Istanbul, the final destination

4 02 2009

Istanbul is wonderful, and my sad lack of notes in my travel journal is a sign that I was savoring every moment and didn’t want to stop for too long to write it down.  I loved being in Istanbul.  I wanted to try living there.  It’s beautiful, everywhere we went the people were friendly, the culture and history is fascinating, the food is delicious.  And lest you worry about the lack of content in this, my final post on our Europe 2006 trek, I surely made up for the dearth of words in photographs.

We stayed at the wonderful Dersaadet Hotel, a reconstructed 19th century Ottoman Mansion, in the center of  Istanbul (Sultanahmet).  The owner and staff were extremely friendly and helpful — in fact, on our last night there (we stayed five nights) they upgraded us to a larger room.  My favorite part of the hotel was the rooftop terrace where we had breakfast every morning and often returned to in the afternoon for tea.  The views from the terrace were amazing.  We slept with our window cracked the first night and the sound of the early morning call from one of the nearby minarets is something I will never forget.  I took this first set of photos from the rooftop terrace.

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A driver from the hotel met us at the airport and drove us to the hotel.  We arrived around 8 or 9 in the evening.  We were hungry for dinner but also a little tired out from our day of flying (we flew on Olympic Airlines from Rome to Istanbul with a long layover in Athens…but hey, my first “trip” to Greece!  I made a point of ordering Greek airport food…I will say this.  It definitely beats a lot of American airport food I’ve tried…) so we asked the hotel owner to recommend someplace close by where we could find dinner.  We ended up at Doy Doy across the street.  You have to walk up several flights of stairs, first through the ground floor (I’m not even sure this was part of the same restaurant), then through the smoking lounge, then you arrive at the rooftop where the restaurant is located.  We shared lamb kebabs and flatbread, lentil soup, and a hearty farmer’s salad of diced cucumbers, diced tomatoes, cubed cheese, fresh herbs, and a light lemon and oil dressing.  It was great…and filling!

We did a lot of walking in Istanbul.  On our first full day, we went to the Blue Mosque…  

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…and Topkapi Palace, built by Mehmet II between 1459 and 1465.

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Our first night, we ate at a restaurant called Develi, also recommended by our hotel.  They even arranged a ride to and from the restaurant for us.  In some ways it reminded me of going for dim sum, as waiters would bring dishes by and you would just say yes or no (I said yes a LOT).  We loved the little bowls of cheese, onions, and herbs on the table.  We also ate quite a lot of meat.  I remember everything being great and the rooftop terrace was very pleasant.

The next day we saw the Hagia Sofia, a structure more than 1400 years old.  It was built over two earlier churches and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537.  In the 15th century the Ottomans converted it into a mosque.  Inside it is a truly amazing and beautiful sight to see…

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Afterwards we went to the Basilica Cistern.  The cistern was built under Justinian in 532.  The Ottomans did not even know the cistern existed for a century after the conquest, and only rediscovered it after people were found collecting water, and even fish, by lowering buckets through holes in their basements.  The Medusa head bases are in a back corner of the vault, and are evidence of Byzantine plundering.  They are also really cool.

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We walked around afterwards until we found good spot for a Turkish coffee and kunefe, the delicious sweet cheese pastry.  In fact, I very much enjoyed the sweets in Turkey and sampled them often.   

We spent the next day shopping.  We walked around the Sultanahmet some, then over to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar.  While I found the two bazaars to be a visually stunning and beautiful, exciting place, I somehow did not take any photographs.  I also did very little shopping and left that up to Chris.  I am simply not good at negotiating and, quite frankly, I can’t stand it.  Chris, on the other hand, thrived on it and we found all kinds of goodies to bring home.

That night we had dinner on another rooftop terrace above a hotel, and for the life of me I cannot remember the name.  I remember that I had grilled fish and Chris had lamb, but I don’t remember it being especially great.  I will never forget our waiter, however…he was so cute!  You could tell he really enjoyed speaking English with us (even though I had really been trying hard to pick up more than just a few Turkish words!) and after every other sentence, it seemed, he’d exclaim “High five!” and hold out his hand for a slap from each of us.  It was great!  The funniest part of the meal came at the end.  We both ordered Turkish coffees with our dessert, and the waiter set one down in front of Chris, and one in front of me.  Mine, however, was completely wrapped in a paper napkin (saucer, cup, and all) that was twisted at the top.  He looked at me and said “a bomb!”  He then proceeded to pull out a lighter and light the little twist on fire so that the napkin flamed out revealing my coffee.  He was very proud.  It was really too funny. 

