Sunday, March 29, 2015

Euro Spring 2015 - Part 4 - Mosaics and The Photo Yoda

Where Our Heros
  • Have to endure a second Daylight Savings Time hour loss
  • Find they understand the transit system better than the app
  • Make use of sign language to get directions to a place 300 Meters away
  • Fight the heathen hordes to see magnificent art
  • Are immersed in the Camera Yoda's way
  • Are introduced to areas of the city beyond any expectations
  • And battle the cash machine demons
OMB are we tired.  I swear when we get to Malta we are going to chill and relax.  Our day started the night before when we get a call from our front desk telling us that we're changing to Daylight Savings time here.  We just did that two weeks ago in New Mexico so we lose another hour of sleep.  Boooo.

Our big thing today is the first of two tours we've booked to do photography.  The guy offering this worked as a photographer and editor at National Geographic.  We're not meeting him until late lunch time and we're going to be doing exploring in the area called the Golden Horn.  We decide to go to one of the sites that is located out in that area which is way in the West compared to the other major sites.  I used my 'Trafi' app again to figure out how to get said place.  The app said you couldn't get to where we are going from where we are by public transportation.  I said, "What? No Way."  I got out some maps and found that I could take the T-1 tram that we'd been on before in the other direction and there was a place where you could transfer to the T-4 tram which goes north to a stop just a short distance from our destination.  Score one for de-I

Getting to the tram stop looked easy enough...except for the gigantic hill you have to climb...many glares from Wife...and we caught the trams straight away.  Making the transfer was another matter.  There was clear signage in the station of the transfer but when we got up, I couldn't see any signs.  I tried asking a security guy.  Of course the translation app I bought said it couldn't work because the data connection was too slow (booooo), Saying T-4 didn't work.  But when I gave the name of our destination, Kariye Muzesi, there was "Ahhh.  (indistinguishable Turkish) (pointing in a direction where there was  a clear sign that said 'T-4', more Turkish, the name of our stop (which I knew), a slashing across his arm to indicate getting off, repetition of all the above.  I got it.  I said thanks (in broken Turkish) and we were off.  A little bit of wandering around after we got to the stop and we were there.

The Kariye Muzesi or Chora Church is one of the best preserved examples of Byzantine mosaic work and frescoes in world.  Of course there are lots of pictures in the guides showing it but none of them can do justice for the incredible perspective, emotional impact of the scenes (non-bible story of the Mother Mary and Jesus), and the detail of the mosaic work.  Our enjoyment was somewhat offset by the onslaught of tour bus visitors.  They act like they own the place and never watch where there going.  I've adopted an aggressive posture with them where I stand my ground and have elbows and shoulders firmly harden so if people are mindlessly following their group and hit me, they know they've been hit.  Works well.  A major part of the church was closed for restorations so that was disappointing too.

Then it was on to our photo tour.  We met the photographer at a nearby restaurant, Asitane, that is know for its replication of Ottoman Empire court cuisine.  We didn't really delve into it too much because we wanted to get going with the photography.  This guy is really a trip.  In a lot of ways it was very difficult for Wife because his approach to photography is very people oriented (Wife is not a gregarious people person).  He feels you need a person or some kind of action to make any landscape really shine.  He's also a believer in knowing enough about your camera that you can quickly set two or three variables and take a shot as the opportunities come and go quickly.  With Wife using a new camera, and still getting used to it, she was frustrated.  I will see if I can get Wife to do a guest post so she can write in more detail about this.  And we're going out with him tomorrow, so she will most likely tell him to slow down.

We spent five hours wandering around various neighborhoods...clearly not upscale neighborhoods...with him.  Him going up to various strangers and getting them to let him take their picture.  We climbed up the old city walls (freaking scary as shit), went to a place where men sold birds (BIG deal evidently in the culture), got to see and meet people we never normally would have dreamed of making contact with.  The attitude toward children and the camera was so different than our paranoid US behavior.  Kids loved having their picture taken and the parents were happy for them to have done so.  Our photographer clearly makes the rounds of these neighborhoods because he had some pictures of some of the kids to drop off.  It was really a very different experience and a way to see how people really live.

