Ruins

Athens, Greece

I love ruins. The older they are, the better. I love walking among fallen columns, crumbling facades, and on broken streets. I like to imagine what life might have been like in these places when they were still populated, you know, before everything was ruined. Ruins, along with old churches, stunning beaches, and of course the food, are my favorite thing about traveling through Europe. They’re everywhere. They haven’t been destroyed in the name of progress, and sometimes progress gets destroyed in the name of archaeology. What a great set of priorities!

Pompeii

Now, why do I like the crumbling old ruins so much? I think it has to do with the same reasons I’m a sucker for reality TV. I have an active imagination and love wondering what other peoples’ lives are like. I like to see “how the other half lives.”

Pompeii

Ruins certainly let your imagination run wild. Bathhouses, brothels, coliseums, temples, and even bakeries and bars can really let you wonder just what went on in this place before you managed to make it here. Sometimes you don’t really have to wonder, the writing (pictures) is/are still on the walls.

Ephesus, TurkeySometimes the ruin you’re looking at doesn’t seem like much at all, but you know that it’s all that remains of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This kind of thing can really boggle the mind.

At any rate, I love ruins, and “ruins” starts with “R,” so there it is.

 

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Istanbul (Not Constantinople): The Bazaars

The following bit of dialogue may be a bit dramatized for theatrical flair:

The scene: Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, a bustling and ancient shopping mall flooded with people. The smell of spices wafts through the air. Mass produced rugs are sold to tourists for breathtaking prices all around. Turkish men forcefully sell tea to anyone who passes by. This is the dramatic epicenter of everything you’ve ever seen about Istanbul on TV. Turkish delight beckons you through the glass of the little shops at every corner.

“Hello my friend. I will make you the best price on a real Turkish rug! Where are you from? London?” Says the shopkeeper you’ve avoided making eye contact with as you browse through the bazaar.

“Oh, we may come back to speak with you later. Right now we’re really not sure if we’re looking for a rug.”

“Russell Crowe bought a rug from me last week.” The rug salesman whips out his smart phone and shows me a picture of Russell Crowe buying a rug from him.

“If Russell Crowe is buying rugs from you, your shop is clearly out of my budget.”

Now, this wasn’t the last we would hear of how awesome Russell Crowe is from Turkish shopkeepers and restaurant owners, nor the last photo we’d see of Russell Crowe standing with very proud Turkish men selling their wares, but it was pretty typical of the sales experiences we ran up against in the bazaars of Istanbul. When trying to purchase a suitcase we ran into a really aggressive guy who told us the suitcase in the next stall over (same brand, different color) was “crap” with “shoddy workmanship” and that was why he couldn’t go below 100 lira. I laughed and walked away and he offered it for 50 lira. Then 30 lira. We kept walking. The bazaars were one of the things I was most looking forward to, and they certainly didn’t disappoint.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar is nothing if it’s not colorful.

The Grand Bazaar in the Sultanahmet area is nuts. It’s like a gated city all its own, filled with colorful characters, interesting smells, experiences, and confident Turkish shopkeepers that can locate the place of your birth to within a few meters by your accent. They most definitely speak your native tongue, as well. We walked around through the maze of corridors planning to come back and make some purchases, only to be surprised that the whole thing was closed the day we came back! We were disappoint.

Now, we had spoken to a nice young man in a shop outside of the bazaar that told us to price check anything we found in the bazaar with the outside world, and we did. We ended up getting a much better price on a couple of pillows on the street than we would have in the bazaar, but you know, part of the whole experience of Turkey would have been lost had we not been in one of the oldest continuously active shopping centers in the world, right? When we did make our unsuccessful return to the Grand Bazaar for our final bit of shopping we didn’t really know what to do, so we headed down a side-street that was lined with shops, but they were selling all everyday items like socks, underwear, cigarettes, and that kind of stuff. Seeing as we didn’t really want any of that crap at the moment, we decided to just move right on. Then we found another bazaar. The Spice Bazaar. HELLO.

