Thursday, November 29, 2012

Istanbul – Spirit of Sultanahmet

The Hippodrome in Istanbul at Night
When you travel as much as we do, you can size up a new place pretty quickly, and sometimes, you fall in love immediately.  On our first evening in the beautiful city of Istanbul, we walked over to the Hippodrome in the center of Sultanahmet (the Old City) to get our bearings.  The Hippodrome is a large plaza-like square with a few well-positioned historic monuments and artifacts in-and-about the open spaces. 

The Blue Mosque at night
The square was originally used for chariot races in the 4th c. when the city was known as Constantinople -- today it offers a perfect viewing spot for some of Istanbul’s top wonders.  Flanking the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque looked like a fairytale castle, fully illuminated with the delicate spires of its six minarets piercing the darkness above us.  Flocks of seagulls soared around the minarets, dazzling-white against the night sky.  And, as we stood there, the warbling and haunting Call to Prayer resounded throughout the square.  It seemed as if the muezzin (singer) at the Blue Mosque had a call and response thing going with a mosque on the other side of the Hippodrome – the two voices answered each other back and forth, filling our ears with their eerie wailing.  It was the Muslim version of “dueling banjos” magic.

Hawking snacks (similar to soft pretzels)
on the Hippodrome
During the day, the square is a focal point of activity here in the old city, where incoming tourists stroll to acquaint themselves with the area, hucksters try to sell their strange foods and trinkets like “kufes” (Muslim hats), and the curious (like us) listen to the frequent and melodic 70 decibel+ Islamic prayer chants from the towering minarets of the surrounding mosques. 

To back up for a moment, we flew 1-½ hrs. on Turkish Airways from Bucharest to Istanbul.  This was our first experience on Turkish Airways (voted the best European airline).  Since our flight was an hour late, we can’t say we were overly-wowed by Turkish Air, but we were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a light lunch enroute; the crew really had to hustle to feed the whole plane on such a short flight.  The arrival process once on the ground was lengthy – first we had to buy a Turkish sticker visa for $20 (literally a supplemental sticker placed in the passport), then wait in a long line at Passport Control, and finally hunt down our bags at baggage claim.

Outside our Sultans Royal Hotel
We stayed at the Sultan’s Royal Hotel, and it was a gem.  Our room was spacious (unusual for Europe) and spotlessly clean with a big bathroom and a comfy bed.  But the best thing about this hotel was the friendly staff.  They couldn’t do enough for us, always asking, “What can we do for you today?”  Ersin, our favorite 25-year old front desk guy, always asked us where we were headed on any particular day.  Based on our response, he would then teach us a few appropriate Turkish words/phrases, making sure we were prepared to assault the city and the day in good Turkish form, speaking the language properly, providing the proper responses, and asking the most intelligent questions.  Everyone at the hotel seemed genuinely interested in making sure we were having a good time.  This was one of those rare hotel experiences where you feel as if you are staying with friends.

Entrance to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
Topkapi Palace

Our hotel was ideally located just a short walk from all the top sights.  As youngsters, both of us had been intrigued by the 1964 movie “Topkapi,” a caper about the theft of the famous jeweled dagger held in the Topkapi Museum; so, it seemed like a good starting point, since the Topkapi Palace complex was within walking distance.  Every tourist who comes to the old city visits Topkapi, so we knew we needed to start early to avoid the hordes.  We got lucky; given that it was a Sunday in November, the crowds were not all that bad. 

Bed of the Sultan inside
the harem at Topkapi Palace
We started by touring the Harem where, to our surprise, we discovered that the Sultan’s Mother was the one in charge of “the girls.”  This powerful woman ran the harem with an iron fist, doling out women to the Sultan, usually on her terms.  The harem girls were not sex toys of the Sultan but slaves to the higher ranking women (the Sultan’s Mother and the Sultan’s four wives).  Only a few of the harem girls who were designated as “favorites” were permitted to sleep with the Sultan; and these were chosen by his mother and his wives! 