The only problem from my perspective was carrying two packs for five hours.  I was totally wiped out.  We were running out of cash and needed to recharge our transit card.  Unfortunately our cab driver didn't understand that and dropped us off quite a ways toward our hotel.  We had to track back, wander around to find a cash machine, find it didn't take our card, wander around and find another one that thankfully worked, recharged the transit card, stumbled all the way back to our hotel, went out had dinner, came back and collapsed.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Euro Spring 2015 - Part 3 - The Food Tour

Where Our Heros
  • Find the limits to Uber
  • See more of the city than they would ever have imagined
  • Find the cowboy hat problem only is in the main tourist district
  • Are introduced to more foods than one could possibly think
  • Become public transit virgins in Istanbul no more

Today was devoted to a food tour.  We chose a tour from the operator Culinary Backstreets. I have nothing but praises for the tour and our guide.  But more on that later.  This little adventure of ours covered three and half pages of notes and 71 pictures!  How to distill it? 

Well let's start with getting to the start of it which was a bit stressful.  The start was quite a ways north of where we are.  I didn't know if we should take a car or use public transportation.  Public transportation would have been fine but it would have taken us a while as we didn't know what we were doing.  We tried to get an Uber car but when I looked it was a 45 minute wait.  I don't think Uber has a ton of drivers in Istanbul and I think they frequent the more upscale, business-residential areas not this tourist, old town area.  Our hotel called us a cab and it was there in minutes.  As it was called by the hotel, there was no funny business with fare (we've heard all kinds of stories about taxi fares).

Our guide, Benoit, was a fountain of information.  The Turkish Government licenses tour guides and they have to go through six months of training.  As such he was familiar with far more than food and brought that to the experience.  To try to condense this into readable form, I think I will give an overview of where we went in the city and then a list of everything we ate.

We started in the Besiktas neighborhood.  This is a fairly upscale, liberal neighborhood.  Istanbul is a rich complex of ethnic, social and religious groups.  There are conservative Islamic areas and areas that are comparable to any in the Western world.  We went to an area where there are nothing but breakfast restaurants...tons of them...serving the younger, hip, we want brunch at 3 PM crowd.  We visited a mosque from the architect, Sinan, the most famous from the mid-Ottoman period.  We saw the district of drinking places, markets, and  100 year old bakery.

Then we took a ferry across the Bosphorus Strait to the neighborhood of Uskudar on the Asian side.  This is a more conservative (religiously), lower middle class neighborhood.  We went to a traditional cemetery, and then visited and Alevite religious center.  The Alevites are sub-group of Islam that have very different beliefs than the Sunni majority.  We ate part of a meal associated with one of their ceremony feast days...not at all what I expected from a food tour and a real great experience. Then it was on to the Uskudar markets where we went to 10 different shops and had samples!

Finally it was north on to a community called Kuzguncuk.  This used to be a multi religious area including Greeks, Armenians, and Jews until the end of WWII.  Then in the 70's it was populated by residents from the Black Sea areas of Turkey.  Finally in the last decade, it has become a place for the artists and hip.  Here we had a fish meal and 4 more shops and samples.

A note on public transportation

We did it all today.  It was great to have our guide to shepherd us through.  We did:
  • The ferry
  • The city bus
  • A private bus
  • A kind of group taxi (it doesn't leave until its 9 seats are filled) that covers a fixed route.  Kind of like a mini-bus
  • The tram
The tram was particularly interesting as it was packed like a Tokyo subway train and you had to push and shove to get in our out.  Wife and I took it with aplomb I thought since we were on our own at that point. 

Finally a comment about the hat, it was pretty cool today the first part of the day.  I had the hat and there was not a single comment until we hit the main tourist area that we had to go through to get to our hotel.  Then we dealt with all the hits all over again.  I'm going to plot a different way for us to get to and from our hotel to the major transit lines.

