On the way south we went past our point of departure to the tip of the old town area, shown in the photo below. The sun was beginning to set, leaving the sky filled with a soft light that framed Hagia Sofia, which towers over the old part of the city, and the Blue Mosque below it, as shown in the photo below.

The sun hung low in the west as we continued our cruise, leaving a large cruise ship and some smaller watercraft shadowed in the gloaming. Istanbul is a popular destination for a number of cruise lines, with as many as five being docked at a given point in time. When so many of the cruise ships are in town, it can mean long lines for the most popular attractions and a tough time getting tables in restaurants. Fortunately for us, the high cruise season hadn’t hit yet, and only one or two of the big boats had docked.

Our sunset cruise finally took us to the famous Galata Bridge just past the entrance to the Golden Horn, with the New Mosque dominating the scene on one side, shown above, and the Galata Tower doing likewise on the other side, shown below. The bridge itself is a treat for pedestrians, with an upper area where fishermen line the rails and a lower area with lots of seafood restaurants. After our cruise ended we hoofed it back to the Galata Bridge to have a really excellent seafood meal. From our vantage point on the lower level, we saw the lines of the fishermen on the upper level of the bridge above us falling to the water below. From time to time, the fishermen caught a fish and we saw the wriggling creatures being hauled up past us to the upper level above. Not surprisingly, the fish we were eating tasted just that fresh. .

Pide, Beer, And Bubbling Grub

One of the things I like most about traveling to a different part of the world is trying the local food. Istanbul is blessed with plenty of outdoor cafes where you can sit outside on a sunny day and try some of the different culinary options.

We’ve tried several restaurants and some different foods–all of which have been very good. Consider the pide, shown above. It looks like a pizza with a crunchy crust in a canoe shape, but there are some subtle differences. Although the sauce is tomato-based, it doesn’t have the hard-hitting tomato flavor you get with many American pizzas. Instead, the seasoning gives the pide a very delicate, mild taste. I got the pide with minced meat, which was excellent and just the right amount of food for lunch. The pide also is inexpensive, which is nice if you are watching your budget.

Of course, you also want to try the local beer when you go to a different country. We sampled some Efes, which was very good, indeed–a full-bodied, refreshing lager. Another interesting feature of the Turkish cafes is a stone container they use for casserole-type dishes. It has an amazing heat storage capability that keeps the dishes hot and bubbling long after a western casserole dish would have cooled off. I like food that is served hot, so I really appreciated this nifty bit of stonework. Be careful not to touch it when it is fresh from the oven, however!

Topkapi Palace

After our tour of Hagia Sofia, we headed next door to the Topkapi Palace. The Topkapi Palace was the seat of government and the home of the Turkish Sultan, his administrators, his eunuchs, and his harem for centuries. The Palace–which is a bit of a misnomer, because it is not a single building, but rather a series of different structures–was established after the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. New buildings were added by sultans over the years, making the palace and its grounds an interesting blend of older, very Middle Eastern style buildings and newer, more westernized buildings.

The Middle Eastern-style buildings are beautiful and colorful, with lavish decorations befitting the ruler of the Ottoman Empire and his vast administrative staff. The above room was the council chamber for the Empire, where various officials would meet to discuss the pending issues of the day. The sultans, who apparently got bored with the meetings, sat behind the screen shown in this picture, so they could listen in–or not, depending upon their whim.

The grounds of the Topkapi Palace are beautiful, and extend from the back door of the Hagia Sofia–which had a special entrance for the sultans as they headed over for their daily prayers–to the end of the peninsula on which the old town area sits. From that vantage point, the sultans could look out across the waterway and feel a very pleasant breeze.

The different architectural styles of the buildings on the Topkapi Palace grounds go well together, but I liked the Middle Eastern buildings the best. There is a certain grace and delicacy to those buildings, like the one shown above, especially when compared to the more solid, sober marble structures commissioned by later sultans. Most of the rooms in the Topkapi Palace are filled with exhibits of things like weaponry, the different garments worn by the sultans over the years, and the sultans’ chairs and jewels and plates and other household goods. Those were interesting, although there were a lot of people in the palace when we visited, and I imagine that I appeared in the background of hundreds of selfies.

Of all of the parts of the palace, I most enjoyed touring the harem quarters. The tilework on the walls of the harem, like that shown above, and the detailed workmanship of the doors, like that shown below, is simply beautiful. Most of the tilework is in different shades of blue, giving the harem quarters a general feeling of great serenity. Of course, the only people who saw the harem quarters were the sultan, his mother, his wives and concubines, and the eunuchs who guarded the harem.

There is one room in particular that gives a good sense of what it must have been like to be the sultan during the height of the Ottoman Empire. That room, shown in the photos below, looks exactly what you would think the audience chamber of an eastern potentate would look like, with its ornate ceilings and bright colors and gold everywhere you look.

As we walked through this room, marveling at the artistry and the richness of the setting, it wasn’t hard to imagine a sultan lounging on the chair on the dias, eating figs and dates, clapping his hands to be waited upon by attendants and perhaps watching a performance by his concubines, guarded by bare-chested eunuchs in their unique headdresses with large, curved scimitars in their sash belts.