Interestingly, this society had no rule of primogeniture (where the firstborn son succeeds his father and inherits everything), so the Sultan could pick any one of his sons as his successor.  This meant that the harem was a hot spot of intrigue.  Every wife wanted her son to become Sultan, thus ensuring her position as powerful head of the harem.  Along with her unique task of sparingly divvying out the women to the Sultan, mom also owned lots of property and her own personal treasury, probably making her, in some cases, more powerful than the Sultan himself!! 

Gorgoeus tiles and windows in a courtyard
inside the harem at Topkapi Palace
It was common practice for a new Sultan to murder all of his brothers to eliminate succession battles.  However, in later years, the brothers were put under house arrest instead (called “the cage”),  rather than be murdered.   This system was actually worse because now, if the Sultan died without an appointed male heir, one of his know-nothing, “spent-my-whole-life-in-a-cage” brothers became the next Sultan.  Historians credit this practice as the primary reason for the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Famous emerald-encrusted Topkapi Dagger
The true highlight of Topkapi was the Treasury building where Anne became emotionally inebriated at the sight and size of the emeralds.  Emeralds, emeralds, everywhere – encrusted in the handle of the famous Topkapi Dagger and also just piled loosely in bowls behind glass cases.  We concluded that the need for these jewel-laden thrones, drinking cups, headpieces, weapons, and other vanities formerly owned by the sultans were a kind of “over-opulence on steroids” that could not be understood by us, or the average man.

A bit of history about Topkapi before we go any further.  In 324 AD, Constantine conquered the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, and immodestly renamed it Constantinople, transforming the city into the Eastern Capitol of the Roman Empire.  In 1453, Mehmed II conquered the city and claimed it for the Ottomans.  He built Topkapi as a fitting palace for (as he described himself) “the ruler of the two seas and the two continents.”  It was positioned on a stategic high-point overlooking the intersection of the Sea of Mamara, the Golden Horn, and the Bosporus. A sultan could see enemies coming from miles away!

The incomparable Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is only open at certain hours for non-Muslim visitors like us, but we eventually managed to get in.  The interior is impressive with lots of blue and white tile, stunning stained glass, and a light airiness resulting from some 260 windows.  It was also fascinating to watch the male worshippers in kneeling position, praying silently and touching their foreheads to the floor.  Not to be disrespectful, but Anne was somewhat distracted by the “foot smell” – reminded her of the time she and son Ben stayed overnight at the Franklin Institute with a couple hundred Boy Scouts! 

Airy opulence inside the Blue Mosque
Another interesting fact is that you can shoot pictures anywhere you want in this famous landmark.  The Muslims really don’t have a problem with that, even tho many are in the midst of prayer as you shoot.   As a former Roman Catholic, Frank, thinks it would have certainly been an “attention getter” to the priests and the congregation if hordes of non-catholic tourists poured into a Sunday Mass and started walking around the church indiscriminately taking photos anywhere they wanted. Haaaa!  The pope would probably have them beheaded!!

The incredible structure that is
Aya Sofia (St. Sophia)
Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia was our favorite of the top three sites.  This site goes under several differently spelled names, depending on which tour guide you have in front of you (Hagia Sophia, Hagia Sofia, Agia Sophia, Aya Sofia, etc). We waited in a long line to enter, but once inside, the crowds seemed to dissipate, giving lots of space to all. 

Overwelming interior of Aya Sofia
The sheer size of this worship space and the giant dome overhead are simply overwhelming.   When you see it, you understand why Aya Sofia is considered one of the greatest buildings in the world.  Aya Sofia is also special because she was once one of the most important churches in the Christian World, and even though the church was converted to a mosque, both Christian and Muslim elements remain.  Christian seraphim (angels) overlook leather wall-hangings covered with Arabic writings.  And the lacy platform where the Sultans once worshipped sits below mosaics of Jesus and Mary.  The whole effect was somewhat of a hodge-podge of "Christian meets Islam", but yet very peaceful and ecumenical.
The very colorful Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar and the Chora Church

The city of Istanbul has so much to offer, and we only scratched the surface.  Another place of note is the Grand Bazaar, a sprawling maze of 400 shops.  To be honest, we were disappointed in this shopping extravaganza.  Too many aggressive sales people and everything was frankly overpriced; you really have to haggle (and even then, you still probably get the short end!).  We much preferred the shops near the Hippodrome where the prices were actually lower (and no haggling required). 