I was apparently pretty over-it by this point. I do remember it being a hot day, and we walked and walked and walked. When we found the Spice Bazaar we were intrigued, tired, and I think the smell of the spices made me a bit woozy. It would seem that I didn’t take any pictures inside. It was pretty amazing though. Shops lined with buckets and buckets of spices. Saffron so cheap that I almost wanted to buy some, but I didn’t think I’d be able to bring Iranian saffron back into the U.S., the small bric-a-brac we wanted to buy at the Grand Bazaar. It was all there. We made our way through a bit, then headed outside to a nice surprise, one of the imperial mosques.

I’m not sure of the name of this mosque, but it was essentially as ginormous as any of the ones we’d seen in Istanbul, with the added benefit of about a million pigeons circling. People of all origins milled about in the courtyard enjoying bread off the street vendors, feeding the pigeons, and in general having a good time. I think the cool breeze calmed my stomach a bit, and now that we knew where we were again (once you find the Bosphorus Strait it’s pretty easy to tell where you’re at in Istanbul) I felt a lot better about how long it would be before I could sit down with a cup of coffee.

The Galata district of Istanbul staring at us from across the strait.

This was basically it. We had to get up super early for our flight back to the U.S. the next morning. We wanted to get cleaned up before dinner, and get to bed early so we wouldn’t spend the whole flight home writhing in agony aboard uncomfortable airline seats wishing we could just get some sleep. We laid down early, watched a bit of TV, and got a few hours of sleep before heading back home.

I traveled across an entire continent with this beautiful lady. And I get to keep her, too!

So, I’d kinda like to toot my own horn a bit. Carolyn was busy planning the wedding after our contracts in Korea ended, and I was busy planning our honeymoon. I think I did a pretty great job. I can’t imagine any better way to start our married life together than by galavanting across Europe together, hand in hand, eating anything that looked delicious and didn’t move, and enjoying more than a few bottles of wine. We saw tons of beautiful, beautiful sights. We heard a lot of different languages. We swam in our fourth ocean together (the Mediterranean), we had all sorts of adventures (getting on wrong trains, getting on out of service trains, overnight bus trips through northern Italy) and even managed to get in an adventure on an alternative vehicle. When life happens now, I think back to how perfect everything was when we were on that ATV in Santorini with the wind in my face and Carolyn holding on for dear life to my waist as we headed off to some beach, or how dorky I must have sounded reading her facts about the Hagia Sofia as we waited to get in. It was wonderful. Maybe even perfect. The best part was that I got to do it all with Carolyn and we’ve added even more memories and stories to our history together. I’m pretty fortunate, non?

Istanbul (not Constantinople): The Basilica Cistern

Istanbul - Basilica Cistern

Hundreds of columns, water, and echoes fill Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern.

Below the bustle of the streets not far from the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is the Basilica Cistern of Istanbul. Long ago, before the city was Istanbul, you know, when it was Constantinople, the Basilica Cistern housed the city’s water supply. Now it’s a place for tourists to see, with its 336 marble columns creating a dark, damp space with pretty wonderful acoustics. The space is essentially a cavern of red lights and reflections distorted by the waves of the water that lap gently just below the walkway.

Istanbul - Basilica Cistern

Istanbul - Basilica Cistern

Talk about a place for reflection. (See what I did there?)

Istanbul - Basilica Cistern

This column is particularly notable for its teardrops.

 

Istanbul - Basilica Cistern

A horde of people push and shove their way to the edge of the platform to get a picture of the Medusa heads.

Our visit to the Basilica Cistern was about as typical as one’s visit could be, I imagine. We headed down the slick stairs into the darkness, made a lap around the walkway, enjoying the views of the rows of columns, the light, and the darkness. Eventually we reached the columns with the head of Medusa. The informational signs (and my limited knowledge of classical art) suggested that the head of Medusa was often used as a protective ornament to keep evil away. That’s why you might also see it commonly used on shields and armor plates. I guess the city’s water supply is the kind of thing you might want to keep evil away from.

Istanbul - Basilica Cistern

Don’t look too closely, she’ll turn you into stone.

There’s not really much to say about this place that pictures can’t tell you. It’s one of those places that’s far easier to just look at pictures of than to describe. It was super cool however, to come home, read a great novel by one of my favorite contemporary authors, and find that the climax of the whole storyline occurred right there in the cistern, where I stood just a few weeks prior.

