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.

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. .

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.

The Cactus Roost

When the sun sets in Tucson, the birds find a place to roost. Because the landscape doesn’t feature many trees, their landing spot often is the top of one of the saguaros. If you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll see a bird perching on top of one of totem pole cactus plants, taking a rest from the labors of the day and getting ready for the night.

The Birds’ Time

I got up early this morning, just before dawn, to do some work. I sat outside on the porch for our hotel room, cooled by a freshening breeze, and was serenaded by the calls of seemingly dozens of birds making their presence known from the mountainside out into the Oro Valley. The different bird sounds stand out dramatically in the pre-dawn stillness, uninterrupted by the sounds of passing cars or other human-generated noise.

Dawn obviously is the time for desert dwelling birds to exercise their vocal cords. The sounds range from hollow-sounding, owl-like hoots to chittering, piping, warbling, and twittering. The different calls fit well together, producing a combination of sounds that is like a feathered symphony.

Sitting outside on a cool morning and listening to birdsong is a very peaceful way to start the work week.

On The Linda Vista Trail

It was a beautiful day in the Oro Valley yesterday, with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the low 80s. After running a number of errands, It was time to get out and get some meaningful exercise. Fortunately, our hotel is close to a very fine trail, reachable after navigating through some parking lots and a Frisbee golf competition and then following a dusty access road to the trail head.

The trail is the Linda Vista trail, which winds through the Pusch Ridge Wilderness area that is part of the Coronado National Forest. The trail runs in a loop that gets you up close to a ridgeline of peaks, shown above, in the Santa Catalina Mountains. All told, the trail is about two-and-a-half miles in length, with lots of switchbacks and elevation changes that take you up and down and around the hills at the base of the ridgeline.

This is a good time of year to be hiking in the desert, if yesterday’s excursion was any indication. Many of the desert plants were in bloom, and there were flowers and splashes of color pretty much everywhere you looked. Even the prickly pear cacti were sprouting delicate flowers, as shown in the photo below–although of course you don’t want to examine them too closely, or you’ll risk ending up with a fistful of needles.

Mother Nature is a bit sparing with her color palette in the desert; she leans heavily on lots of different shades of brown and dusty greens. That just makes the contrast with the, yellows, oranges and reds all the more striking. It helps, too, when the sky is a deep, bright blue, to make the color of the blossoms all the more noticeable. Yesterday’s walk was like an artist’s study of primary colors.

Although it wasn’t brutally hot by Sonoran desert standards, the dusty trail, the dry air, and the elevation changes made the hike some thirsty work. I made sure to bring my trusty bottle of water, and the interesting plants, like the one in the photo below, were a good place to stop and take a much-appreciated swig of liquid while studying Mother Nature’s handiwork.

Of the flowering plants, my favorites were the ones with the bright yellow blossoms, like the one shown below at the foot of a cactus. It would be interesting to learn more about the desert plant life, and particularly how the plants are pollinated. There were no bees along the trail, and no birds, either. The only “wildlife” were a couple of annoying flies who quickly went on their way when I took my ballcap off and waved them away.

To the south, the trail hugs the ridge, and there is nothing but wilderness between the trail and the mountain peaks. To the north is the Oro Valley, which has been the subject of significant development over the past 20 years. The photo below shows the peaks in the distance that constitute the other rim of the Oro Valley. In between the Pusch Ridge area and those peaks there is lots of development. Fortunately, Arizona and the locals have seen fit to preserve some natural areas, like this one, for solitary hikers to enjoy.

Speaking of solitary hikers, I pretty much had the trail to myself in the early afternoon hours. I saw two other people on my hike: an older gentleman who was heading up the trail, in the opposite direction, as I was coming down and a young guy who was actually jogging up and down the trail. I would think jogging on a rock-strewn trail where you had to watch your step would be especially treacherous, but then I’m sure the locals would say I was crazy for hiking during the hottest hours of the day.

The trail continues upward, and brings you close to the spill areas of the ridgeline, where chunks of the peaks have broken off and tumbled down the mountainside. In this area, the saguaro cactus is king and shares its territory with lots of sizeable boulders. In certain areas, the saguaro are so numerous they make up a kind of forest.

At the highest point of the trail you reach the bottom of the slag area and can enjoy up close and personal looks at the mountains. By then, the twisting Linda Vista trail has taken you upward about 300 feet, to a total elevation of about 3,000 feet. When I reached that height, the mountains stood in sharp relief in the bright sunshine, with their ruggedness etched against the blue sky. The pinnacle point of the trail, shown below, also is a good place to enjoy a gulp of water and take in the scenery. Then it is time to turn to the left and follow the trial back down the ridgeline.

