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.

 

Not going anywhere for a while

Well, I’m probably not making any big trips any time in the near future (the next six months or so). My work schedule isn’t the most flexible, telecommuting isn’t really a thing in my line of work, and I just rebooted my career about six months ago. There’s probably a solid 12 month between now and the earliest possible time that I may be able to take off to go somewhere farther away than the borders of the U.S. When you look at it that way, it’s kind of a bummer, right? The good news is that I enjoy planning a trip almost as much as I enjoy going on one.

It starts out very broad. “Hey babe, where do you want to go for _____?” We’ll talk about different options for a long, long time. The mulling over of different possibilities could take months in time, and mountains in pastries. My wise aunt tells me that if you’re not on a trip you should be planning one. We’re still well ahead of the planning phase, more like in the “figuring out where we might want to go in the future” phase. I mean, we might be near the point of purchasing a book or two and reading up a little more on the places we would like to go, I guess, but not even guidebooks. Probably fiction.

I guess there’s two ways to look at it. The first is, I’m not going anywhere for a while, and that gets me down. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Life is too short and doesn’t contain enough free time to get bummed out about places you want to go right now but can’t. The other way is I’m not sure when I’ll be able to go, but I’d really like to visit _______. That’s more where I’m at. Honestly I enjoy a trip to the mall right now about as much as anything. Or the garden shop, or the coffee shop for that matter. There’s plenty of ways to make my own home an exotic destination (the key to this is not having my work desk at home. DONE.)

At any rate, I think Croatia is a strong contender. As is Greece. Scotland and England would be cool, too. Who knows?

Greece: I want to go back

Santorini, Greece

I guess that pretty much sums it up. Ha. Greece is where I’d like to be right now. Preferably one of the islands. Sitting in a taverna on a cliff looking out over the blue, blue water. Sweating a little in the heat. Eating those tomato balls, or grilled sardines, or an gyro from a vendor who puts french fries in it. That sounds nice. Jumping in the cool waves when the sun gets overbearing, touring some ancient ruins when the idea of another day on the beach seems too exhausting. Yes please. That sounds like a place I’d like to be. Good thing I don’t have to imagine what it would be like. I’m pretty sure that if you look up the word bliss in the dictionary you can find a map of Santorini. We’ve gotta get back to Greece. I think it’d be fair to call it my favorite place in the world.

Florence, Firenze, Fantastic

Florence, Italy

Florence is a beautiful city

Okay, that might be the understatement of the year. Florence is amazing. It’s so amazing that if I had a daughter I might petition Mrs. Primate to make Florence her middle name. Maybe Florenzo for a boy? Erm, no. Anyway, yesterday’s post about espresso got me thinking about how freaking nice Florence was when we visited on our honeymoon. What’s not to like about the city that started the renaissance? It’s basically the epicenter of arts, humanities, and scientific discoveries that helped us get out of the dark ages and move into the modern era. The streets are narrow, the buildings old, and when it’s time for mass the church bells sound from all directions in a rather disorienting fashion. The streets bustle with people selling leather goods and touristic souvenirs, and oh yeah, there’s art everywhere. Important Art. Art by the ninja turtles.

Florence, ItalyIt’s not the art or the food or the leather or the beauty of the city that’s on my mind today, though. It’s one of those things that you remember later that just seems magical in retrospect, that at the time just seemed pretty cool. The picture above is Piazza della Signoria, kinda the main drag of Florence. This piazza was once frequented by the Medici and their associates, and it’s bordered by the Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Vecchio. Within the piazza are dozens of statues, a beautiful fountain, and plenty of places where you can buy a 12 euro scoop of gelato. We spent some time eating the very expensive frozen treat here during the day, but one night after dinner we stopped at a caffe on the plaza for a limoncello and dessert and were rewarded with a great display of performance art.

A projector was playing a film of dancers doing a contemporary dance performance among the statues and columns of the loggia that sits just outside Palazzo Vecchio. I think there were selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet mixed with some hip-hop beats and stuff, and our seat at the caffe had a perfect view of the show. It looped every 20 minutes or so, so we watched it a couple times as we downed our limoncelli. Isn’t limoncello wonderful?

Anyhow, after watching the dance performance superimposed on the beautiful renaissance art work, we called it a night, but that limoncello! Those dancers! Dat Piazza Doe! It’s not a memory that I thought would be a standout from our honeymoon, but here I am, nearly a year later, wishing I could be sipping Limoncello and eating some sort of chocolate thing in Piazza della Signoria with Carolyn, watching the same kind of video-art exhibit I usually walk right past in the Met or the MoMA. It’s amazing what a difference a beautiful setting can make.

 

Espresso: My first impression of Italy

Espresso. It’s one of those words that causes me fits because of its inevitable mispronunciation. I literally grind my teeth when someone says expresso. It’s been this way ever since I worked at the Cafe in a Border’s book store during my first year of college. Now, espresso is today’s topic not because I want to share a recipe, tell you how I’ve been trying to hack my Keurig to make a decent faux espresso shot so I can make a damn latte without buying another machine (though that IS the truth), or talk about coffee in general. The purpose of this post is to tell you why this picture makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

Lawn work complete #coffee time.

A post shared by Charlie (@daddyprimate) on

You see, I got married just about a year ago, and we went to Europe for a long honeymoon. I think about that trip every day because everything was just so freaking perfect for those six weeks and we hadn’t yet been subjected to the difficulties of finding “real” jobs in the U.S. yet, or any of the other challenges that we’d have the opportunity to overcome during our first year of marriage. Yeah. I think about those six weeks a LOT. At any rate, this post risks becoming about now when it’s supposed to be about then.

It was sometime well after midnight when we made the crossing from France to Italy, and I can’t tell you exactly where it happened. So far as I know, we got on the bus at Marseilles and got off in Florence, with one rest stop in between where I managed to somehow recover my vestibular system enough to not puke the whole ride to Florence. The ride was filled with what seemed to be sheer drops to the waterfront below, stunning vistas (that were completely dark) and road signs that at some point switched from French to Italian. When we made the rest stop, I wasn’t really sure if we had crossed the border or not. Until I walked into the bus station to use the facilities.

When I walked in, the smell of espresso hit me like a cargo van at top speed. POW. Yeah, I was awake now! There was a line of tall, slim, dark haired men speaking rapid, loud Italian drinking espresso from demitasses at the cash register. There’s nothing like finding out that a place is essentially as it seems on TV first hand, ya know? It didn’t stop there, though, this truck stop was an amalgam of stereotypes that would have made any afraid-to-generalize American blush. There were bundles of pasta. Breadsticks. Limoncello. All set in gift boxes to bring back to your family or loved ones when you got off the bus. I thought, okay, I can handle Italy, and it sure isn’t Marseilles!

So what did I do? I didn’t get an espresso. I thought it would interfere with me being able to sleep on the bus. Not that sleeping on the bus was going to be anywhere in the vicinity of reality anyhow. I should have had one. Damn. Then again, it’s not like I lacked for espresso over the ten days we spent in Italy. I’m pretty sure my veins were running with it by the time we left.

Now, the other day I was in the grocery store and saw that can of grounds and thought, I may not have the time flexibility or money to take Carolyn back to Italy right now, but I could sure go for an espresso. For the record: putting the medium grind espresso beans in the my K-cup attachment and brewing it works pretty okay. It doesn’t give you a great crema, but it tastes fine. Pour some milk on it and you’d never know the difference if you look on the sunny side. 😉

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.