Journey to the Center of the Earth

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Today, our last day in Athens, we had scheduled a full-day tour of Delphi. Most of us would probably pronounce this "DEL-fi", but the correct Greek way is "DEL-fee". It's a full day excursion because it is about a 2 1/2 hour drive from (and back to) Athens.

But, before you read any further, a disclaimer: After yesterday's food phantasmagoria, the last thing we wanted to do today was eat. Luckily, this tour was not food oriented. So for those of you who skip all of the historical, architectural, religious, etc., commentary and just zero in on the comestibles, consider this post done right here. 

For the rest of you:

We headed out at 8:45 with our guide Anastasia and driver Vasillis. After snailing through the Athens rush hour traffic (complete with hundreds of motorcycles zigging and zagging between the cars) for about 30 minutes we finally broke free and had a wide open highway. The scenery changed from really ugly industrial and commercial to rolling farmland and then to the Parnassus Mountains.  This reminded us a lot of our "odyssey" of several years ago from Warsaw to Bialystok.

Along the way we stopped for some refreshments at Arachova, one of those charming, old, narrow-streeted towns, perched on the side of the mountain....

...with those steep steps....

...and stores selling locally made products; in this case thyme honey and pasta

Then, back on the highway to Delphi. For those of you who don't have your old Greek Mythology textbook close at hand and are wondering what Delphi is all about, here are the basics.

There were many Oracles in olden-day Greece (we're talking 800 BC!), but the best and most famous was the Oracle at Delphi. Why? One reason was location, location, location!  This spot could be easily reached by water or by land. In addition, it was, according to legend, the Center of the determined when Zeus sent two eagles across the world to meet at its center, the "navel" of the world, and that spot was Delphi. To mark it, they erected the Omphalos. Here it is, now residing in the Delphi Museum

Speaking of the museum, allow us to digress for a moment. The site was in use for prophesying until about 400 A.D. After that it was abandoned and all but forgotten until the 1890s when a team of French archaeologists set out to find it. And they did!!!! Right where legend said it would be. Of course, much of it was in ruins, so what couldn't be saved in situ was stored away and eventually put into this wonderful museum which is within walking distance from the site itself.  Here are some other items on display:

A huge sphinx-like statue which was a gift from Egypt  

A bronze statue of a charioteer

Now...back to our story: So this is how the process worked: People would come to the Oracle to get a prophecy, but it was only for financial or political/military type issues. How did they get their answer?  The center of the complex was a huge temple (the remains seen here)...

...that was built over a fissure in the earth. From this emanated noxious fumes, which, if inhaled, would cause hallucinations. The Oracle, who was a Priestess, would inhale these and then start babbling away. The Priests would then interpret what she said and tell the supplicant the "answer". Of course, it was always told in such a manner that it could be interpreted several different ways! Perhaps the best known example of this ambiguity (according to our guide) is this: Croesus, the king of Lydia, went to Delphi to know whether he should go to war against the Persian Empire, and the Oracle replied: "If Croesus goes to war he will destroy a great empire." Pleased by this answer, Croesus made his necessary alliances and preparations and went out to meet the Persian army....and subsequently was mightily thrashed. Ooops:  wrong empire destroyed. Moral: Save your receipt!

Note: Last year we described the view at the Caha Pass in Ireland as the best in the world. Well, that title has now been superseded by this view. The combination of the mountains, valleys, rivers, PLUS the historical setting make this THE BEST VIEW IN THE WORLD!

And that is a great place to end this post, as well as our time in Athens.
Next stop: A long weekend in Santorini!!

Love to all, w and w.....

Marhaba (Hello) from Turkey

Monday, June 23, 2014

We've finished our Olympic marathon of sampling the Greek culinary it is time for some Turkish delights!!!!

We reluctantly left the Katikies Hotel in Santorini, flew back through Athens, and then on to Istanbul where we will start our Tauck tour of Turkey.  Here is a map of our itinerary:

The actual tour does not start until Wednesday morning, so we had about a day to do some preliminary exploring (and eating).