On our last day in Istanbul we walked along the Eminönü — the port area where ferries depart for trips along the Bosphorus.  Here we found some fantastic fish sandwiches.

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We left Istanbul on a 5am flight, which meant leaving our hotel around 3am or so.  Another couple at the hotel was also headed to the airport, so there were four of us in the car plus the driver.  The one odd thing we experienced occurred on this drive.  We were on what felt a little like a highway (at least it was a multi-lane fast-moving roadway) and we encountered a roadblock.  At this roadblock, officials (soldiers?) looked in the car and appeared to ask the driver for papers.  The discussion became quite heated between the driver and the officials.  Or course I had no idea what was going on.  They let us through, though, and we made it to the airport in plenty of time.  And thus began our journey home.  Three and a half weeks, five countries, more photographs than I know what to do with, and memories to last me a lifetime.  But really, this trip only whetted my appetite for travel.  I am hungry for more.

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Next-to-the-last stop, Rome

3 02 2009

We arrived in Rome late at night on the 12th of September, 2006, and made our way on foot from Termini train station to our hotel, the Hotel Montreal.  It’s right by the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore…

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and across the street from a coffee shop with “Illy” in the window (much to Chris’s excitement) and a barber shop where he later had the best shave of his life.

We spent five nights in Rome and I lapsed a bit in my note-taking.  I did manage to write down most of the highlights.  It was great to spend more time in one place…we did not feel rushed to fit in a million different things every day.  That being said, I’m sure I did not write down a lot of great experiences, but perhaps those gaps will be filled in by my photos.

On the 13th, we woke up, had a little breakfast at the hotel, then went to the coffee shop across the street and people-watched for a while.  The day was fairly relaxed — I even had time to find a laundromat and wash our clothes. 

That evening we set out on the “Dolce Vita” stroll (described in Rick Steves’ Italy book).  We walked from our hotel to the Spanish Steps, then to the Piazza de Popolo (the “starting point”) and walked down the Via del Corso to the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II.  It was fun to look in the windows of all the fancy shops. 

I took this shot not too far from our hotel.

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We decided to fuel up for our walk by enjoying a little gelato in the Piazza…

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By the time we made it to the monument, the sun was beginning to set.

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We had dinner that night at the Trattoria der Pallaro and it was great — and fun.  They have no menu, they just start bringing you food and wine.  We had a white wine, lentils and prosciutto for an appetizer, arancini (fried risotto balls that I cannot get enough of), pasta with mushrooms and a fabulous eggplant, and then veal steaks and potato chips.  For dessert we had a ricotta tort and juice.  This place was comfortable, even homey…and I loved waiting to see what they would bring out next. 

The next day we went to the Vatican and met up with Raul, our tour guide.  We called a company from our Rick Steves’ book (we found this book invaluable in Italy) to find him.  At first I was very opposed to doing the tour guide thing.  I have been very tired of seeing those groups of tourists go by with all of their little headsets, blindly following someone with a flag, getting in my way…but I am actually very glad we did.  For some place like this with so much history, it was perfect.  He was able to point out all kinds of little details and tell us about them…and I actually learned so much.  First we toured St. Peter’s Basilica… 

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I can’t resist photographing a member of the Swiss Guard.  I’m sure everyone does…but the uniforms are just too fantastic.

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Then we toured the Vatican Museum…

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I cannot remember the details, but this was, I believe, some of the original floor…

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This really impressed me because it was just a painting…

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Later that afternoon we went to the National Museum of Rome.  It has an amazing collection of ancient Roman sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and coins.  These were the highlights for me…

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We had dinner that night at a place near our hotel (it had started raining and we did not want to go far) — Ristorante del Giglio.  It was…not so great.  Almost had an institutional feel.  I did not take notes of my meal.

