Monday, October 29, 2012

Hagia Sophia and More

We decided to take a Context Travel three-hour seminar/tour of Hagia Sophia, the stunning Byzantine church turned Ottoman mosque turned museum.  It was barely long enough to cover everything there is to see and understand about the place the guide called "one of the most important buildings in the world."  I have to admit though that I couldn't pass a test on it if I had to.  Just too much to swallow in one gulp.

The Ottomans tended to cover and add rather than destroy.  Stunning mosaics have been uncovered beneath the plaster and the work is ongoing.

The Blue Mosque, just across the plateau, was visible through openings in the walls.

I had heard of the cisterns hidden beneath the streets and insisted on visiting one, the Basilica Cistern.  Roman and Greek columns had been reused to prop up the ceilings, making the watery chamber look like something the Phantom of the Opera might have felt comfortable with.  There are now walkways around the space and many of the columns are dramatized with uplighting, but our guide told us of her first visit as a child, when one took a boat through the cistern, with torches for light.

And back above ground, everywhere one looks the slender minarets carry the eye toward the sky.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Istanbul, Not Constantinople

That song ran through my head the entire six days we spent in Istanbul, but it was wrong.  Istanbul is still Constantinople; its Byzantine past is as alive as its Ottoman past and its modern present.

We wandered through parts of town on the European side as well as the Asian side that might have been lifted from San Francisco: painted Victorian style townhouses lining hilly streets, but here broken up by minarets and Greek Orthodox churches and tightly locked synagogues.

Simit, Turkish 'bagels', were sold everywhere, and the markets had gorgeous fresh and dried fruits, as well as the longest, thinnest leeks I've ever seen.

The language was a puzzler.  It took us four days to remember how to say 'thank you' in Turkish, despite being told repeatedly.  Turkish doesn't sound like any other language I've ever learned, but every once in a while I got the foreign words that had been 'Turkishized'.  A lot of French has found its way in.

In six days we managed to see many but by no means all of the major sights and only a couple of the off the beaten track neighborhoods.  It helped that we stayed in a super hotel, the Witt Istanbul Suites, in Cihangir rather than in Sultanahmet, the tourist center.

We took a ferry to Üsküdar on the Asian side and visited the lovely little neighborhood of Kusguncuk, which felt like Glenview in San Francisco.  A walk through Balat and Fener in the European side, below the Golden Horn, showed us a neighborhood that had been home to a changing ethnic and religious population over the centuries of Byzantine and Ottoman rule.  The Greek Patriarchate sits not far from the synagogue that was home to Sabbatai Tvi, the Jewish false messiah, and they are both now in the center of a conservative Islamic area.

We couldn't get enough of Istanbul.  The people were warm and friendly, the food was usually delicious, and the location was incredible, water everywhere you look, a skyline as interesting by day as by night.  The traffic was horrible, but the tramline was great and the taxis not very expensive.

As you might imagine I've got hundreds of photos and lots more to mention, but that's still to come.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What a Time

I've been seriously remiss, I know.  I've ignored you and ignored this blog.  Possibly because I'm feeling our time here is drawing to a close, possibly because I have lacked the inspiration, the discipline, or whatever has moved me to keep it up these last years.  Nonetheless, we've been busy.

At this year's Journées de Patrimoine, when lots of usually closed public buildings are open to the hoi polloi, we decided to target the many embassies in the neighborhood.  I've decided that in my next life I want to be the Dutch ambassador to Paris.  Loved that place, elegant yet livable.  The more spectacular Italian and Polish embassies would intimidate me.  And the Swiss was, predictably, boring.

Then for my mid-September birthday we headed down to the Basque country, both French and Spanish.  On the French side the weather was pretty wet and the countryside not my favorite landscape, but we had a fine time among the cows and the peppers.

Then on to San Sebastian, where the weather improved markedly and the tapas would have kept me noshing for weeks had we not had reservations elsewhere the next day.

And then there was cheesecake and churros

We drove on to Bilbao to see the remarkable Guggenheim Museum there and the Richard Serra and David Hockney exhibits, before setting out on an ill-advised "shortcut" through the mountains to our next stop.  Between the Basque language signage, the twisting mountain roads and the utter lack of gas stations, it was what we are calling an adventure since it didn't turn into a catastrophe.

More to come...