Dinner was at Topaz, a highly rated restaurant not far from our hotel. The room had a beautiful view of the Bosporus. That and the service and the food reminded us of Spiaggia in Chicago. We were given an amuse bouche of a tiny cup of cold strawberry soup. Reviews were mixed. Then we started with minced meat wrapped in vine leaves in a cherry sauce (they are really big on cherries here!); really excellent. Next Wendy had baby lamb (yes, "baby" lamb!) which was, um, lamby (hence no pic), while Wayne had a beef rib, with the most divine intensely reduced beef glaze, over mushroom and veggie risotto:

Tuesday, June 24
Today we had scheduled a private tour consisting of several Synagogues, a Jewish museum, and a walk through the Old Town area. We also added a visit to the Suleymaniye Mosque.

Our guide began by telling us that there are 17 million people in Istanbul (though 50 years ago there were only 1.5 million!). Oddly, only about 12% of the current population are native Istanbulians. As we set out, we figured that about 10 million of them were driving on the same streets as us! The traffic here is arguably the worst we've seen anywhere. It reminded us of Delhi, though without the constant horn honking and no beggars. It was amazing how cars would effortlessly zip over one or two lanes as a small space opened up (no signaling of course!). And the pedestrians crossed the streets whenever and wherever they wanted! But we did not have or see one mishap or accident.

We were very lucky in that our guide was born and raised in Pera; the old Jewish section of town. "Pera" means "the other side" as it was not in the fashionable part of town hundreds of years ago. She grew up speaking Ladino, which is a Judeo-Spanish language from Spain. In the 1930s there were 137,000 Jews in Turkey; now about 18,000. Though Turkey is a secular country, about 99% of the population is Muslim. When the Constitution was made, the number of churches and synagogues was capped at the current level. So as people died off or moved and a new synagogue was opened, an old one had to be closed. So very few are left in this area. Some of them have been converted into museums.

In this area, most of the commercial streets were dedicated to one craft or type of product (as we saw in Hanoi). So there were the banking street, the textile street, and the musical instruments street. Some of that still exists today, although it is more likely to be the electronics, toy and plexiglas streets. It was also interesting to see some buildings that had the date they were built inscribed with the Hebrew year. For example:
look closely at the stone under the window: it says 5660, which was (as can be seen on the door lintel) 1899.

One of the synagogues was bombed in 2003, so since then the remaining ones (which are still active; some are no longer used) have added a front entranceway with reinforced man-trap doors. That is, you have to be let into the first set, then close and lock that door before you can go through the second set and into the actual building. Here is the inside of the first one we saw, Yuksekkaldirim:

Then we went to the Ahrida Synagogue. This was founded in the 1450s by Jews from Macedonia. Since they came to Turkey by ship, they made the Bima in the shape of a ship's bow:

Then we went to the Italian Synagogue. Why Italian? Many Jews emigrated from Venice (home of the original Ghetto).

Note the chandeliers made of Venetian glass. Our guide's uncle was the rabbi there. In this, and in many other synagogues, the floors are covered with Turkish rugs. Not so surprising you say. Yes, but here is why: the rugs are valuable both monetarily and as family heirlooms. So when the last person in a house dies (say the grandmother), the family would donate the rug to their synagogue. That way it would still be used and remind them of their loved one.

Next we went to the Suleymaniye Mosque., which is the largest one in the city. 
Oddly, there was no security to get into the mosque! We just had to take off our shoes, and Wendy had to put on a head-scarf and a longer skirt (which they provided for free; even though her skirt went past her knees, it was not long enough). 

Finally we walked around the Old Town area, where we were oh-so-innocently led into a rug store whose owner "happened" to be a good friend of our guide. We were given cold apple tea and shown a demonstration of how the rugs are knotted by hand (pretty much the same demo we saw in the silk factory in China). Then, the heavy sales pitch began. Though we talked about possibly buying a rug during the trip, we didn't see one we really loved (even at his "wholesale" to us price). 

We ended our tour at Omar's Café, one in a long line of restaurants on a street overlooking a park. It was quite delightful. We shared a chicken kebab (that comes de-kebabbed) with roasted pepper, rice and... French fries! (why? Although the Greeks also served French fries with their lunch dishes), and a plate of hummus and a basket of pita. Dessert was baklava.

Turkish baklava is usually made with pistachios and is pretty dry, as opposed to Greek baklava which has walnuts and is honey-syrupy. We asked for "one baklava", but apparently "one" is one order of 3 pieces. So we shared them with the Australian couple at the next table.

Then we walked around the area a little more...

This is the "Million Stone". In Roman times, it was the starting point for all roads that led to Istanbul (or, at that time, Constantinople). It was also used to calculate the official distance from any other city to here. 