The next day we decided to tour the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Forum area.  Based on the grand success of our tour with Raul, we joined another tour group.  This tour guide — and I can’t recall her name — was not so good.  She was an American who had moved to Rome a few years earlier.  She was quite annoying, actually.  At one point she spoke one of my favorite lines of the trip:  “Look at this little crescent moon shape…a friend of mine always used to say it’s like a chessy cat.  I don’t know what a chessy cat is but that’s what he told me!”  Still, I learned a few things, and we did take in some amazing sights.  Chris, as usual, supplemented my history lessons with tidbits he had read.  These are sights we have all seen, but I would be remiss not to include at least a few…

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Later that night we had dinner at Ristorante il Gabriello.  The small, cute dining room felt like a cozy cellar.  We asked for the chef’s menu and were treated to an amazing meal.  We started out with a mixed seafood appetizer — two types of smoked fish and cold prawns, then an octopus and potato dish, a plate of asparagus and salamis, and then pasta with mushrooms and clams.  Next they brought us veal and a roasted fish.  Dessert was a chocolate tort served with a delicious cream or mousse of some sort.  Fantastic.

The next day, the 16th of September, Chris decided to spend a day filming, as he had forgotten to bring tapes with him two days earlier on the trip to the Vatican, and he forgot his camera all together on the trip to the Forum.  So, I went off to wander.  That night we had dinner at Ostaria da Giovanni ar Galleto on the Piazza Farnese.  The restaurant was in the corner of a quiet, peaceful piazza, and dinner was good — I won’t say it blew me away, but it was good.  Chris had the gnocchi and I had the carbonara.

In the six days we spent in Rome, we walked all over, we drank a lot of espresso and a lot of wine, and we ate well.  The sights were amazing, and the sense of age and of history was immense.  Our next and final stop would add a historical piece tied in many different ways to several stops throughout the trip — Istanbul, once the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.





And then we got to Florence…

30 01 2009

Florence was great.  What is really funny is that I actually had a little trouble adjusting when we first got there…I suddenly felt as if I was in a huge city and my nerves were quickly rattled.  I was completely on edge.  I blame the Cinque Terre.  I think I had been taken to such a nice level of calm relaxation I was not quite prepared for noise again.  For some reason this did not happen to me in Venice, but that was such a quick whirlwind that was shocking in other, different ways, perhaps I was too distracted…perhaps it was the lack of cars in Venice (it certainly was not the lack of people). 

Anyway, when we first arrived in Florence we set out on foot to find our hotel (all the while I’m jumping out of my skin any time a car speeds past or someone yells) and there has been another hotel mix-up, but this time it was our fault.  It’s really not easy to keep track of which day it is, and when you’ll be where, especially after spending a few days in complete relaxation (in fact, we stayed an extra night in the Cinque Terre because we didn’t want to leave).  So, somehow we arrived a day earlier than we had told the hotel owner.  Seems like it would have been later, right?  No…earlier…we counted wrong.  No big deal, though, as we were confirmed for the next two nights at that place, and the hotel next door had a room for us the first night. 

On our first night in Florence we had dinner in this little hole-in-the-wall spot — Trattoria Sostanza.  Oh my.  It was fabulous.  We shared the bisteca fiorentina and tortellini (stuffed with ham) with meat sauce.  We also had an artichoke pie — pretty much artichokes in egg with lots of butter, oil, and garlic (I think).  The steak was juicy — fantastic flavor.  And the meat sauce on the tortellini was rich, full of depth.  So delicious.  This definitely helps calm my nerves.

The next day, a Sunday, we poked around town.  We crossed the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio and up to the Oltrarno neighborhood where we walked through beautiful gardens above town and found magnificent views in the Piazzale Michelangialo. 

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The next morning we went up to the top of the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori) — beautiful.  The mural on the ceiling was fascinating and the views from the rooftop were breathtaking. 

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That night we had dinner at a place called Bibo…really, nothing to write home about.  So I won’t.  I don’t even remember what I ate.  The next morning we wandered through the Mercato Centrale.  I am in heaven here.  I make a mental note to return to rent an apartment next time we stay in Florence so we can shop here and do our own cooking.  Here are a few shots from the market.

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Okay, that was more than a few.  But I was in heaven!  You would take a lot of pictures too.

We ate lunch afterwards at this wonderful place and I did not write down the name.  How could I have done that?!  I do know what we ate, however.  We started with buffalo mozzarella as an appetizer.  I had pasta with tomatoes and basil and Chris had the Florentine crepes (filled with ricotta and spinach).  We shared a carafe of the house white wine.  After a nice nap back at the room, we had a quick dinner at a wine bar and then went to an organ and oboe concert at a church not too far from the Duomo.  We had seen fliers posted for it that morning and we thought it would be great to hear Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in a church in Italy…it was really cool.