All kinds of "bling" at the Grand Bazaar
Although you have to admire some of the sales spiels these guys come up with.  One vendor invited Frank into his jewelry shop saying, “Come in and buy something for your lovely angel!” (as he pointed to Anne).  Another guy wanted to sell Anne a rug, but she politely and firmly said, “No thank you, no rug for me.”  To which the vendor quickly responded (pointing at Frank), “Why not?  He’s the one who will be paying for it!”   We had to laugh at their tenacity and humor.

Old City Wall in background; 500-pound Cannonballs
 in foreground mark the former road to Rome
We also did a half-day tour to see the old city walls and the Chora Church.  First we visited a well-preserved portion of the city wall dating back to the time of Constantinople.  In the courtyard, actual cannonballs from the siege of Constantinople marked the Roman road that once extended from Aya Sofia all the way to Rome!

Dome inside the Chora Church
The Chora Church was another relic of Constantinople, but it was turned into a mosque and its magnificent mosaics were plastered over (the rules say that a mosque may not display pictures of any living things).  However, the Ottomans must have recognized their art value because they later removed the plaster, cleaned up the mosaics, and plastered them again.  As a result, the mosaics are in excellent condition. 

Remarkably well-preserved mosaics
in the Chora Church
The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, so most of the mosaics tell the story of her life – in fact, the church is often referred to as “the container of the uncontainable,” referring to Mary.  The most remarkable mosaic showed Mary’s parents hugging one another in a rare scene of physical contact.  The portrayal is natural and loving – and very human.    



Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bakhchisaray – A Story of Exile and Return

Streets of the Old CIty in Bakhchisaray
A Sad History
Bakhchisaray was once a proud Tartar town filled with mosques and tall minarets with a long history dating back to the Khans (descendants of Genghis Khan).  Actually, the Tartars are a broad mix of Moslem peoples including Central Asians, Turks, and Europeans (Greeks, Poles, even Scandinavians). 

A painting of the deportation on display in
the Khan Palace, Bakhchisaray

On May 13, 1944, every Tartar in Bakhchisaray was deported on Stalin’s orders.  The people were sent to places like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, taking with them only what they could carry.  Since the 1990’s when communism began to decline, the Tartars have been returning to Bakhchisaray, starting up new businesses, rebuilding destroyed mosques, and trying to preserve their local heritage.  However, considerable tension exists between the returning Tartars and the Russians (mostly poor and uneducated) who moved into the Tartar homes at the time of the deportation. 

Old City in Bakhchisaray with
limestone cliffs in the background
What a sad story, and unfortunately, one that occurred throughout much of Europe where forced migrations were common.  The dislocation that results and the ongoing issues it creates are impossible for us, as Americans, to comprehend.
Wandering the Old City
We roamed the rugged back streets of Bakhchisaray’s old city looking for remnants of the Tartar’s former existence – a once elegant fountain, the ruins of a mosque.  Then, we headed north to climb the limestone cliffs that form a dramatic backdrop to the town. 

Old Russian cemetery in Bakhchisaray

Along the way, we discovered an old Russian cemetery where soldiers who died during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) are buried.  Like a Flander’s Field of the past, the place is all but forgotten, totally overgrown and derelict – perfectly creepy, and of course, we loved it. 
Hiking among the strange limestone formations
above Bakhchisaray 
Further on, we hiked up to the top of the cliff (no easy feat for us 60-something-year-olds) for incredible views of the town and jaw-dropping close-ups of weird limestone formations.

Rugged path to Chufut-Kale

On another day, we made an outing to Chufut-Kale, a cave city settled beginning in the 6th c.  The hike up here was also far from trivial; the path was steep and littered with rubble making it slow going as we stepped gingerly among the jumbled chunks of loose stone trying to avoid wrenching an ankle. 