A list of foods tried (with pictures to follow in a separate post)

  • Clotted cream from buffalo milk with Eastern Turkey sourced honey
  • Three kinds of menem (soft omelets) with one with veg, tomato and rice, one with a beef sausage, and one with pasturma, a cured meat
  • Pudding from a shop specializing in puddings only
  • An orange flavored cookie
  • Borek - a savory phyllo pastry where the inner layers are very quickly boiled.  The outside is crisp.  The inside is like a noodle.  Way cool.
  • A very, very old, traditional bulgur wheat and lamb dish at the Alevite shrine
  • Locally made pickles (Alexis, you'd be in heaven)
  • Roasted Sheep's head -  I kid you not.  I was the only one who really dug in :)
  • Dolmas (stuffed vegetables)
  • A variety of (cosmic) feta like cheeses
  • A variety of honey
  • A fish soup
  • Fried fish
  • Olive oils
  • Chicken breast pudding (reaches way back to when all puddings needed animal gelatine to hold them together)
  • A pudding of wheat, eggs, milk, and sugar
  • Lots and lots of great Turkish tea
  • Turkish coffee
Our tour started at 9:30 in the morning and we were done with our guide at 5:30 in the afternoon.  A real value I'd say.  Thanks Benoit and Culinary Backstreets.

Euro Spring 2015 Pictures - Day One

Pictures from Part 2 - Reconnaissance

Getting a Idea of the Size of What Was the Ancient Hippodrome
(Looking in both directions and across from about the center)

Viewing the Obelisk
This obelisk was raised by Theodosius I in 390 AD
The original base has scenes of them transporting the obelisk and of the chariot race itself

Blue Mosque Scenes

Aya Sophia Scenes

Sultans Tomb Scenes
Our first inside look at Islamic architecture here
The tomb of this sultan has those of his five sons who he had murdered on the same day as the one chosen to succeed him was appointed so there would be no challengers to the throne.
Might be a good idea for our politics.

For Something Lighter
I found it interesting that these houses were built on a street right between the Aya Sophia and the Topkopa Palace.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Euro Spring 2015 - Part 2 - Reconaissance

Where Our Heros
  • Take stock
  • Get the lay of the land
  • Find the disadvantages of cowboy hats
  • Are culinary introduced
  • Become Uber virgins no more
At 5 AM, which is only about four hours after we go to sleep, there is this incredibly loud sound of a single singer which seems to be echoing from close to far.  Welcome to an Islamic country where the prayers said 5 times a day are broadcast throughout the city from every mosque.  I slightly syncopated thought I'm not quite sure they all aren't starting exactly at the same time.

We're able to sleep another three hours.  We're both a bit punchy.  The breakfast buffet is pure Turkish which I will have to get a picture and talk about in more depth later.  We are in the Sultanahmet section which is the real old city.  It is very touristy but is so close to the major attractions that logistically it makes the most sense for us.  Our B&B host shows how to get from the where we are to the main tourist area.  We figure that out pretty easily.

We spent the morning finding the locations of many of the things we want to see - the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia, the various museums, the Topkapa Palace (Not Tokapi), the Basilica Cistern.  My hat is like a neon sign for various people trying to accost us for their services.  They're annoyingly persistent.  They only seem to be in the major tourist center.

Our host has recommended a little place, frequented by locals for lunch.  When we get there at 12:25, it isn't open.  They tell us 20 minutes.  We find a bench, wait the requisite time, and try again.  It is now open.  This place specializes in doner kebab.  It's not kebab on skewers.  That's supposed to be here but this is more like gyro or shwarma - slices of flavored lamb put onto giant skewers that are cooked. A cook takes slices off in a perpendicular direction from the direction of the giant skewer so the meat is like shaved.  Wife had hers on a plate, while I opted for mine in a rolled flat bread.  They were quite tasty and not expensive.  We watched all the working folk  com in.  When we first arrived there were only a few tables filled.  Lunch must be later here because by 1:15 the place was packed and people were eating quickly and on their way.

We went back to the B&B and took a nap and discussed, based on what we'd seen, and what else we researched, what we were going to do when.  It was time for dinner.  Host had recommended a place know for its fish and being local oriented.  Based on input from our friends the Count and C'ontessa, we decided to try the new car service Uber.  It worked pretty good.  You can see where the car that is coming for you on the app on your phone.  But their time estimates are not accurate.  They seemed to be based on an algorithm using a number of factors that are not always valid.  Hence you have a vehicle which shows they are arriving in 8 minutes and it stays that way for about 10 minutes.  And they don't always get to exactly where you are.  It can also show you they are 17 minutes away and they end up coming in 4 minutes.