The next day we went to the Bargello then walked south of the river to another fabulous restaurant – Alla Vecchia Bettola.  We started with paté on crostini and a couple of different varieties of meats and funghi.  I had the special pasta of the house — penne with vodka, tomato, and red chile.  It was delicious (and now something I love to make at home).  Chris had risotto with gorgonzola and some type of squash…perhaps acorn?  We also had a carafe of the house white wine.  Delicious.  After lunch we walked over to a local park and sat on a bench and dozed off occasionally while watching a few little kids play soccer for over an hour.  It was a gorgeous day and the kids were so cute.  A lovely afternoon.

Once we roused ourselves from the park bench we walked around some more, ending up at the Accademia.  David is a perfect, beautiful masterpiece.  Later that we night we caught a train to Rome.





Venice in 24 hours

26 01 2009

On Friday, September 8th we began our hellish trip to Venice.  Let me start by saying that I had been to Venice one time, maybe back in 1999 or 2000, and I was not exactly looking forward to our return trip.  I found it overcrowded and touristy.  But, Chris had never been and he did not want to take my word for it.  I really can’t blame him, either.  I mean, we’re here in Italy, we’ve all seen images of Venice…he does need to see for himself.

From Vernazza we took a train to La Spezia, then to Bologna, then to Venice.  Once in Venice we took a completely overcrowded boat (I’m still not sure how it stayed afloat) from the train station to the Piazza San Marco and battled our way through the massive crowds to the hotel we had called two days earlier (the Hotel Riva) only to discover that had not kept our reservation.  Chris maintained a calm anger and we sat and watched as the woman at the front desk started calling hotels for us, looking up every so often and telling us how it is very crowded, no rooms, etc.  To top things off, there were no seats on any trains leaving Venice that night.  We actually passed people crying at the train station, stranded in Venice.  Mayhem!

Anyway, after about 45 minutes, she finally found us a room at the Hotel Vivaldi at €300 a night!!  I can tell you that was NOT in our travel budget!  But, what could we do…things were going down hill fast.  This was, according to her, the last room in Venice.  At this point it felt like that to us, so we took it.  And it was lovely.  It was too expensive and too fancy, but a fun change of pace.  It was right along the Grand Canal just a couple of blocks from the Piazza San Marco.  We battled back across the crowds and checked in and headed straight for the rooftop garden for a glass of wine.  This is the view from the roof of our hotel. 

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After finally calming down and unwinding a bit, we headed out to the Piazza San Marco and went up into the bell tower where we encountered beautiful views.

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After taking in the view in all directions, we started walking around.  I did enjoy this aspect of our whirlwind Venice trip — we were actually able to find quiet little streets and even got turned around a few times (not hard to do here). 

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We had a great dinner that night at the Osteria de Mascaron, despite having to share a small table with another couple who looked to be enjoying a nice meal together until we joined them.  They were not speaking English, or Italian, Spanish, or French for that matter, so at least I wasn’t finding myself paying attention to their conversation.  We started out with the antipasto misto, which consisted of squid fixed two ways, conch, a white fish, and grilled vegetables.  For the main course we shared a delicious flat, wide, short pasta with crab and enjoyed a good white wine (house wine, of course) along with it.

After dinner we went to the Piazza San Marco again and sipped expensive coffee at Cafe Florian while listening to a quartet (accordion, piano, violin, and bass).  Apparently Woody Allen has sipped coffee here.  After coffee we got three gelatos — three, because my first one rolled right off the cone onto the ground.  So sad…

Saturday we had a huge breakfast at the hotel (included, thank goodness) and then toured the Doge’s palace.  It was very beautiful, though I’ll leave the history of this palace up to your own research.  Chris is my historian.  Here are a few shots from the palace.

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After another cup of coffee, it was time to catch a train to Florence.  Venice was crowded.  It even felt a little like Disneyworld, not that I’ve been.  I’m glad we went — at the very least I’m glad to have tested my first impression.  I’m sure there is a much better way to do Venice, but we did not have the time to dedicate to this portion of the trip and I guess it suffered for it.  I need someone to show me there’s more to Venice to this.  I saw a few lovely sights, and I had some good food.  I could have done without the stress, but…what are you gonna do?  I did score lots of really nice shampoos, conditioners, soaps, stationery, and other Hotel Vivaldi goodies!