Caves at Chufut-Kale
The limestone cliff is dotted with cave dwellings, and we were able to scramble all around, climbing inside the old caves where “shelves” were carved out of the interior walls and holes were dug into the floor for cooking, storing food, or collecting water.  This mountain is called the “Jewish Fortress” because it was once inhabited by a group called the “Karaites” (a Jewish sect).  Under the Muslim Khan rule, the Karaites could do business in the city during the day but had to return to their mountain hovels at night.  What a wearing commute that must have been! 
More pictures of the incredible Chufut-Kale (note that the dark spots are more of the ancient caves that were home to the city's early inhabitants):

Courtyard of Khan Palace
in Bakhchisaray
Khan Palace

When Catherine the Great arrived here in the Crimea, she destroyed all evidence of the Khans who had ruled before her – except for the Khan Palace that she found hopelessly romantic.  The story goes that a hardhearted Khan king fell madly in love with a new concubine.  She did not return his feelings, and in fact, she hated harem life so much that she died within a year.  The Khan was so devastated that all he did was cry.  Concerned that the crying Khan was failing to rule, the people built “The Fountain of Tears,” designed to “cry” continually so that Khan, their ruler, could get back to the business of running the region.  The Russian writer Pushkin even wrote a famous poem about the story.

In the harem at Khan Palace, Bakhchisaray

The palace is quite lovely, incorporating all the necessities of sultan life: fountains, a mosque, a graveyard, and a harem.  With artifacts and recreated rooms, the museum gave us an idea of what life was like back in the time of the Khans.

The Soviet Communist Mentality
Paul, the owner of our hotel, spent an evening with us explaining the history of Bakhchisaray and painting a vivid picture of the bureaucracy and bizarre non-work ethic of Soviet Communism.  He explained that people make a big deal about “going to work,” but what they do there is of no importance.  For example, Paul and his wife needed a specific document when they returned to live in Bakhchisaray.  They visited the town administration to obtain the form and were told to go to a certain room.  In that room, two women were filing their fingernails.  The women told them they were in the wrong place, that they knew nothing about this form, and that they needed to go to another room.  But Paul’s wife refused to leave and eventually one of the women turned to the other and said, “Remember that CD we got?  I wonder if the form they want is on it.”  After much rummaging around the women found the CD and guess what?  The required form was on the CD!  Everyone was ecstatic – at least until one of the women said, “Come back in a month and we will have the form ready for you.”  Can you even imagine????
Anne, Frank, and our guide, Sergei
Other Quirks of Life in the Crimea
In Yalta, our guide Sergei had a small camera attached to the front windshield of his car.  He explained that he was videoing his driving – in case the police tried to charge him with something he didn’t do!  Police corruption in the Crimea is so common that, according to Sergei, about 20% of people video their driving everywhere they go.
Buying groceries can be an odd experience too.  In one of the larger grocery stores in Yalta, nothing was self-service, and we had to get into different queues within the same store to request different types of items.  For example, we waited in one line for cheese, told the clerk what we wanted, and paid her for it.  Then, we waited in another queue for bread and butter, told that clerk what we wanted, and paid her for that purchase.  So inefficient!  We figured it must be a throwback to the communist days when people had to stand in lines for each type of product.  The other struggle was trying to communicate with these non-English speaking clerks when requesting the food.  Fortunately, Frank has some Russian speaking skills which really came in handy, and we were fine for most elementary communications with the Ruskies.  Traveling on your own in this country with no Russian skills at all (or no ability to read Cyrillic characters) would be almost impossible.
Locals dancing out on the square in front of
Lenin's statue in Yalta
Another subtle difficulty arises here in that the people of the Crimea speak both Russian and Ukrainian – using both (or either) at the same time.  While similar, the Russian and the Ukrainian languages have word and nuance differences that are not shared; simply put, the people of the region use a mix of words from both languages, making the Crimea a difficult place to hear pure Russian or pure Ukrainian.  Yes, the people there will totally understand you if you speak in either language; but as Frank found out, you may not always understand their response, since it will often be a mix of Russian and Ukrainian words.  These common words are not always the same in both languages, making it almost impossible for a novice to sort out the responses without years of practice in hearing and using each language.
Here is one unusual food highlight that we need to note.  In the Crimea, we were introduced to a delightful Tartar dish called “Lagman” soup.  While the name does not connote an exciting experience, Lagman soup was some of the heartiest, most thrilling stuff we’ve had (maybe ever!!).  It is not an eloquently presented dish, but more like one of those “depression” dishes from the 1930’s days in America, where everything but the kitchen sink is included.  The soup consists of a dense portion of meat, potatoes, carrots, and other veggies (?) plus fabulous handmade noodles in a delectable broth.  Maybe it is just us who are “in the dark” about this soup; has anyone out there ever heard of it?  If you have, we would like to hear your comments.  Frank plans to Google the recipe and corner the market in America on Lagman soup.  It is a delicious, filling repast for those cold days during our Pennsylvania winters; one bowl is a meal!! 
Sergei told us that most Crimean men die by the age of 58, usually as a result of alcoholism.  A favorite sport is “Literball” (drinking liters of vodka).  People also say (cynically) that this situation is good for the pension system because most men die before age 63 when they can collect!
Overall, the atmosphere is somewhat depressing -- so many people look defeated.  When we say we are from America, many of them get this sad, wistful look like we come from a paradise they can’t ever imagine.  Paul believes the biggest problem is that people here don’t want a better life.  He said, “The people have forgotten how to dream.”