Istanbul (Not Constantinople): The Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

The Blue Mosque is a monumental and iconic sight with otherworldly domes and minarets.

If the Hagia Sophia is my architectural girlfriend, then the Blue Mosque is the mysterious lady across the bar who speaks in a language I vaguely understand and orders expensive drinks. I mean this in the most figurative way possible. In fact, cancel that metaphor, as given that the Blue Mosque is a mosque she wouldn’t be drinking at all. If the Hagia Sophia is my architectural girlfriend, then the Blue Mosque is the beautiful, mysterious, sophisticated lady that you see across the room at a party who tugs at all of your desires but always manages to remain all the way across the room from you and you never even get to start a conversation with her because just what the hell would you talk about with her anyway? Jeez. What kind of parties do I go to?

Blue Mosque - Hagia Sophia - Istanbul

Looking at the Blue Mosque from the Hagia Sophia is like Michael Phelps admiring Ryan Lochte from afar.

At any rate, if I understand the history behind this whole thing even a little bit, Sultan Ahmet was so taken by the architecture of the Hagia Sophia that he had his architect, Sedefkar Mehmet Aga, design a whole series of Imperial mosques emulating the general aesthetic of the Hagia Sophia, but on a much grander (hard to imagine) scale. Well, it mostly worked. While the Hagia Sophia is amazing, you have to consider that it was built something like 1500 years ago, and the Blue Mosque had about 1,000 years of more highly developed engineering, construction, and material technology to become so much more grand. I mean, you know, the Romans Byzantines didn’t do so bad with the Hagia Sophia.

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

The scale of this building is really deceptive. It doesn’t look small or anything from a distance, but up next to it you really feel dwarfed.

At any rate, let’s talk about our visit to the mosque. We have walked by mosques all over the world, in Thailand, Hong Kong, New York, lots of places. We’ve never been in one before and had no idea what to expect. I had some idea of what the art style would be, as Islamic art typically features beautiful repetitive patterns, lots of script from the Koran, and no pictures of people. Knowing that the design was a riff on that of the Hagia Sophia I expected to see something similar to what we had seen across the park, with domes and such. I didn’t expect much else, because expectations are for scrubs, and Carolyn don’t want no scrub.

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

From the courtyard it’s clear how big this mosque is.

As we made our way through the gauntlet of vendors selling headscarves to western tourists, Carolyn whipped out the scarf she had been carrying across the continent, covered her shoulders, and we walked right into the courtyard. It. Was. Grand. The starkness of the clean stone path, the pointedness of the minarets, and the grey color of the stone reminded me a bit of a cathedral, but in a much more elegant way. The line took about 20 minutes to get to the door, and at the door we kicked off our shoes, Carolyn covered her head, and we walked into the Blue Mosque as welcome visitors in a place whose religion is, frankly, as foreign to me as it gets.

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

The highest dome in the Blue Mosque.

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

Underneath one of the massive half-domes in the Blue Mosque.

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

If I didn’t know this was a mosque, I might think it was a church with all of the stained glass and whatnot.

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

The amazing tile work is where the Blue Mosque gets its name.

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

The original red carpets of the Blue Mosque. They’re still in great shape at going on 500 years

At the recommendation of a commenter on this blog, I had purchased Strolling Through Istanbul: A Guide to the City by John Freely. In the book he mentioned that the carpets in the mosque were the original carpets installed over 400 years previously. You might imagine that they didn’t smell supremely fresh (it could have been the feet of all of the tourists that filled the air with the aroma of corn chips, as the faithful wash their feet before entering), but boy oh boy were they beautiful. I heard once that a well crafted Turkish or Persian rug would last essentially forever, and the rugs in the mosque looked as if they were brand new. I can’t imagine how many millions of people have trampled these rugs. Holy craftsmanship, Batman.

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

It’s like a mathematical explosion in my head.

Now, when we’ve visited massive religious sites like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or even the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, I’ve managed to sense that the architects were inspired beyond the normal levels of achievement. These spaces tend to be beautiful. The Blue Mosque is no different. The domes, half domes, and generally curved profile of the building is as stunning on the inside as it is on the outside. The amount of light that enters the worship space is incredible, and the height of the ceilings is such that you might feel that it reaches all the way to the heavens, doubly so if you were to enter this place 400 years ago. The Blue Mosque gets its name from the dazzling white and blue tiles that line its interior, lending a much less blue feeling than you might imagine based on the name alone, but the repetitive patterns established by the tiles would send the mathematically inclined person into a coma filled with equations, I might imagine.

Blue Mosque - Istanbul

A close-up of that stained glass. I’d forgive you for thinking this was the wall of a church somewhere.

At any rate, I was more taken by the similarities than the differences between this massive mosque and the massive churches I’ve been in. I really think that most of the difference is in the art style and the picayune of the religions. It’s pretty amazing to walk on the same carpets that the sultans of the Ottoman Empire walked on at the height of their power, and I don’t think there’s really that many places in Istanbul that can give you a feel of what the old Ottoman Empire might have been like as much as the Imperial Mosques and palaces. When they talk about the old cliche “east meets west” crap in Istanbul you think, “oh, I think it’s ridiculous to focus on that,” but then when you see why it’s pretty in your face.

Istanbul (Not Constantinople): The Hagia Sophia

Somewhere in the murky, media-soaked confines of my brain, I always knew I’d go to Istanbul one day. It’s one of those places that you’ve heard about, you’ve seen in movies and television shows, and seems a little familiar. The thing is, the familiarity you identify is that of a cartoon villain rolling up a kidnapping victim in a rug. Our arrival in Istanbul included an airport shuttle ride past all of the police water cannons being used to disperse protesters. Our companions in the airport shuttle were Syrian refugees who had just fled Damascus. The stop and go traffic was a vomit-inducing thrill ride, and it ended just outside the Grand Bazaar, ten really confusing blocks from our hotel. We finally made it, got checked in, had to renegotiate our room because it had two twin beds, and finally, FINALLY relaxed. After a shower and a nap, we headed out to get the lay of the land.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Holy cow! It’s the Hagia Sophia!

Walking through the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul is nutty. Look left and you see the Hagia Sophia. Look right and it’s the Blue Mosque.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

OMG! It’s the Blue Mosque!

That first night went fast. We found our way to a street filled with restaurants recommended on an Istanbul food blog. We listened to the trance-inducing wails from the minarets when it was time for evening prayers. We poked through piles of knock-off handbags in the street, then we went to bed so we’d get a good start on sightseeing in the morning.

The Hagia SOphia

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The space on the inside of the Hagia Sophia is one of the most impressive demonstrations of light and space I could imagine.

As we waited in line for about thirty minutes or so to get into the Hagia Sophia, I read a bit from a book that one of my readers suggested. It’s called Strolling Through Istanbul and it’s got about a metric buttload of good information about the various sites and such. When we entered I was almost kind of overwhelmed. I say almost because I think once you’ve been inside La Sagrada Familia that all other earthly architecture gets knocked down a peg. Well, sort of. The amount of open space in this ancient church turned mosque turned museum is pretty amazing.

Istanbul, Hagia Sophia

Look! I’m #gracefacing in the Hagia Sophia!

About a thousand books and blogs make the ultra-cliche “east meets west” case for the Hagia Sophia. I will be no different. This is where Asia and Europe collided when the Ottomans rose to power in the area. It’s where the Roman Empire fled when Rome was sacked. It’s where the Ottomans ruled like half of Europe, North Africa, and the entire Middle East. This ancient church is one of the world’s most distinctive mosques. This isn’t just a culture crash, it’s like a thousand culture-car-pileup. And it’s wonderful.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The old artwork of the Holy Roman Empire is peeking back through as the Islamic art that used to cover it ages.

 

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The main gallery is huge. The low-hanging chandeliers really make the height of the ceiling even more imposing.

I’m not really sure how long we walked around the Hagia Sophia, but it was long enough to work up a big appetite. Every time we tried to leave though, we found something new to look at.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

I’m not sure what the Islamic counterpart to a pulpit is, but they look functionally similar to me.