Then it was time to head back. We had thought about taking the tram + funicular to get back to the hotel, but decided on a taxi ("Taksi") instead. The first driver we flagged down, and showed our hotel card to, said "no", and drove off. Hmm...... The next one said OK, but for some reason when he got to Taksim Square (our hotel is located near there) he said in broken English, "stop here"; he would not go any farther! (The same thing happened on the way home from dinner last night, though that cabbie got us closer.)  We insisted he take us all the way (as we were hot and tired), but he just kept saying "stop here". So we paid and went into the square to walk the 1/2 mile to the hotel.

Adjacent to the Square is a lovely tree-lined park. It was full of families and people just sitting on the benches. There were also food vendors selling their wares:

Tonight, after 9 days away from home, we finally met our tour buddies. We had the traditional Tauck meet and greet dinner; this one was at the top of our hotel in a room with a view across the Bosporus. Pretty neat to be standing in Europe and looking over to Asia. This is the only city in the world that straddles two continents. Previous Tauck dinners have been good, but nothing special, but this one was really great. We didn't want to scare our new friends right away, so we opted not to bring the camera. So words will have to suffice. The appetizer was a mezze of stuffed vine leaves, beans cut into pasta-like strips, baby eggplant stuffed with veggies, and a green pepper quarter stuffed with rice. All were very delicious. The main was a filet mignon with roasted peppers and smoky eggplant puree. Excellent! Dessert was another assortment consisting of clotted cream in a small chocolate cup, two kinds of baklava, and chicken breast pudding. Yes, you read that correctly: chicken breast pudding. It, and all the others, were actually quite tasty! 

More Istanbul and the rest of Turkey in subsequent posts.

Love to all,


Ottoman and Byzantine Treasures in Istanbul

Get comfortable...this is a long post.

Tuesday, June 24,2014 - addendum

The Welcome Dinner was over at 8:30, but we weren't very tired, so we decided to walk over to Istiklal Avenue, which begins just on the other side of Taksim Park (which is adjacent to our hotel). This is a 1 mile long stretch of all kinds of stores - everything from food to gold; the street is open only to pedestrians. It is brightly lit, and very loud. It had a similar vibe to the nighttime activity in Varanassi, India. And even at 9:00 it was packed and rockin'!

Chestnuts dipped in chocolate

Wednesday, June 25

The first actual day of touring with the group! Once again, perfect weather-wise. Every day has been in the mid-20s with nary a cloud in the sky.

Started out early in the morning to get to Topkapi Palace before all those darn tourists show up.  It was built in 1459 and was home to the Ottoman Sultans until the 1850s. It is the largest and oldest palace in the world to survive to this day. At some times, over 4,000 people lived there-- all to support the Sultan and the Palace.

There are many buildings (and hundreds of rooms) covering a large area.  Thus, it reminded us somewhat of the Forbidden City in Bejing. 

Of course, many rooms were expressly devoted to the harem. "Harem" comes from the same root word in Arabic that means "forbidden". The Sultan was the only male who could enter (thus the saying, "not even a male fly could get in"). At times, up to 1,000 women lived in this part of the palace.

Many of the rooms we saw were covered with beautiful tiles and/or painted scenes (which spanned several centuries and genres), and had carved wooden doors, many inlaid with mother-of-pearl and turquoise (Fun fact: "turquoise" means "Turkish stone" in French, because that is where the stones came through - the Turkish bazaars - on the way to Europe).

Much of the Palace is off limits due to restoration and renovation. Some of the rooms have been made into exhibits showing the royal jewels, clothing of some concubines, and relics - among which are Moses's staff and a sword of David. This is because Moses and David are Islamic prophets as well as Hebrew figures. Also, the Prophet Mohammed's sword, mantle, and footprint!   No photos allowed in these areas, so you'll have to take our word for it. Are these the real items? Who knows.

One end of the complex has a beautiful view as it overlooks the Bosphorus Strait.
(Note: we are wearing our "whisper" devices; they allow us to hear the tour guide even from far away.)

Next, after a short bus ride through some amazingly narrow streets, we got out at the Grand Bazaar. This has been a major market in the city since the middle of the 1400s! (It has been expanded several times since it was built.)  Today it has over 5,000 shops/stalls! Imagine Woodfield on steroids. 