Our dinner was another local place but which specialized in seafood.  We had some appetizers and grilled fish.  It was very reasonable.  When we called our Uber car again, it came much quicker than the app showed and I had to gulp down my tea.  Then we had a problem with them being on the opposite side of the block from the restaurant.  On the good side, there is no cash changing hands.  Uber charges a credit card you've given them.

Pictures may take a while as the internet here is slow.

Euro Spring 2015 - Part 1 - We Arrive in Istanbul

The last leg of our trip went fairly well as far as the air transport part.  The vast majority of the airlines in the world work in big alliances and use a system called code sharing to show their customers they can get them just about anywhere they want to even if in fact the airline doesn't travel specifically to that locale.

This was the case with our trip.  United doesn't fly to Istanbul by itself but it does through it's code share partner, Turkish Airlines.  When you reserve a trip this way it  shows as your reserving airlines flights (that's the code share part).  However, in reality, very few of your benefits or the features of your airline apply to the code share partner.  So, for example, you can't get a seat assignment on the code share airline's flights, you're automatic upgrade privileges don't apply, etc.  I did an end around when I called Turkish Airlines direct to get seat assignments.  This kind of worked but got messed up when they changed the flight to one with a different configuration of seats. 

Turkish Airlines on its web site has very specific limitations on carry-on luggage.  Evidently there is a separate web site and set of rules for Turkish women and their families on shopping trips to London as they were coming in with shopping bags beyond anything in the standard rules.  Turkish Air still gives meals in coach with free alcohol!  Can't complain about that.  Getting through customs was easy enough.  We'd bought our visas online ahead of time which was good since United wanted to see them before we boarded in Albuquerque (you're supposed to be able to buy then when you arrive).

Things got a bit messier once we arrived.  We'd arranged with the B&B for pick-up service at the airport since we were arriving late.  Once we had our luggage and came out, there were tons of folks with signs for their passengers but not one with ours.  We went back and forth looking for it but to no avail.  I called the hotel.  They called the service and said our guy was there and to go to the Vodephone booth.  We'd been standing right there.  We went back.  Still not guy with our name on a sign.  At this point, we don't know what to do.

There's a guy whose by a bunch of other signs.  He comes to try to help us.  We've read lots of warnings about scams in Istanbul and are very wary.  This is why we arranged for the car in the first place.  The guy asks if he can call our hotel.  Much speaking in Turkish.  Then the guy says that our car is actually still coming and to follow this other young guy out.  A number of other people are going out with us.  Are we being put into some group van thing?  We get outside and the young man says this is our van.  I confirmed with the van driver the name of our hotel.  No one else gets in with us.  Is this good or bad.  Are we going to taken across to the Asian side and sold as slave labor to ISIS? 

But good writing material as that would have been.  We are taken to our hotel where we're upgraded to a nicer room to compensate us for our trouble.

It's been a long trip.  We're wound up.  Get all unpacked and then finally can relax enough to go to sleep.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

London Calling

Actually that would be London Heathrow Airport calling.  We're here with a four hour layover until our flight to Istanbul.  We came over on one of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners.  They claim that they have better lighting, humidity and pressure control in these that leads to less travel fatigue.  We were able to get upgrades on this flight and I have to say that I slept much better than I usually do on the transatlantic West to East crossing.  But the schedule of this flight was also different with our leaving Houston (the US hub) at 10 PM.  That's much later than past flights and meant we got in here at around Noon local time rather than the early morning which has usually been the case.  So it might be that I was just more on my own normal sleep schedule.  Or it could be that I've been having my acupuncture person work on the pain interfering with sleep ling.  So it might be that.   Ergo to many variables have changed to make a conclusion.

As always seems to be the case in large international air transfer hubs, you have to walk a long, long, long way to get to a place where you have to through security again and identity control again (even though you are not leaving the terminal) so you can walk all the way back to where you started.

We're in the United Club.  The ones that are out of country always have a much better selection of food and drink than the ones in the US.  But as is also the case, I'm pretty zonked out from flying and time change (we're into hour 14) that I don't really feel like taking advantage of it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks'

Can you guess the first stop on the Eldership de-I spring cruise is?

Wife and I have piloted the the Eldership to Albuquerque's Sunport where we will lift off to start our 20+ hour voyage.