As you exit the Topkapi Palace grounds, you see an interesting building called the Hagia Irene, which apparently served as the model for the Hagia Sofia. The Hagia Irene is seen in the photo below, which also gives a sense of the sweep of the Topkapi Palace grounds, which are lush and shaded. The Palace is definitely worth a visit if you come to Istanbul–just be prepared to watch out for the inevitable selfies.

Black Tea And Baklava

If there is a national drink of Turkey, it is this: black tea served piping hot and brewed strong, presented, usually, in a tempered glass like this with a bulb at the bottom. It might singe your fingers to pick up, but it is delicious. It’s so good that it makes this committed coffee drinker think tea might not be so bad.

One of our guides explained that Turks like something sweet with their tea or coffee. For tea, the preferred dessert of choice is baklava, For coffee, it’s some Turkish Delight candy.

The Turks take that “bitter with the sweet” notion very seriously.

The Feral Felines Of Istanbul

Istanbul is a town made for walking—as any glance at the crowded streets and traffic snarls, and any ear for the constant beeping car horns will tell you. We’ve done a lot of walking, and as we’ve legged it around the old town section we’ve noticed one obvious fact: there are lots of cats about. There are dogs, too, but it is the cats you notice, twitching their tales as they patrol the neighborhoods, acting like they own the place—which, being cats, they necessarily pretty much do.

The people of Istanbul seem to like the cats. You see bowls of kibble in front of some storefronts, like the one above, and dishes of water in front of others. The feral felines will take a nibble and a sip as if it is their birthright, then continue on their merry way.

Hagia Sofia

On our first morning in Istanbul, fresh from an 11-hour flight and a ride into town from Istanbul International Airport, we headed to a tour of Hagia Sofia. Once a church, then a mosque, then a museum, then back to a mosque again, this colossal structure dominates the skyline of the old town section of Istanbul. It is one of the world’s oldest and most celebrated structures.

Admission to Hagia Sofia is free, but plan to wait in line. We got there early and were part of the first set of visitors when the doors opened at 9 a.m. As you enter the structure, you see signs of its former grandeur, with gilded ceilings and a beautiful mosaic. You must remove your shoes to enter, and women must wear head scarves.

The interior of the structure is breathtaking in its immensity. Although built more than 1500 years ago, it remains one of the largest domes on Earth, and the interior is so enormous you feel like you are outside, looking up at the heavens. Photos simply don’t capture its vastness.

The interior decorations are a mix of Christian and Moslem. You can see a depiction of a seraphim—basically, a face with wings—on one of the dome supports above, and the photos below show some round quotations from the Koran, in Arabic, that are on display. The area under the dome is covered by a rug with lines that allows the Moslem faithful to kneel in alignment toward Mecca.

It would have been interesting to see Hagia Sofia at the height of the Byzantine Empire, but that is impossible. It was looted by the Crusaders when the sacked Constantinople on one of the Crusades, and the sultans and imams have made many modifications since Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in 1453. As the photo below shows, however, you can still seem glimpses of its former glory. It must have been an even more extraordinary place 1,000 years ago.

One of the best preserved mosaics in Hagia Sofia appears above the doorway to the exit from the structure. Dating from approximately 1100 A.D., it shows Mary and Jesus receiving gifts: the figure on the right represents Constantine, whose gift is the colossal walls that once protected Constantinople, and the figure on the left represents Justinian, whose gift is the Hagia Sofia in its original form. Justinian’s gift is one that keeps on giving, as our visit to this awesome place demonstrated.

A Town With A Sweet Tooth

I’m paying my first-ever visit to Istanbul, and aside from some mishaps getting here and a bad case of jet lag that caused me to doze off in the middle of a sentence at lunch, it has been great so far. I’ll have a lot more to say about Istanbul, but for now I simply want to point out that this is a town with a serious sweet tooth. Whether it’s candy, cookies, ice cream or fine pastries, we’ve seen virtually every kind of sweet being consumed by the locals, with relish.

These photos were taken as we walked through the thriving old town section of Istanbul at about 11p.m. on a Wednesday night, as people were out eating ice cream or having a last tea and baklava before heading home. This store was open and selling high-end confections that looked delicious. I’ve always though of Vienna, Paris, Florence and Munich as the capitals of sweets, but Istanbul belongs in that conversation, too.

The Turks may look fierce, but they obviously have a soft spot for the sugary end of the spectrum.

The International Travel Buzz

At check-in you clutch your passports as you wait for the ticket agent, and you notice many of the passengers have luggage carts piled high and are checking four, five, or even six bags.

You notice that the plane you’re boarding is a lot bigger than the planes you take on domestic flights.

As you take your seat you see a pillow and a blanket and a travel kit left just for you, and you hear everyone around you speaking excitedly in a different, lyrical language.

The flight attendants seem uncommonly well dressed and may be wearing nifty hats. Shortly after takeoff, they serve you a nice, hot breakfast.

These are all visual cues that you’re taking an overseas trip. As you note each visual clue, the thrill of an international trip begins to build and build.

Where will your next adventure take you?