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 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.
It’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.
So as one might imagine, as I was spending my Saturday doing fun things like violently sucking all of the dog hair up off the floor with the vacuum, waiting in line at the car wash, getting the car’s scheduled maintenance and getting my haircut, I wanted to be somewhere else today. Where? Park Güell, Barcelona’s ultra cool and beautiful park with these great viaducts and cool buildings and nice little shady alcoves to sit in and get away from everyone else.
Carolyn and I sat around for hours, enjoyed the street performers who lurked around every bend, and generally had a nice relaxing time with very little in the way of an agenda. Thank god for selfies.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We headed on up to one of the most iconic sights in Ephesus, The Library of Celsus.
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.
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.
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.
I expected to see this in my mind’s eye when we arrived on the ferry from Kos, but placing the Colossus in “the place it once stood” was much more difficult than I imagined. I did recognize our hotel as we motored past the beach we would stay on for the next three days, though. Thanks, Google Maps. After we arrived we had a tiny bit of difficulty finding our way to the hotel. It turns out the Old Town of Rhodes is an old medieval city with crazy confusing streets and alleyways and stuff that can be a bit disorienting. We took care of that as soon as we found a tourist information booth, and soon we were checking into our beach-front room on the other side of town. The wind was up a bit, so we hung out by the pool working on our tans before heading into town for a cheap meal of Gyros.
My memory is a little fuzzy on what happened next, but I’m pretty certain we spent the better part of the next two days staring at this view from either our balcony or the beach itself. The beaches on Rhodes are great. You could lay out on a towel if you wanted to, or you could pay 4 Euro for a ticket to use a city-owned beach chair and umbrella for the day. HELLO. After weeks of sightseeing, archaeological sites, and adventure, it was time to just chill out on the beach. The water was a little warmer, it was easy to get in and out of, and the sun was shining nonstop. We were even responsible enough adults to not get sunburned. I GUESS WE REALLY DID GROW UP.
Venturing into Rhodes’ Old Town
After a while, you feel like just laying in the sun is the kind of thing a serpent or turtle would do, and I guess it is, so you get up and do something. On our last day in Rhodes we headed into town in the morning to see some sights.
See? No need to worry, we got a good helping of culture while we were in Rhodes. It made for a good break from the sun. Of course, after a delicious lunch at this little place called Boukia Boukia, we were back out on the beach for the rest of our last day on the island. Greece is a beautiful, beautiful country. I don’t really know how to describe the depth and hue of the blue only than to say nothing on earth has ever seemed so blue to me. When you combine the cool sea with the hot, barren landscape, and the short, white buildings it’s just magical. I think the Greek Islands might be my favorite place on the planet so far. Well, let me rephrase. The Greek Islands are my favorite place on the planet so far, and with hundreds more to choose from, I can easily imagine many return trips to explore new places in the future.