Even in a place as beautiful as this, your stomach will eventually drive you out in search of food. We left the Hagia Sophia and walked back to the street where we had enjoyed dinner the night before. Afternoon prayers had just let out, so we were salmon swimming upstream in a sea of men. We sat down at a place and eventually realized that the kebabs on offer were all made of offal. We were looking for something a little bit easier. A place down the street had chicken doner kebabs. We had two. They were delicious.

 

 

Exploring Ephesus

After our Turkish Night in Marmaris we took the four hour bus ride over to Izmir. We were a bit nervous because the protests against the Turkish government had basically exploded since we arrived. Everything we could see about the situation from our experience seemed somewhat different than what was on the news, however, so we decided to just keep going as planned and be cautious. On arrival in Izmir we were a bit lost. There were basically no signs in English, and no obvious public transit system to get us to our hotel. As protests were typically happening after dark, we figured we only had a short time to get to our hotel and batten down the hatches for the night (if needed), so we broke down and took a cab. The hotel was gaudily decorated with everything Florentine, Egyptian, Persian, and gilded, but it was pretty nice. A quick trip around the block found us staring at hundreds of police officers and stacks of riot gear, so we had a kebab and settled in for the night.

The next morning we woke up, had breakfast, and decided to head to Ephesus. We knew that we could take a train from the station about 200 meters up the street at 9:00am, so we showed up early, bought tickets, followed the directions to the platform, got on the train marked “IZMIR-DENIzLI” and sat down. The train departed ten minutes early and then stopped. A few minutes later, after managing to maintain my own calmness, we heard a shouting match in Turkish. A man asked us something, then switched to English and asked us where we were going. Then he started yelling at the conductor. The train was out of service, and no one bothered to tell the passengers on board. The conductor insisted we walked back to the station, the man who spoke to us yelled some more and the train made its way back. We all waited as the elder guardian angel chewed out the ticket booth, and then informed us we were all stuck until 11:25 and there was nothing we could do but drink tea. Oh well. We had some coffee and returned to the station and took the train to Selcuk as planned, had lunch, and walked the three kilometers out to Ephesus.

Temple of Artemis - Ephesus, Turkey

The Temple of Artemis – the one world wonder I can’t seem to ever complete when playing Civilization V.

The first stop on our little walkout to the ancient city was the Temple of Artemis, or the Artemision. I was squeeing like a schoolgirl when we saw the sign pointing off to the right of the nice little tree-lined road. We walked about 50 meters down and found the temple, or what was left of it, under the bluest Turkish sky. It’s pretty amazing that there’s anything left of this temple, and it’s not too difficult to imagine what it would look like when it was in its heyday, with 136 columns and a raised platform dedicated to the goddess of the hunt.

Ephesus - Great Theater - Turkey

The first big site of our tour through ancient Ephesus, the great theater.

After a bit more walking we found ourselves at the lower gates of Ephesus, paid our admission, and headed up the marble road that was once the main thoroughfare through the city. The first site was the massive great theater. We followed some people off-the-trail through a field of felled columns and broken marbles to its entrance and climbed up for a better view.

Ephesus - Great Theater

The Great Theater of Ephesus

We sat here for a while, and it really wasn’t difficult at all to imagine what this place would have looked like filled with Greeks watching one of their tragedies or comedies.

Ephesus, Great Theater, Turkey

See? We literally sat here.

As we sat here enjoying the view (of the marble road and the perfect little puffs of clouds over the hill tops in the distance) a couple went down to the stage and did a bit of ballroom dancing. It was pretty charming.

Ephesus, Turkey

The Marble Road from the Great Theater

We headed on up to one of the most iconic sights in Ephesus, The Library of Celsus.

Library of Celsus - Ephesus, Turkey

Library of Celsus – Ephesus, Turkey

The Library of Celsus is sort of the signature post-card venue in Ephesus. We went inside, but couldn’t find anything to read. As usual it’s pretty hard to find fiction you’re interested in with the ancient tablet-card-catalog system. Haven’t these people heard of the Dewey Decimal system? Seriously, though, inside, the library is pretty impressive. There are ginormous grottoes for statues of various deities, the largest of which was probably Athena. From here we headed back up the marble road through an area that had a brothel and some houses.

Ephesus, Turkey

A reconstructed Archway along the marble road in Ephesus.

Marble Road - Ephesus, Turkey

I don’t have words for how much I hated myself for not putting in my contacts and wearing sunglasses. This marble road was so. bright.

Herculean Gate, Ephesus

The Herculean Gate…with images of Hercules himself. I always figured he’d be a bit more ripped and less flabby.

Once we crossed through this gate we headed took the short walk to the end of the city, passing a fountain and finally ending up at the Odeion, where the city government would meet and sort out their important issues…like the scheduling at the brothel and why there aren’t enough copies of the new Dan Brown book at the library. That’s my guess.

The Odeion of Ephesus, Turkey

The Odeion

After this little stop, we paid a visit to the kitty cats living in the Library on our way out of town, and took the short little walk back to Selcuk, making it to the train station about 10 minutes before the next train back to Izmir. Someone had been killed during the previous day of protesting (by an out of control Taxi of all things), so we decided to play it safe and got back to the hotel just before dark.

Funny story: At this point we started looking into our flight to Istanbul, and I realized I booked the flight for 11:25pm instead of 11:25am. We didn’t want to spend an extra day in Izmir, so I tried to call the airline to make the changes with no luck. The next morning I called Expedia and they made the changes no problem, for $50 or so. Hilariously, that doubled the price of the flight to Istanbul. I also realized the airport we were flying into wasn’t Istanbul Ataturk International, but Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen which is 60km away from the city. Shit. Good thing we checked early, or else I would have had a bit of a nasty surprise for our trip to Istanbul in a couple days.

 

 

 

Turkish Night: Our arrival in Marmaris, Turkey

I had purchased ferry tickets from Rhodes to Marmaris on the internet a few weeks before the trip. The ferry ride across was a little less luxurious than we were accustomed to at this point, but it was quick and Poseidon was kind enough to bless us with calm seas. When we neared the Turkish coastline we went outside to take a few pictures, and holy cow was the setting stunning. Cliffs enveloping the harbor on all sides, blue water, barren land, and mosques everywhere.

We arrived and had to wait about twenty minutes for Immigration to arrive so we could pay for our visas, and once in the country it was a short cab ride to our hotel. Unknowingly, I had booked a bit of a luxury hotel, and we were happy to find one of the nicest rooms on our trip thus far waiting for us with fluffy pillows, pristine sheets, and even comfortable mattresses. We were also happy to find that the hotel had its own hamam or Turkish Bath. I made an appointment and inquired about where we might see a Turkish Night (and then made those arrangements).

The Hamam

The Turkish Bath was nuts. First was the problem of figuring out what to wear. It turns out bathing suits are perfectly appropriate for this kind of thing. First they put us in a sauna where we roasted for what felt like a long time but was in actuality only a few minutes, then we cooled off for a minute. They led us into a marble room with a heated marble slab in the middle where we laid down, and then whoosh! COLD WATER. Cold water never felt so good. After the shock, came warm water, bubbles, a massage, and then more cold water. I never in my life have felt as clean as I did after this, nor as loose and relaxed. It was the Perfect setup for the Turkish Night to follow.

The TUrkish Night

The Turkish Night was a wedding gift from a good buddy of mine. It’s sorta like a Turkish version of a luau. Dinner, free-flowing wine, and dancing. It was absolutely nuts. Carolyn got on stage a couple times, once with two reaaaaaaaallly big snakes. There was Turkish delight. Tea. Coffee. Wine. Wine. Wine. Did I mention that there was wine? At any rate, what I remember of it is all on this video I made on my lovely little iPhone. Yes, that’s a male belly dancer.

All of this wildin’ out led to a bit of a slow morning the next day. We had to leave Marmaris for Izmir, where protests were occurring (as they were all over Turkey). The avalanche of “BE CAREFUL OMG DON’T DIE” Facebook messages from family and friends was a bit overwhelming (and harshed our buzz unnecessarily, it turns out), and we had no idea what we could expect when we arrived in Izmir, but we loaded up on the bus and took the four hour ride anyway. Buses in Turkey have free wifi.