A Bracing Dip At Barton Springs

Yesterday morning Richard and I decided to indulge in a classic Austin institution: taking a dip in the Barton Springs pool. Barton Springs is a natural spring that bubbles up from the ground just a stone’s throw from downtown Austin, as the photo above shows. It is a haven for dedicated swimmers and for anyone who wants to give their dog-paddling skills a workout. And speaking of dog paddles, at one end of the pool is a barrier and a fence that separates the human pool from an area where Austin-area dogs can have a riot splashing around around, as shown in the photo below.

The swimming area of the Barton Springs pool is probably about 200 yards in length. It varies in depth from about four feet near the edges to deep enough for diving at certain points. Although it is roughly configured like a very long swimming pool, it is a naturally occurring body of water with a bottom of algae-coated rocks, so you have to watch your step as you enter the pool. Human swimmers share the water with turtles and a unique species of blind salamander.

It was bright and sunny yesterday, but with temperatures in the 50s when we entered the pool. I had hoped that the water would be at least somewhat warm, but alas!–it was like taking a polar bear plunge. Under such circumstances, there is no alternative to just plopping in and hoping that eventually your body acclimates to the cold water, which mine eventually did. The bracing temperature of the water definitely provided some motivation to start swimming and hopefully generate some internal heat.

Speaking of swimming, I’m obviously totally out of practice, and it seemed to take me forever to move from one end of the pool to the other, as I tried out my back stroke, breast stroke, and freestyle techniques, as well as just floating and enjoying the interesting scene. Along the way I got yelled at by a lifeguard for the first time in more than half a century because I unknowingly swam–well, floundered, to be precise–through the well of the diving area. I did manage to avoid getting yelled at for running along the edge of the pool, however.

After I finally reached the end of the pool, we got out and walked around to take in the full scene. There were a number of accomplished swimmers who obviously have significant resistance to cold water moving methodically from one end of the pool to the other, as well as people sunning themselves on the lawn that is found on one side of the pool. According to Richard, the pool opens at 5 a.m., and there usually are people waiting to take a cooling dip and get their laps in. As for me, I was looking forward to changing into dry clothes and enjoying a warming meal of some breakfast tacos with a hot cup of coffee.

On The Airboat Tour

We’re down in Southwest Florida for a short visit. The weather has been beautiful, and yesterday we drove down to Everglades City for an airboat excursion. That’s the official name of the shallow draft boats with the huge fan on the back that propels the boat and allows it to skim across the surface of the water. Those of us of a certain advanced age will associate the boat with ‘60s TV shows Flipper and Gentle Ben.

If you haven’t ridden on an airboat, the captain sits in the elevated seat right in front of the fan, and the passengers sit up front. Because the fan is loud, everyone wears a headphone and microphone headset so passengers can ask questions of the captain. After a short primer on the plant and animal (and reptile) life of the Everglades and the wonders of the banyan tree with its characteristic above-ground roots, we set out into the watery wilds.

The airboat is a fun boat to ride. It is incredibly maneuverable vessel, able to make amazing hairpin turns at high speeds. We would approach a tight turn, shift to one side or the other, and skid around the turn without a problem. it obviously helps to have an expert captain at the helm, and you need to hold onto your hats—literally. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

We saw one alligator, largely submerged. You can just see his head popping out of the water in the bottom middle of the photo below. Our captain explained that the gator was balanced in his tail against the shallow bottom of the bayou. He didn’t move as we sat there and watched him. We also saw a manatee rise silently to the surface for a sip of air before dipping down below the water.

The Everglades were a maze; only a trained captain could avoid getting lost in the twists and turns. But there were some straightaways when the captain throttled up to full speed and went racing along that the boats top speed, which is about 40 m.p.h. On the straightaways the canopy of the banyan trees is almost perfectly shaped for the caged fan at the back of the boat.

Our airboat tour was like an amusement park ride through an area of great natural beauty. If you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to give it a go.

Pre-Dawn Cacti

I had to get up super-early today to catch a flight, and stopped on my way to my rental car to take this photo of some cacti around our hotel.