And, like the old city streets themselves, the stores are, for the most part, arranged in corridors by the goods they sell. So there is the leather area, the jewelry area, the scarves area, etc.  

And plenty of tchotchkes areas. 

And this is the place where you have to haggle. The salesmen are pretty aggressive ("Lady, you like this coat, I make you a special price."), as they follow you along. Must be tough to earn a living here.  We bought one small ceramic item and got the price down from 45 TL to 30. Not bad.  It used to be the place where the locals went, but for the last few decades the tourists have taken over.  The group was free to be on their own at this point, so we walked around for about 30 minutes. At that point, even Wendy had had enough!

Time for lunch; the group tour part of the day was over. We walked back to the same area as yesterday's lunch; on the way spotted this sign in a store window:
Lost in translation? Or a paradox? 

....and ended up at another sidewalk café where we ordered "Turkish pizza".  Mozzarella, tomato sauce, peppers, onion, and pastrami!   
Quite tasty!

Then we decided to take the tram back to the hotel instead of the taxi. It was cheap, smooth...and quick (no traffic!).

The group was scheduled to meet at 4:00 for a boat ride across the Bosphorus, a visit to a family's house (complete with commentary), and then dinner at a "local" restaurant; followed by a boat ride back.  Wayne wasn't too excited about the boat rides, and we've done the "house tour" before (in Viet Nam and China; okay...we are a bit jaded), so we decided to head off on our own.  We wanted to see the Ortakoy neighborhood.  This is another waterside area with shops and a lot of kumpir (stuffed baked potato - salad-bar) stands...

 ...and stuffed waffle stands.

You select what you want (from candied fruit, fresh fruit, halvah, nuts, coconut, several kinds of sprinkles, and 9 kinds of sauces, including Nutella, chocolate, strawberry, and pistachio), and they pile it on and then roll it into a cone. Must be seen to be believed. And it's quite a cultural treat to see women in full burqas eating one of these!

We had pre-arranged a visit to the Etz Hayim Synagogue, and after asking a few people we found it in one of the narrower streets. This one had a double-man-trap door and a full body-wanding / pat-down security check. They took our passports and held them until we left.

It was built in the 1700s and has been rebuilt several times, most recently in the '90s. The Shammas only spoke Hebrew and Spanish, so we did not learn much from him.  

Next we walked over to the Büyük Mecidiye Camii Mosque, which sits right on the water's edge. It was built in 1856.

Very beautiful...and it had a soft rug that would look good in our house (too big to get into our carry-on though!).

At this point, we decided to "divide and conquer" (as we were truly in the Ottoman mode) so Wendy took an hour long Bosphorus cruise (for locals, not tourists) and Wayne hung out.  The sights were beautiful-- we cruised under two bridges, past some luxury yachts and homes, several mosques, a military high school and a fortress. 

The ride was sunny and pleasant and punctuated by families of all shapes and sizes-- most were munching on the ubiquitous seeded pretzels and other snacks (including kumpir and waffles). 

While Wendy was on the boat, Wayne took this picture of a man at a café relaxing with his hookah and iPad. Old meets new!

After the cruise (upon the recommedation of a new friend from the Topkapi Palace, transplanted Chicago yuppie Todd), we dined at Banyan--how appropriate to eat Asian Fusian in Istanbul!  The presentation and flavors were outstanding.  We started with wonderful rolls and marinated hot peppers (called Hint Turgusu), 

Next up was samosas stuffed with ground meat. Very spicy, but cooled somewhat by the cucumber ribbons that accompanied it.   

Then Wayne had Singapore noodles with vegetables and chicken....
...while Wendy opted for the wok sea bream Thai style with chili.

Both were phenomenal -- the best sea bream we've had in Turkey by far!  We finished off with the (always a hit) molten chocolate with ice cream, and headed back to the hotel and put our feet up after a long and great day of exploring.
One downer: there is clearly NOT a "No Smoking" policy in Turkish restaurants. Most of the people there (natives, we assume) were smoking heavily.

Thursday, June 26

Today's tour started at the Hippodrome.
Note: the picnic tables are not normally there. They are here now because Ramadan starts this Sunday, and people come here each day after sundown to break their fast in a community gathering.

This was where sporting contests, especially chariot races (hence the name - "hippos" - horse), were held by the Byzantines in the 4th century AD. It also contains two obelisks, one which was carved from pink granite and originally erected at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor during the reign of Tuthmosis III in about 1490 BC!!