Friday, November 16, 2012

Yalta and Sevastopol: Shades of the Cold War Era

Frank in front of Yalta's statue of Lenin
Turkish Airlines flew us from Istanbul to Simferopol, home of the Crimea’s only international airport.  After breezing through Passport Control in this tiny airport, we were surprised to find that our luggage had to be x-rayed a second time before we could enter the country.  Even more intimidating was the sign overhead the exit: “Attention: Once you cross the white line, you are rensible for all the lows of the Ukraine.”  To make sure we were “rensible,” the airport was crawling with stocky, officious, military types strutting around wearing what looked like old Russian Army uniforms or sometimes black leather jackets that appeared to be a throwback to the gestapo era of Nazi Germany.  No way would we even think about breaking any “lows” in this country!

View of the Black Sea from the terrace
 of our apartment

Inside the terminal, the Simferopol International Airport was more like a crappy third world bus station.  And don’t even get us started on the bathrooms – the worst, smelly squatty potties we have seen since we left the primitive outskirts of China!

Frank takes a pic of the pounding surf crashing
against the seawall.
Our latest driver (Lenor) was waiting for us and drove us over the mountains to Yalta, a 100 mile trip give or take.  We were relieved to see that Yalta was a pretty resort town sitting on the Black Sea – a welcome change from Simferopol.  We had rented an apartment overlooking the sea for our 3-night stay.  It was good to have some room to spread out and so peaceful to fall asleep lulled by the waves breaking on the beach below us.

Tourists get doused with the crashing surf
The main action in Yalta is centered on the promenade that runs along the Black Sea.  It was lined with an odd mix of designer boutiques (for the wealthy Russians who vacation here), amusement rides for the kids (tacky stuff like you would see at a low budget carnival), and souvenir stands filled with the lamest trinkets you can imagine (probably all made in China).  What everybody enjoyed the most was watching the waves crash against the sea wall and sometimes throw a massive spray on unsuspecting tourists.  Kids screamed and everybody with a camera, including Frank, tried to capture the powerful blasts of seawater.
Massandra Palace, built by Nicolas II's father
Anne had arranged a one-day tour for us to see the sights outside of Yalta.  Our slender 34-year old guide, Sergei, drove us to several palaces where Russian royals like Nicolas II, the last czar, enjoyed the seaside atmosphere. 

Livadia Palace's two stories: Yalta Conference
and favorite home of the Romanovs

We had hoped to see the inside of Livadia Palace where FDR, Churchill, and Stalin met for the Yalta Conference, but the building was closed for renovations.  We did learn that Livadia Palace was the favorite home of Nicolas II and Alexandria along with their five children.  In fact when he was deposed, Nicolas II asked if they might retire there; however, fate had something else in store, and as you know, the whole family was executed by the Bolsheviks.
Have you ever heard of “Potemkin Village?”  When Catherine the Great first acquired the Crimea, she wanted to show it off to all her royal buddies (even though the area was rural and completely undeveloped).  She gave her underling Potemkin just four years to turn the forests into a colony fit for a queen.  The clever Potemkin built facades with happy peasants waving from these fake villages as the Queen and her entourage passed by.  The phrase “Potemkin Village” is now used to describe an impressive façade designed to hide the true (undesirable) facts.
"Panorama of the Siege of Sevastopol"
A taxi driver took us from Yalta along the stunning coastal route to our next destination, Bakhchisaray, with several stops along the way.  In the town of Sevastopol, we viewed the famous “Panorama,’ a 360 degree painting in a special circular building depicting the siege at Sevastopol during the Crimean War.  It was quite remarkable the way that the artists incorporated actual items (like wooden huts) positioned in the foreground with the painting behind.  It added a 3-dimensional ambiance to the painting.