Marana, Arizona is, intentionally, a “dark” community with minimal lighting to avoid light pollution and facilitate better viewing of stars. Desert darkness is about as absolutely dark as it gets. The stars stand out in sharp relief, to be sure, while the giant saguaros are ghostly figures in the gloom, unless you use a flash as I did here.

The night and early morning hours are apparently a favorite time for gangs of Javelina to prowl the neighborhood, although I didn’t see any on my way to the parking lot. I was happy about that, because I’m not sure I would know how to deal with a nighttime encounter with a herd of wild, pig-like creatures.

On The “Jeeps Only” Trail

Yesterday we decided to get away from the resort and explore a bit of the rest of the island of Aruba. On the advice of the Long-Haired Red Sox Fan, we rented a Jeep Wrangler so that we could explore the mostly uninhabited “wild side” of the island. It proved to be a memorable experience, but perhaps not in precisely the way the LHRSF conveyed.

Our journey began at the northern tip of Aruba, at the California lighthouse shown above. It was crawling with tour buses and tourists, but the area provided a nice view of the surrounding area. Interestingly, this part of Aruba is very desert-like. The landscape around the lighthouse featured prickly pear cactus, saguaro cactus, and other desert fauna.

At the bottom of the lighthouse promontory we turned right, off the paved road onto a “Jeeps-only” trail and left the tour buses behind. The trail was described as a “dirt road,” but really “trail” is a better description of it. It was a rocky, twisting, deeply rutted track that was more like what you would expect to find in an X Games off-roading competition. The Wrangler held up well under the conditions–any normal car or bus would break an axle within 100 yards of the turn-off point–but fair warning should be given to any drivers and passengers who want to take the trail. It is truly a rough ride.

Unless you rent one of the dune buggies that some people were riding along the trail, you can expect an incredibly bone-jarring, kidney-busting journey that is beyond your wildest imagination. I’ve driven on dirt roads before, but nothing approaching the Jeeps-only trail. If you’ve ever bought a gallon of paint from a hardware store and had them mix it–where they put the can into the machine that agitates it like an overly aggressive bartender with a cocktail shaker–you have a mild sense of what driving on the road was like. The dune buggies were flying past, but we decided to take it slow to try to preserve the Wrangler and our internal organs. The rough road did provide incentive to periodically stop the car and the swaying and tossing and explore the surroundings–like Druif beach, shown above.

The Jeep-only trail runs along the coastline, heading directly southeast. The ocean clearly is a lot rougher on that side of the island, with the waves crashing into the land mass and lots of spraying surf. There are only a few small houses along the way, and it isn’t clear whether people live there currently. As you proceed along the trail, the coastline and roaring ocean is to your left, and to your right are lots of rock formations and dry areas, like that seen above

The coastline featured lots of different kind of rock formations, from a kind of spiny coral-type rock at Druif beach to some larger boulders and other kinds of rock as we moved southeast along the oceanfront. All of the rocks were getting pounded by the surf, and the surf, unfortunately, brought other things too–in some areas significant amounts of plastic debris from the ocean had washed up and been deposited on the rocky beaches.

After a long, bouncing ride over the rough road, we reached an interesting point at which the tide had cut a cave-like entrance through the coastline rock formation. I found myself wondering how long this feature would be able to hold up against the pounding surf before collapsing. You wouldn’t want to get into the water in this area, for fear of being smashed against the rocks by the rugged surf.

A little farther along the road we reached the Bushiribana ruins, which are the remnants of a large smelting works built in 1872 by the Aruba Island Gold-mining Company. According to our guide map, the smelting works were only in operation for 10 years, but the ruins remain. Kids and adults who were happy to be out of their cars were crawling all over the fallen rocks inside the ruins, but a few of the ocean-facing windows remain intact and provide a nice view of the Caribbean beyond.

Across the road from the ruins there is a field where people have constructed stone sculptures, as seen in the photo below. We weren’t tempted to construct one of them, but instead were motivated to find an exit from the Jeeps-only trail and back to the world of paved roads and civilization. Fortunately, after only a few more minutes of shake, rattle, and roll, there was a turnoff, and we took it with pleasure and relief. That means we didn’t follow the dirt track into the national park, but our kidneys thanked us for the sacrifice.

Sunset Shots

Aruba, like many Caribbean islands, is a great place for sunsets. Above is a photo of last night’s effort, taken as we were waiting to head to dinner at our resort. Below is tonight’s handiwork of Mother Nature, taken as we were having dinner at a seaside restaurant just south of Oranjestad, Aruba’s main town. We thought they were both pretty special.