Next we walked into the giant Blue Mosque, which is right next to the Hippodrome. The actual name of the mosque is Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but it has its nickname from the many blue tiles which cover the interior walls. Of course, proper attire was required, as demonstrated by this helpful sign and a local woman.

It was built in the early 1600s and incorporates elements of Byzantine Christian and Ottoman architecture. It is still in use today, and visiting is stopped one hour before each prayer time.  From the outside, to our untrained eyes, it looks an awful lot like the Suleymaniye Mosque we saw three days ago.

After that we walked to a café where we got to sit in the shade (it is in the upper 20s today) and were given glasses of cool raspberry juice. Aaaahhhhh!!!! They also had this placard on the table:

Our next stop was Hagia Sophia.

This huge, imposing building was originally the seat of Christianity when it was built in 537! (The prior church on this site had previously burned down.)  It served in this capacity for over 900 years, until, within the space of 3 days, it was turned into a mosque. It was used that way until the 1930s when it was repurposed as a museum. 
Note: the chandeliers, with their glass globes, are original from the 6th century. They were recently extensively cleaned (some can still be seen with the glass all blackened) thanks to a donation by Ben Afleck! This was a generous gift of thanks because much of Argo was filmed in Istanbul.

There are several amazing mosaics still visible. These, and a painting of an angel, were covered of course during the period when it was a mosque-- no human or animal images are allowed inside one.

Then, back to the café for an unnecessarily large group lunch: first, a crepe filled with veggies, then a salad with lettuce, tomato, corn, carrot slivers, and marinated red cabbage. That was followed by a grilled chicken breast over spinach with French fries, and a dessert of baklava, a candied apricot, and a candied fig. What? No chicken breast pudding? It was all very tasty, but not blog-worthy for photos.

Our final stop was the Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred cisterns that still are below the city.

It was built in the 6th century to store water piped in via the Roman aqueduct, and remained in use for hundreds of years, but then was all but forgotten until 1985 when it was cleaned and refurbished and opened as a museum. Though it still has water in it (and many huge carp) the water is not used for anything.

While we were there we were fortunate to be granted a private audience with the current Sultan and his favorite wife:

Most impressive!

That was the end of today's touring. So it was back to the hotel to rest up for dinner.

With the help of the hotel concierge we decided to go to Yakub 2 for mezze. Mezze is the same as Spanish tapas; lots of small plates. He told us it was about a 20 minute walk, but that it would be hard to find. That, plus the fact that it is so hot out made it an easy decision to take a taksi. Oy! The heavy traffic!!! The driving tactic of these cabbies seems to be a) go 40 mph for 20 feet, b) slam on the brakes, c) switch lanes narrowly missing one car and cutting off another, d) repeat.  Aiiyeeee!!!!  After about 15 minutes he turned off back into the Pera neighborhood (where we had our walking tour on Tuesday). He went down one narrow street, then turned into another narrower one, then stopped and asked for directions (we were sure he was going to say "Stop here!" and tell us to get out).  But he went up one more block and pulled up in front of the restaurant.

Whoa!  We were taken to the rooftop terrace. Very cool.  They gave us menus, but then the waiter wheeled over a cart with all of the cold mezze dishes on it, and told us (in what little English he knew) to pick what we wanted.  So we pointed and did: kuver, patlican soslu, humus, kirmizi biber, karides sogus, and patates salatasi.

We know "humus" is hummus, and "patates salatasi" is cold potato salad; the other things we ordered were roasted red peppers, shrimp, roasted eggplant salad, and some kind of sautéed beans. Maybe we were in the sun too long, or just clueless, but we thought we would get the plates we saw. But we really got much bigger plates of food!

Somehow we managed to finish almost all of it.

We opted out of dessert; thought we would start walking around the cute neighborhood and get some baklava somewhere and then catch a cab. So we walked up a block! The street was full of people! Wait....can it be?  OMG!  It was the far end of Istikal street! The same pedestrian street we walked on Tuesday night!  So we slowly walked back, stopping for ice cream on the way, and, sure enough, it was about 20 minutes back to our hotel!  But the concierge was right; we never would have found the restaurant if we had walked there.

So ends our time in Istanbul. There is a lot to see and a lot to like about this city.

Tomorrow we fly to Izmir.  See you there!

Love,  w&w.................