Greek temple ruins at Khersones
Near Sevastopol, we visited a surprising sight called Khersones -- Greek ruins dating from 420 B.C. beautifully situated along the Black Sea.    Amazingly, nothing is protected or roped off here. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and roamed all around the atmospheric ruins.  Pieces of ancient broken pottery lay strewn about everywhere, open to any tourist to grab a piece, or just step on it breaking it into tinier pieces yet.  The town was sacked by the Khans in the late 1300’s becoming a ghost town that slowly sank beneath the sands of the beach for the next 500 years.  The first excavations only began in 1827, and continue today with a lot of excavation yet to be done.

Entranceway into former Soviet top secret submarine site
at Balaklava, Crimea
The Soviet Naval Museum in Balaklava was a real highlight for us.  This cavernous museum was a cleverly hidden “submarine factory”, situated at the sea’s edge inside of an innocuous-looking mountain.  It was once a top secret Soviet submarine base where subs were built, updated, overhauled, restocked with more torpedoes, and fitted with the latest hardware.  In the 1950’s during the Cold War, the Soviets built this base beneath the mountain to hide it from sight. 

Manmade canal through the mountainside where
Soviet subs came for maintenace
Once again, we were some of only a few visitors and were able to wander about on our own.  Perhaps we were being watched(?), but it was not detectable to us. This is one eerie place with lots of “tough-guy” stuff on display, like torpedoes from the era, handguns and machine guns carried by soviet soldiers, equipment used by dolphins to plant mines in the Balaklava Harbor, other curious ordnance, and submarine support equipment (like electrical control panels) in long vaulted corridors.  Deep inside the complex, we walked alongside the manmade canal that allowed submarines to move from the open Balaklava harbor into the hidden facility, out of sight from prying eyes. 
"Family Bomb Shelter" advertisement as seen
in the Balaklava Naval Museum
The museum was a warren of endless concrete corridors with posters describing all the different classes of submarines and a history of Soviet international relations (including lots of pictures of U.S. presidents with their Soviet counterparts).  Some corridors were blocked off from access; we were told there are still secret documents and equipment down here that will not be reopened for another 50 years.  An amazing photo showed two smiling California models in an ad from the 50’s showing off a “Family Bomb Shelter.”
We emerged from the dark and dank exposé of military times past with a new enlightenment about those cold war days; even tho we each lived thru them back in the 50’s and 60’s, we never actually had the true sense of that cold war that we acquired today thru these visual reinforcements; they really helped us to understand those times better.   
"The Swallow's Nest" castle, symbol of Yalta

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Oddities of Romania

Now that our time in Romania has come to an end, we wanted to share a few more insights and observations.  Here are some strange and unusual facts about this fascinating land:
Although Romania is second to the last in GDP of all the European Union countries, Romania has more millionaires than any other EU country!  (Unfortunately, corruption is a huge problem.)
80% of Romanians smoke.  Plus the rare “No Smoking” signs were totally ignored. (No wonder we couldn’t escape the fumes!) 
Even the toilet paper went radioactive!
Bucharest was once known as the “Paris of the East.”  It has an arch that was modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and a straight broad high-fashion avenue similar to the Champs Elysees.
Most of the newer Romanian houses are painted in such bright colors that they look radioactive!  One of our guides told us that during communism, all the buildings were painted grey since that was the only paint color made.  And all clothing was drab too, greys or black, since that was the only material for sale.  So nowadays, people are painting their houses in the brightest colors they can find, announcing a new (and hopefully) bright future. 
Even the paper products are bright colors: hot pink toilet paper, orange napkins, and green paper towels!
Here are just a few of our favorite “radioactive” houses: